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Shah’s Halal Food on Long Island Strives to Be ‘McDonald’s of Halal’

shah's halal
"We're definitely going nationwide with this, it's just a matter of time," says Khalid Mashriqi.

For fans of food cart halal food, the question, “Hot sauce and white sauce?” has become as commonplace as, “Would you like fries with that?”

And, that’s part of the plan for Khalid Mashriqi, the CEO of the fast-growing Shah’s Halal Food, whose long-term goal is to become “the McDonald’s of halal.” 

But, given the company’s current quick rate of expansion, it’s a goal that might just be in reach. 

“There’s McDonalds, Arby’s, Subway and Wendy’s … but nothing for halal,” says Mashriqi, noting the current fast-food landscape.

The Arabic term “halal” refers generally to the specific permissible method of slaughtering animals in accordance with Islamic law. 

The company was started by Mashriqi’s father Ibrahim and two business partners, Shafiq Mashriqi and Rahimullah Mashriqi. Nearly 60 percent of Shah’s corporate staff is made up of family members. 

Khalid, now 37, came to the U.S. with his family from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Since 2016, he has taken over all business operations.   

“We started this business in 2005, with just a single food cart on 121st Street and Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens,” he says. “We prepared all the foods at home, using a small kitchen and a garage, at first. Everything kicked off from there,” he says, adding, “We opened one and then another … until we arrived at where we are today.” 

Today, the company boasts 17 storefront locations across Long Island and two more on the way in Freeport and Stony Brook, as well as a network of both branded and unbranded food carts across New York City. Other locations include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California. Abroad there is also a United Kingdom operation with several food trucks operating under contract with the London transit system. 

Khalid, who graduated from Queens College with a degree in political science, says he had an “entrepreneurial mind” from early on. He spearheaded the branding of Shah’s Halal with the opening of storefront spots in 2016. 

Although most stores are now corporate owned, Khalid says “interest is high in franchises” and Shah’s plans to offer franchises soon.  

The price point is going to be affordable, he says, possibly in the $20,000 to 25,000 range up front, and then an ongoing percentage of store profits. 

Competition for halal fast-food consumers continues to grow across LI and beyond. Research firm Technavio says the U.S. halal market will grow by $8 billion through the end of 2024, fueled primarily by a rising U.S. Muslim population. 

However, Khalid says that most of his customers are non-Muslim and that most like the freshness of his food and the unique tastes. 

“From my experience, people also like the transparency of halal products and they also say they can actually taste a difference in the meat (this is what non-Muslims have told me over the years), and they like that there is a process that involves really understanding what is in the food’s ingredients and byproducts,” says Yvonne Maffei, author of My Halal Kitchen: Global Recipes, Cooking Tips and Lifestyle Inspiration.  

Maffei, who also pens a blog on halal cooking, has lectured about how the halal industry looks at ingredients through a food-science eye, remaining ever vigilant for doubtful or non-halal elements in things like breads, yogurt, or apple juice. “People find the process fascinating.”

Among Shah’s most popular dishes are the signature chicken and rice platter and gyros, which are core menu items in addition to chicken sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks, hot wings, and burgers. 

All of Shah’s food is prepared in its own U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Jamaica, Mashriqi says.  

Even on LI there are now numerous purveyors of halal-style fare, from The Halal Brothers of New York in Floral Park to The Halal Guys in East Meadow. But Khalid says the difference is the food and how it’s prepared, using a superior brand of halal chicken and consistently marinating it with a unique blend of spices that competitors don’t use.

He adds that all of Shah’s sauces, from the popular white sauce to red and green hot sauces, are made from scratch.

Moreover, he says that he likely supplies about 80 to 90 percent of all the other halal operations on Long Island. 

Asked if he is concerned about increasing competition, Khalid says he’s confident in his product. 

 “We’re our greatest competition,” he says, noting that Shah’s is going up against the big guys. 

Looking ahead, Khalid envisions Shah’s locations across the country. “We’re definitely going nationwide with this, it’s just a matter of time,” he says, adding that the company has been steadily regrouping since Covid and solidifying its operations. He also plans to bring his special brand of halal to the United Arab Emirates.  

“All of the UAE is halal, but what differentiates us is our food. Nobody has our food, that’s what it comes down to. Our sauces, how everything is prepared … no one has it.”

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Restoration Kitchen & Cocktails in Lindenhurst Gives Back to Community

restoration
Billy Miller donates his restaurant’s profits to local nonprofits.

The motto at Restoration Kitchen & Cocktails restaurant in Lindenhurst is, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.” 

