It would seem that Paula Deen has landed in Astoria, right in the middle of Steinway Street's Little Egypt. The developers obviously noted the success of Danny Meyer's Shake Shack (the store front is even a frightening doppelganger), with not much to parallel it in Queens -- save for the Shake Shack at Citi Field (accessible exclusively to ticket holders).
Only open since Friday, Crave Shack sits buried between hookah bars, shish kebob and falafel counters, down the street from a large mosque. I distinctly recall a time when I first moved to New York City in 2003 and lived in middle of Little Egypt, and a younger, extremely distraught, more sheltered version of me called my mother in hysterics.
"Mom... oh, mom... I knew that New York was more liberal, but people are literally smoking bongs on the sidewalk. I mean, I knew there would be drugs here, but the police just drive by as if nothing's wrong!!!"
Mom lovingly chuckled, and managed to amaze me by bursting my naive bubble with yet another important cultural lesson...over the phone. "Honey, those aren't marijuana bongs, and you don't live in a drug den. They're called hookahs, and they're popular Middle Eastern water pipes for tobacco."
How on earth did she know that?
Above is an example of just one of the several delis along the block, where you can grab paper towels, diapers, detergent, and hookahs all in one stop.
Although you won't find hookahs at the Crave Shack, or even kofta or hummus, they do honor the culture of the neighborhood. The menu claims they use only the highest quality halal (meaning permissible according to Islamic law) meat. That also means no pork products are served. Even the hot dogs are beef, and the bacon is turkey, and all prepared in the name of Allah.
While the Crave Shack has avoided anything considered haraam (forbidden by Quranic law), they've developed a rather extensive menu of allowable cravings.
The Crave Dough-You-Nut is a 1/4 lb beef burger topped with cheddar, turkey bacon, and crave sauce (reminiscent of a russian dressing similar to what you might find on a Big Mac or In-N-Out Animal-style burger). And it's all sandwiched between a glazed doughnut that has been sliced and grilled. If you can get past everything your brain is screaming about how wrong this is, your mouth and stomach will find that it actually tastes deliciously right. Talk about the ultimate balance of sweet and savory. It was definitely the most enjoyable item we tried on the menu.
Before I get extensive emails about the dietary implications of a doughnut burger, rest assured I won't be making it a daily meal. Furthermore, it's certainly nothing new. It seems, in fact, that this sandwich has been conceived many times before. For instance, the following clip of the woman I like to think of as my fairy godmother...
Ordinarily called a Luther Burger, urban legend claims that it was actually named after Luther Vandross, who allegedly loved the sandwich (and possibly even invented it). I would probably be remiss not to note that he did suffer from both diabetes and hypertension, and suffered a fatal stroke.
But dangit, did it taste delicious.
Crave Shack's burgers, hot dogs, and chicken sandwiches are available in a variety of other preparations. The cheeseburger itself was delicious, even in the shadow of its confectionary counterpart. My roommate went for a classic, with a side of cheese fries. The fries were absolutely delicious.
The buffalo wings were large, meaty, and wonderfully crispy. We tried them in honey barbecue (which I do recommend), but you can toss them in various degrees of hotness.
As you can probably deduce from the images of the dining room, the joint wasn't exactly jumpin'. But not because of the menu or dining room, which was immaculate and extremely comfortable. Service was friendly, though somewhat slow (they obviously hadn't staffed for three hungry boys who were ordering half the menu), but I was quite content to wait, as I observed that nothing was prepped in advance, and our food was grilled to order. I always find an exposed kitchen comforting, as I can actually assess the cooking conditions before the food touches my mouth.
Though I will certainly return again to try the salmon filet sandwich, sliders, and milkshakes, the only item that furrowed our eyebrows was the nachos. The chips were upsettingly stale (and I mean chip-a-tooth stale), and while I'm up for trying new things, the green pepper-carrot blend in the refried beans didn't exactly do it for me.
They obviously have a few details to iron out after having only been open less than a week. Though Bareburger remains my absolute favorite burger in Astoria, Crave Shack burgers are genuinely delicious, and a pretty close second (ringing in at $4.50 for a classic cheeseburger), and literally half the price of the Bareburger ($8.95 for a cheeseburger).
The Crave Minis at $5.25 may just be the best deal anywhere. The bun is grilled, yet soft and delicious. The tomatoes and onions are sliced paper thin, and the crave sauce seals it all together. And these minis are not exactly mini. Definitely a winning combination... Plus Crave Shack is open until 2 am every day!