(Shredded beef empanada at Farid's Place)
Farid's Place (25-98 Steinway, Astoria)
"Ahrrrrrrrrrr-ROSE con lehhhhhh-chay..." The flipped r's come soaring out of her mouth like an edible song, and her smile brightens the table as she proudly positions the dessert before me.
"Ohhhhhhhh... now I understand... rice pudding!!!" I ignorantly respond as I begin drooling, staring at the creamy goblet of cinnamon-dusted warm rice with thick, sweetened milk (arroz con leche, or rice with milk).
"You call it 'rize pooh-ding'?!?" Claudia (pronounced "cloud-ee-uh") protests. "Which sounds better to you? 'Hey, waitress, I want some rize pooh-ding' or 'arrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-ROSE con lehhhhhh-chay por favor...'" We both laugh, and she knows she's right. Anything sounds more delicious in Spanish, or any romance language, for that matter. It reminded me of a brilliant Kahlua commercial I recently saw.
The rice pudding is, in fact, heavenly. Then again, I've enjoyed almost everything I've tried here in the three meals I've had over the course of the past two weeks.
This Colombian gem is sort of camouflaged at the end of a hookah-dotted strip of Steinway often referred to as Little Egypt. The name, Farid's Place, seems like a logical addition to the various neighboring kebab and falafel counters. Although Farid himself is of Lebanese descent, he is also partially Puerto Rican. But it's the family recipes of his lovely Colombian wife, Claudia, that fuels the menu at this newly opened Latin American kitchen that has taken over the former location of Luna de Juarez. With a beautifully rejuvenated restaurant, the owners have met some difficulty securing liquor licenses. It turns out the space was actually zoned for a medical office with a capacity of eight people, although the two previous restaurants served alcohol. Though Farid's is presently BYOB, a new license is expected within the next few weeks. Once you can grab a Corona or sangria at the bar, expect this corner joint to be jam-packed.
Regardless of what you order, the secret recipe pica (or house spice) is one of the most delicious Latin hot sauces I've ever tasted. Moderately hot, this zippy condiment is loaded with tons of garlic, various peppers, and plenty of cilantro.
On my first visit to Farid's I had briefly stopped by for a small lunch. Knowing I had a tasting event later that evening, I committed to refrain from my usual style, and simply ordered two empanadas and an ice water. The cheese empanadas are undeniably the best I have enjoyed in Astoria. These half moon pastry pockets are made daily in-house, and loaded with soft, creamy queso blanco. Fried to crispy perfection, yet not greasy at all, for $2.00 a piece these Latin stuffed pies are one of the best deals in the neighborhood. Pairing one with a shrimp empanada made a delicious lunch for only 4 bucks! Perhaps the kindest server I have had in months, Maria was extremely concerned, certain that I'd be tempted enough that I'd be unable to resist ordering something else. I assured her the empanadas had served their purpose, and that I would undoubtedly return on a day when I could devote more stomach space. She laughed when I stood eagerly in the doorway only two days later.
Also only $2 each are the piquant shrimp empanadas, similarly folded into a crisp fried flour pastry, stuffed with rice, peppers, tomatoes, and tender shrimp. They are practically perfect empanadas, golden and crispy on the outside, tender baked dough inside, with a surprisingly moist seafood filling that miraculously doesn't compromise the crisp coating.
The even better steal on the menu are the chicken or shredded beef empanadas, which also come loaded to bursting with seasoned vegetables and tender meats. These little guys are only $1.50, and come wrapped in a corn flour pastry instead, which adds a deliciously chewy crunch to the empanada.
Weekday lunch specials offer significantly reduced price versions of featured dinner items. One of my favorites has been the top flank steak with creole sauce and fried egg. Though $11 at dinner is still reasonable for this dish, it's only $6.99 on Thursdays at lunch. A thin, grilled flank steak is blanketed with a garlicky red pepper and tomato creole sauce that's loaded with boiled cassava, almost like thick and extra hearty cubes of rich potato. It's all topped with a perfectly fried egg.
Many selections are also accompanied by a rather large, basic house salad.
When I asked Claudia her favorite dish on the menu, she recommended a traditional Colombian favorite, Cazuela de Mariscos, which is executed here to spectacular degree. This thick and hearty seafood casserole is an enormous clay pot loaded with prawns, scallops, ridiculously tender octopus and calamari, as well as julienned strips of broiled flounder, all swimming in a thick, creamy, tomato bisque. Served with a side salad, french fries, and rice, it's more than enough to share. With such delicious seafood morsels almost spilling over the top, it's well worth the $19 for this Colombian classic.
If you are dining with a large group, I highly recommend the picada de la casa. Take a look at the Coke can beside this gargantuan platter for a scale reference. $23 buys a heaping pile of assorted fried goodies.
Fried green plantain, creole potatoes, chorizo, steak, and yucca (all pictured above) are also jumbled in with fluffy arepas (corn cakes), fried short ribs, and pork skin. It's entirely too much for one person, but wonderfully crisp and salty.
If you aren't brave (or famished) enough to tackle the whole platter, I actually highly recommend the fried creole potatoes, which are also available as a side dish. These tender golden spuds are crusted in a crunchy and earthy, salty skin that adds delicious flavor and texture dimensions.
Or simply try the fried steak, which is also one of the weekday specials. Drizzled with a little pica and spicy remoulade, it won the award for "perfect bite," tasting every bit as delicious as it looks.
Soup specials change daily, as well, ranging from oxtail beef stew to pigeon pea soup to the savory hen soup (pictured above), which was loaded with a rich chicken broth that saturated generous cubes of tender potato, and whole pieces of thigh and drumsticks. These soups are intended as meals by themselves, and come in heaping ceramic cauldrons for $7 or $8.
Wednesdays feature a gorgeously grilled pork chop for just $6.99, which I ordered topped with a sweet, caramelized plantain. Forget pork chops and apple sauce when you can get it topped with a Colombian bananas foster.
Although these golden grilled pork chops are seasoned just enough, be sure to ask for a side ramekin of the chimichurri sauce, a peppery garlic and onion condiment that adds the perfect amount of tang and vinegar to cut the rich chop.
Although I try not to fill up on side dishes like rice and beans, they were exceptionally tasty, and were devoured alongside everything else. Other side dish options include various plantain preparations, lentils, and french fries.
While the arroz con leche is tasty, the true measure of a Latin dessert menu for me is often the quality of it's flan. The flan at Farid's Place is angelically light and smooth, like a buttery cloud of caramel custard. Served in a heart-shaped dessert bowl, the bottom is filled with almost a half inch of the bronzed sauce, enough to guarantee the last bite is just as decadent and sweet as the first. Hands down, one of the best flans around.
The award for most deliciously unique dessert using ingredients I would never have fathomed to combine goes to the brevas con areguipe y queso (candied figs with caramel and cheese). Imagine figs that have been boiled in sugar water until tender, then chilled, and canned in sweet syrup. Now carefully slice those figs into quartered petals, arranged alternating with wedges of firm, pressed queso blanco. Finally, blanket the fruit and cheese with a thick dollop of homemade caramel. It's actually areguipe (also called dulce de leche), and at Farid's they boil the milk and sugar for over three hours until it reduces to an exquisite caramel topping. Tart and tender candied figs with slightly salty queso and a luxuriously smooth and sticky caramel. It was out of this world wonderful.
The final sweet touch (besides a reasonably priced bill) are imported Colombian after dinner candies. The Maxti (left) wins the prize for best post-meal wrapped candy. Tiny little bricks of milk chocolate with an espresso bean inside.
Farid's Place also offers free delivery.