For Restoration’s owner and executive chef Billy Miller, the motto is much more than aspirational. It has been his reality since opening in August 2018 on the former site of a

Lindenhurst civic organization, Old Fellows, whose mission was to anonymously give back to the needy.  

Miller, born and raised in nearby West Babylon, says the concept of Restoration is quite simple: “We give back to those people who really need it.”

The restaurant takes all its net profits every four months and gives them to local charities. Net profits are calculated after all other expenses, such as food vendors, utilities, and staff salaries, including his own, have come out. So far, Miller says, Restoration has donated more than $153,000 to local charities. 

Currently, the two recipient charities are Splashes of Hope, a group that paints murals for hospitals and healthcare centers, and Momma’s House, an organization that helps young mothers and babies in crisis. At the end of each meal at Restoration, diners are given the option of which charity they want the proceeds from their bill to be donated to. At each table, placards describe the charities being donated to and exactly who is being helped.

“They are always a Long Island charity,” Miller says.  “I don’t like to cross a bridge…There are enough people right on LI who need help.”

Miller, 37, says that Restoration has been years in the making, going back to his start in business at age 15. He recalls having an array of jobs, from busing tables and running food to operating a tiki bar on Myrtle Beach and then bartending at Del Fuego in Babylon Village for three years.  Unlike other chefs-turned-restaurant owners, Miller did not attend culinary school but utilized restaurant work to finance a master’s degree in counseling that led to a career in social work.  

“I got a job as a teacher, moved briefly to South Carolina and even taught at Myrtle Beach High School, coaching football and baseball,” he explains. 

Miller also worked as a social worker, helping kids with disabilities for nonprofit organizations including the Family Service League in Huntington and Bay Shore.  Miller says the impetus for Restoration came when he was working in the nonprofit world, where oftentimes top executives make high salaries at the expense of direct services for needy families.

He told his wife he wanted to continue to help people by using his skills as a social worker, but also wanted to return to the restaurant industry, his other passion. 

Miller says that while the pandemic has been challenging, they are adapting. Since Restoration’s indoors is too small to accommodate many diners, given current capacity limits, diners are comfortably seated and spaced in the restaurant’s parking lot greenhouse. 

“It was weird — they send you the pipes and you assemble it,” says Miller, noting the greenhouse took a month to complete, with ventilation and heating systems.   

He says the greenhouse gave his employees an opportunity to work when lots of other restaurants were giving up.

“So many restaurant employees were laid off for months and I refused to do that to my employees,” he recalls. 

Other challenges, Miller says, included difficulty getting food and products and having to pivot to delivery as well as developing an app for people to order items like to-go cocktails.  

Although Restoration has a full-time chef who handles most kitchen duties, Miller still helps. Specialties include a buffalo cauliflower appetizer, a chicken avocado sandwich made with anti-biotic free chicken and fresh baked bread, a surf and turf wrap, and a skirt steak quesadilla.  

“People appreciate our food because everything is homemade and fresh, from using a special blend of meat for burgers, from-scratch dressings and sauces, and even cocktails that are all-natural…made from fresh fruit,” he says.

Asked about the restaurant business as a career, Miller says it is a great business — but not for everyone. 

“This industry is physically and mentally taxing and you’ve got to be prepared to work 90 hours as a normal work week,” he says. “This is not a get-rich business … but if you have the time and energy to put into it, I believe it’s fantastic.”

Restoration restaurant is located at 49 East Hoffman Ave. in Lindenhurst. It can be reached at 631-592-1905 or restorationli.com.

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Upscale Sushi Restaurant Kissaki to Open New Location in Manhasset

sushi restaurant
Mark Garcia’s Kissaki restaurants specialize in high-end omakase sushi.

Mark Garcia was considered an outsider when he moved from his native Chicago to New York in 2016 to open his own restaurant. 

But now, Garcia is the driving force helping to steer the cuisine and growth of upscale omakase sushi restaurant Kissaki, which opened in the Hamptons in June and is set to open its sixth location in Manhasset this summer. 

Omakase sushi is a concept that requires diners to entrust the ingredients and presentation of their meal fully to the sushi chef; it has been compared to an artist creating a masterpiece. 

Garcia’s start in the restaurant world was humble enough. 

“I was in high school in Chicago and I enrolled in a culinary arts program in my sophomore year,” he recalls, adding that he got his first job through the program. 

A veritable tour of Chicago’s restaurant and hotel kitchen scene followed, with stints at Sushi Samba Rio, Kaze Sushi, the Waldorf Astoria, and Momotaro. 

Garcia first learned Italian cuisine early in his career and then began his ascent into the world of sushi under the 10-year tutelage of esteemed master sushi chef Kaze Chan of Sushi San in Chicago, who is credited with opening an array of influential sushi venues in Chicago for the past 25 years.

