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A Taste of Asia . . . and Russia and the Middle East

Samarkand, Tashkent, Bukhara: the ancient cities of Central Asia conjure up romantic visions of Silk Road traders clad in richly embroidered textiles, of Genghis Khan riding across snow-capped mountains. You won't find any colorful museum dioramas springing to life in Queens these days, but you can find an enclave of recently arrived Bukharan Jews serving their hometown blend of Middle Eastern, Asian, and Russian inspired dishes. Could it be the world's oldest fusion cuisine?

There are a few things to know before you head for Forest Hills or Rego Park in search of Bukharan delights. Restaurants around these parts are almost always kosher, never a dairy dish to be found. Likewise they close from about an hour before sundown on Fridays until about an hour after sunset on Saturdays, which becomes the busiest night of the week for hordes of young singles and large extended families alike. Food is generally brought out as soon as it is prepared, and not necessarily in any particular order. Meals usually consist of some combination of cold salads, soup, kebabs, bread, and plov, a general term for rice-based dishes. No need to puzzle over a menu if you need guidance, as most servers will speak more than enough English to answer any questions.

Salute, 63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens

Now a strip mall would normally seem like the wrong place to find a good meal, but there is nary an Applebee's in sight along bustling 108th Street in Forest Hills. On a Friday afternoon, a steady stream of locals shuffle in and out of a small storefront toting small bags of food that smell of fragrant roasted lamb. Salute is clearly the place to be. Despite a wall of gilt mirrors and the requisite pair of televisions perpetually tuned to Russian soap operas, it's cozy with just about ten tables and, at lunchtime, only one friendly waitress.

Morkovcha (Korean Carrot Salad) and Lepeshka, Salute, 63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens

The Korean carrot salad ($5), morkovcha, is a simple pleasure, just the shredded vegetable with a light raw garlic dressing. It makes a palate-cleansing counterpoint to rich fried dishes to come. Order two dumpling items for a taste of all three regional culinary influences: the mantu ($1.50) are Asian-style boiled dumplings of paper-thin dough; samsa ($1.50) are akin to the fried pierogi of Russia; and both encase juicy minced lamb and saut´┐Żed onion cooked with Middle Eastern style spices.

Lagman, Salute, 63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens

Lagman ($4.50), a traditional beef noodle soup, comes with mounds of tender chunks of the former and a generous heap of the latter soaking in a rich tomato-based broth. A lamb kebab ($2.50) offered four bite-size bits of flesh, charred outside and juicy pink inside, and the lamb rib kebab ($3.50) offers an even juicier version of the same. The lula kebab ($2.25) is clearly a close relative of Middle Eastern kofte, spiced ground lamb hand-shaped into small meatballs.

Samsa, Salute, 63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens

Although all of the aforementioned dishes merit attention, the "national bread" is truly not to be missed. Lepeshka ($2) is baked in a tandoori oven and shaped like a donut with its center part flattened instead of removed. Crunchy on the outside and satisfyingly chewy inside, it took a lot of willpower not to buy more to take home.

Cheburechnaya, 92-09 63rd Drive, Rego Park, Queens

Cheburechnaya in Rego Park is far bigger and bolder, with a giant neon sign and a Saturday night crowd that drowns out the Britney Spears video loops playing on four screens. A towering pile of non tiki, a matzoh-like bread topped with crushed spices and seeds, nearly obscures the host as he attempts to wrangle the hungry masses. Parties of less than four are often invited, thought not compelled, to share a table with other diners. Ladies who fur, young women who smoke, and dads holding diaper bags chatter in at least three languages while waiting on line. Young men in paper hats man the grill in the back of them room and svelte young waitresses sweep along gracefully with trays full of sizzling kebabs and heaps upon heaps of French fries topped with raw garlic.

Unless sugar-chemical cocktails are your bag, pass on the freakishly fluorescent soda selections. Pleasant black or green teas are served in elegant china pots with lumps of sugar and hard candies on the side. The now-familiar mantu ($6) are slightly drier than Salute's, but their carrot salad ($4) is more flavorful. The assorted pickled vegetable platter ($6) will delight any sourpuss with garlicky cucumbers, crunchy cabbage, tangy mushrooms, and a whole tomato reeking of vinegar. The special chebureki ($2), presumably the restaurant's namesake dish, is a deep fried rendition of the savory beef-filled pastry that is a bit on the greasy side but altogether not unappealing.

Kebabs, Cheburechnaya, 92-09 63rd Drive, Rego Park, Queens

Kebabs are a low-risk way to try something new as just a few dollars buys four bites of some pretty interesting meat. The lula ($2) and lamb ribs ($2.50) are every bit as satisfying as those served at Salute, arriving with a squirt of vinegar administered at the grill just before serving. The lamb fat ($1.75) is exactly what you think it is. The crusty-on-the-outside, molten-lard-on-the-inside morsels might horrify anyone who routinely incises every shred of blubber from their meat, but it sure tastes good mashed into a hunk of lepeshka. Lamb testicles ($4) are perhaps even more obscure, and not necessarily recommended. With the mouth feel of a dense marshmallow and the veined texture of, well, testicles, one can file them under an acquired taste. At least they aren't served au jus.

Chak Chak, Cheburechnaya, 92-09 63rd Drive, Rego Park, Queens

Desserts in Bukharan restaurants are the only low point, just dry pastries and uninspiring baklava. Cheburechnaya's chak chak ($3), fried noodles molded into an inverted bowl shape and doused with honey sauce, will please only the sweetest tooth. Best to limit yourself to the few wrapped candies that arrive gratis with your check. If you are at Salute, walk a few doors down to A&R International Food Deli. You'll find an array of candy bars and house-made halvah among the aisles of imported items from around the region and dozens of locally prepared foods from preserved ham and pickled fish to farmer cheese and beet salad. One might just find a week's worth of groceries sneaking into the basket, but do mind that subway ride home.

63-42 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens :: 718 275 6860

A&R International Food Deli
63-46 108th Street, Forest Hills, Queens :: 718 459 3956

92-09 63rd Drive, Rego Park, Queens :: 718 897 9080


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