Ali El-Sayed is the charismatic personality behind the one-man operation that is Kabab Cafe on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. He’s known for his eccentricity, his warmth, his goat with pomegranate reduction… and how he’s always teetering on the edge of a belligerent tirade.
Ali was the first Egyptian to open up shop in the area 26 years ago, in an unassuming storefront on the stretch of Steinway Street referred to by locals as ‘Little Egypt.’ The 20 seats, illuminated by dim lighting, cannot be seen from the street, and it is often difficult to determine whether or not the restaurant is open. A framed menu hangs outside, a sort of unfunny joke, because Ali doesn’t work off a menu. The door scrapes the tile floor upon entry, into a threshold just barely wide enough for one person to sidle through to the dining area. The kitchen is just the size of Ali’s wingspan. Egyptian artwork hangs on the walls in a clumsy aesthetic.
There is no host, no busser, no food runner. But aside from physical space limitations, the restaurant is realistically only big enough to hold the one personality.
“No, I do not serve Kofta. The recipes I cook are from Alexandria,” Ali said to an unsuspecting guest one late evening in August. “Please sit down and I can make something for you. But it will not be what you have requested and it will not be quick. If you don’t have time to sit, I think you might have a better time down the street.” His tone was even, but the animosity was palpable.
Ali has the temperament typical of any person who has been swept up in the restaurant industry; he is apathetic to a fault, and most of the visitors who walk in the door start off on his bad side. The problem is, he said, many of them come with certain expectations, and he refuses to compromise his fierce national pride just to make a guest happy.
“No, I do not have a menu,” he says nightly, like a broken record. If pushed, if there is even a mention of the menu tacked up outside, he’ll continue, “You are in my restaurant! Would you ask your mother for a menu?”
Ali opts to provide a more theatrical dining experience that guests have to acclimate themselves to. He’ll greet his tables with gusto- only when everyone is seated and ready, that is- and eloquently tell them what appetizers and entrees he has to offer that day. He cooks based on the day’s haul, what’s freshest from the five or six markets he scours every morning to prepare for lunch and dinner service.
But post-spiel questions can still initiate a flare-up. Nobody is safe.
“What’s the difference between the cuisine from Alexandria and the cuisine from Cairo? Well what is different from the food in Morocco from the food in Turkey? The ingredients all come from different locations!” he said during lunch service one afternoon. “What a fucking stupid question.”
Diners who are more particular about their preferences, and prefer not to be insulted before and/or whilst eating, turn to Yelp to warn others about Ali’s hostile tendencies. But despite strings of one-star reviews, Kabab Cafe still averages four stars- a feat unattainable for many businesses in New York. Those unfazed by the unconventional steps of service leave five star reviews and swear by Ali’s tender lamb shanks, crispy falafel, pan-seared sweetbreads.
“It’s so easy when somebody comes in and says, ‘Hi Ali, I’m hungry, can you make me something to eat? I like seafood.’ I can work with that,” he said. “It’s a nice experience. You sit down, you learn something, it’s like you’re a guest in my house, we talk. You give me few constraints.”
His hit-or-miss rapport with his customer base shows that having a seamless dining experience at Kabab Cafe requires the guest to forget everything they think they know about Egyptian cuisine. After decades of experience, Ali has turned the core idea of hospitality on its head: he has a flow to his work and expects his guests to cater to that, rather than him catering to them.
Unlike most chefs, Ali doesn’t taste the food. He doesn’t wash his hands. Like most chefs, he gets a considerable amount of bullshit from his guests. He’s just committed to dealing with it differently and is blissfully unconcerned about the consequences.
“Let me tell you what I have to offer you tonight,” he says to his guests every evening. “No questions. I will talk and then maybe you can talk.”