“I learned sushi from one of the masters,” says Garcia, 37. 

Following a successful run at Momotaro, Garcia moved to New York and in 2016, he and partner Jay Zheng opened Gaijin in Astoria. The name “Gaijin” literally means outsider in Japanese. 

The venue’s name was fitting for Garcia not only due to his Mexican roots but also because of doubts about his success compared to other master sushi chefs. 

But those doubts quickly fell by the wayside as Garcia developed a strong following for his innovatives.

In 2019, Garcia met Garry Kanfer, his current partner and Kissaki owner. 

“I was very enthusiastic to meet Garry because he wanted to build a brand and not just open a business,” Garcia recalls. 

Initially, Kanfer sought to make Kissaki a high-end establishment in the price range of $400, but Garcia said it was “too high for the average diner.”

“I wanted a more accessible price range,” Garcia said, noting that at the time in New York, there were two very different dynamics. 

“There was a $50 quick and easy sushi and then there were the $400-plus levels,” Garcia says, explaining that the latter felt a bit “stuffy, almost like a church.” The two settled on something “in the middle” for Kissaki, with prices more in the $150 range.  

But with the first Kissaki location opening in January 2020, Garcia said the pandemic turned things on their head. 

He recalled that at first, his spirits were somewhat crushed between lockdowns and limited crowd capacities, especially since things had been going so well when they first opened. 

Like many other restaurants, Kissaki, which now has three locations in New York City, one in Connecticut, and one in Water Mill, has had to pivot during the pandemic, which meant offering takeout omakase boxes in small, medium and large.

Popular takeout boxes include nigiri featuring tuna, salmon, mackerel, and even red snapper. 

Garcia says that Kissaki is also using innovative robots at all locations to help expedite the labor-intensive process of making sushi and especially takeout boxes. “The robots have been a great tool for us to use to get ahead,” he adds. The tools are commonly used in Japan but rarely by city restaurants. 

Specialties Garcia prepares include seasonal fish such as tuna and salmon with banana peppers and chives. 

“Our fish is sourced directly from Japanese suppliers,” Garcia says, adding that Kissaki has relationships with farmers and harvesters. 

The menu also features creative cocktails such as a kissaki kick or green lantern as well as signature desserts like dulce de leche or matcha red bean chiffon cake. 

Asked about business now, Garcia says it continues to be very “up and down.” He adds, “we’ve struggled as all restaurants have.” 

And, even though Garcia says things are improving daily at Kissaki, he still believes it is a difficult business. 

“Restaurants are tough to work in…I’m surprised people even still want to open them,” he says. “The numbers are tough and profit margins are thin. Now with the pandemic, things are even worse.” 

Kissaki Manhasset will open this summer at 411 Plandome Rd. Visit explorekissaki.com

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Hooks & Chops Chef Cooks Up Positivity Through Tough Times

Hooks & Chops
Steven Del Lima opened Hooks & Chops in Commack despite the pandemic.

Opening a new restaurant can be challenging even in the best of times, but opening up in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century is definitely not for the faint of heart. 

Steven Del Lima, executive chef and owner of Hooks & Chops, a seafood and steak house in Commack, admits he was definitely “thrown a curveball” and has had to “adjust on the fly” since opening his doors in October. 

“I’m a very positive thinker and I believe that all things happen for a reason,” he says. 

Those adjustments include making sure his restaurant, formerly a 5,000-square-foot Ruby Tuesday’s, is replete with the latest in safety protocols including using enhanced filtration HEPA filters, numerous sanitizing stations, widely spaced tables, and dividers. 

“By far, from a financial stance and also just keeping up with all the latest Covid safety guidelines to make sure people feel safe, this venture has been the most challenging restaurant ever,” says Del Lima, who has worked at various venues and helped open several spots for other people. 

But Del Lima, 48, remains positive and says he has wanted to open the Hooks & Chops version of a seafood chophouse for quite a while and is pressing forward regardless of obstacles. 

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in 1993, Del Lima says his interest in cooking goes back to his childhood at home in Massachusetts, when he could often be found in the kitchen helping with cooking, baking, or barbeques.

“I was always the one flipping the burgers on the grill,” he recalls. 

Del Lima’s start in the restaurant business began with a job as a dishwasher, then at age 16 he got his first line cook job.  

After graduating from culinary school, Del Lima was offered a job by one of his CIA instructors at a restaurant in Hackensack, N.J., called the Stony Hill Inn. 

He quickly became a saucier chef at the Stony Hill Inn and would eventually move to New York City, where he made the rounds at elite venues including Gramercy Tavern, Le Bernardin, and Daniel. He also was a managing partner and executive chef at White Oak Oyster Bar & Lounge in Manhattan. 

“I learned as much as I could from some of the best chefs in the world,” Del Lima explains. 

As a resident of Long Island since about 2000, Del Lima has also made his mark at several Huntington venues, including Wild Fin, Black & Blue Seafood, and Piccolo Mondo. 

“I got the idea for Hooks & Chops when I was with Black & Blue Seafood in Huntington,” he says. “I’ve had a passion for the seafood/chophouse concept for a while and I really wanted a place that was centrally located for Islanders.”

Current specialties include wild Alaskan cedar-plank roasted halibut, sweet Thai chili calamari, blue crab beignets, mussel pots, New York strip steak frites with duck fat fries, and a 22-ounce cowboy rib eye steak, prime dry-aged using a unique process with black Hawaiian lava salt, yielding a smoky flavor. 

Signature desserts Del Lima says are popular include bagged dropped doughnuts, served with cinnamon and powdered sugar; his version of milk and cookies, which are homemade chocolate chip cookies served with a dolce de leche milkshake, and new-fashioned baked Alaska.

Asked about his business flow since opening, Del Lima explains he’s “pretty lucky,” and that he has been fairly busy. 

“My reputation has helped; even though we can only seat at 50 percent, it hasn’t been too bad,” he says.  

He says, though that in early February, business dropped a bit because Covid rates in New York State started to spike again.

Del Lima says he knows lots of people in the restaurant business who will not make it out of the current crisis. He believes it’s important to support local businesses as much as possible now. 

“Without my customer base, I don’t have a business,” he admits.  

However, while Del Lima thinks it will take a while to get back to some normalcy, he feels it will happen. 

“You just have to stay positive.” 

Hooks & Chops is at 6330 Jericho Tpke. in Commack. It can be reached at 631-600-0521 or hooksandchops.com

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Hook & Reel Helps Grow Cajun Seafood Cuisine Trend on Long Island

cajun cuisine
Fat Tuesday revelers will be seeking out Cajun food this February.

Amid a flurry of new restaurants opening across Long Island in the past couple of years, Cajun seafood is an increasingly popular cuisine among diners seeking not just a meal, but a savory and fun dining experience. 

Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar in Hicksville, which opened in July 2019, is part of a growing Cajun seafood trend on LI and across the country. The 127-seat restaurant is located inside Broadway Mall.

“We like to think we’re responsible for the current Cajun seafood trend,” says Ed O’Grady, regional director of operations. Nationwide, there are 47 franchise locations from New York to California.  

The company, founded in Maryland eight years ago, also has a location in Valley Stream and one coming soon in Bay Shore. 

O’Grady refers to the meal service as “a communal experience, where people come together and it’s fun to eat.” 

Indeed, when one of Hook’s popular Cajun seafood dishes filled with snow crab legs, crawfish, clams, mussels, and shrimp hits your table, it makes quite an impression. 

“When the seafood boil comes out, it’s like a big bag of deliciousness, with all the intriguing aromas and flavors as the bag is tossed and the seafood is coated in the varied mild, medium or hot sauces,” O’Grady explains. “It’s a very sensory experience.” 

Cajun cooking originated in the swamps and bayous of southern Louisiana by French settlers who migrated there from Canada, and used unique blends of spices including bell, black and cayenne peppers to season seafood and stews.  

“We like to think we’re responsible for the current Cajun seafood trend,” says Ed O’Grady.

O’Grady thinks some of the cuisine’s allure is due to “unique flavors and the fact that it’s highly shareable.” 

He adds that food comes very quickly out of the kitchen, which is organized using a manager who schedules and maintains standards among the line cooks who man a fry side and a boil side.

Pamela Raskin, Hook & Reel’s director of marketing & brand, agrees that the trend of Cajun seafood is growing “out of control.” 

She says that competition on LI is helping to further popularize the cuisine. “Normally, more competition is bad, but not in this case.”

Tina Zhang, a franchise partner at Hook & Reel in Hicksville, says she and her partners had wanted to open a restaurant, but weren’t sure how to do it. 

“So, we started looking into different franchise options. Friends of ours had a Hook & Reel and they talked about how smooth the opening process was, and that they’ve received support ever since,” Zhang recalled. “It made our decision super easy — plus it doesn’t hurt that we’re seafood lovers too!”

Diners can select from a varied seafood menu including custom-made boils with crab, mussels, lobster, and shrimp or opt for specialties like flounder or chicken po’boys, New England clam chowder, catfish sliders, crab bites, or steamed oysters. 

Extras include corn on the cob, potatoes, and andouille sausage, all served with Hook’s made-from-scratch Cajun sauces. 

But, says O’Grady, as with all restaurants, the pandemic has had a big impact. 

“We’ve all gotten a big wake-up call,” he says, adding that the Hicksville location was closed from mid-March until May 11.  

“We took a massive hit in sales, right out of the gate,” O’Grady recalls. 

Hook & Reel uses enhanced safety protocols such as socially distanced indoor dining, temperature checks for employees, and regular disinfecting across all its locations. 

Raskin explains that one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic was having to rapidly build third-party delivery partnerships with platforms such as DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, just to survive. 

She says that many Hook & Reel locations had to shut down since no reliable delivery platform was in place. “Before Covid hit, the company was on track to open 100 locations by 2020.” 

But O’Grady says things are looking much better now with many new locations opening soon, including more in the tri-state area such as the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Yonkers. “Our business is now consistent and steady.”

On a recent Sunday, business was brisk with a steady flow of dine-in customers, including one woman, Marita, who was dining at a nearby table and sampling a crab bite.

Asked about the food, she admitted it was her first time at a Hook & Reel. 

“I really like the experience,” she said. “I will definitely be back.” 

Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar is located at 363 Broadway Mall in Hicksville. It can be reached at 516-719-0388 or hookreel.com

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Danny’s Chinese Kitchen in Bellmore Expanding on Long Island

danny's chinese kitchen
"We're obsessed with customer service, cleanliness, and quality food,” says David Antin.

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen in Bellmore may look like a typical mom-and-pop Chinese takeout, nearly ubiquitous across Long Island, but the reality is quite different. 

The restaurant, which opened six years ago, is owned by two Jewish brothers from Merrick, Danny and David Antin. 

“Some people come in and see us behind the counter and they look confused as to whether we’re a real Chinese restaurant,” says David, joking. 

The origins of Danny’s can be traced back to the Rockaways, where the brothers were raised. As Danny tells it, he started working at a local Chinese restaurant while attending college at Long Island University. 

The restaurant, East Meets West, happened to be owned by a family friend and retired NYPD detective, Bill Keating. Keating, who still owns East Meets West and has been in the business for 25 years, recalls Danny as a “sweetheart, one of the best.” He explains that Danny started out as a counter person and then learned “the ways of the kitchen, forging strong personal relationships with the chefs and kitchen workers.”

Keating helped Danny before he opened Danny’s Chinese Kitchen. Unbeknownst to Danny, his past relationships at East Meets West would prove vital to the new restaurant. 

Before Danny’s existed, both Danny, 36, and his brother David, 45, were working as accountants. Danny worked for eight years for a large public accounting firm while David had a successful 20-year career in finance. 

When Danny pondered a career change, David recalled Danny saying he was “never happier” than when he worked at the Chinese takeout place. And David recalled people in his neighborhood lamenting the lack of “good Chinese food” in the area. 

That helped steer Danny to the restaurant business, and with David as a silent partner, Danny’s opened its first location in 2014. Danny even tapped the former chef at East Meets West, Mr. Lin, to take over kitchen duties, although Danny would continue to help with cooking. 

As Danny’s got busier, it became evident that he needed help. So, it was natural that David, who was wrapping up his career in finance, would join Danny as a full-time partner in the business in March 2019. 

But then the pandemic arrived with the new year and threatened to derail the restaurant’s strong growth. Danny’s closed on March 16 for 35 days due to concerns for the staff and customers alike. 

From January through March, the brothers say their business was down by almost 40 percent because people thought “they could get Covid-19 from eating Chinese food.” 

“People were scared,” David recalls. He added that they had to work through various fears of people regarding touching surfaces, bags, etc. 

He says that being entrenched in the community and hiring mostly local employees meant taking precautions seriously, including buying high-quality masks and using enhanced cleaning protocols. When Danny’s reopened in mid-April, David said they had to take matters into their own hands because few workers were available.  

“At one point, we were driving a truck to our Hicksville warehouse and getting all of our food supplies since things were so stalled due to Covid-19,” David says, recalling how he smelled like “raw chicken,” on most days. “People were dying for Chinese food…they hadn’t had it for months and we wanted to be there for the community.” 

But, despite Covid-19, the brothers opened a new location in Massapequa in May of this year, near another former Chinese takeout, Chow Superb Chinese Food.  

“We couldn’t get any contractors to come out, so we did much of the work on this spot ourselves, including painting and electrical work,” David notes.  

And the brothers’ expansion plans aren’t yet complete, as they are planning an Oceanside location, set to open in 2021. 

Danny’s varied menu includes more than a few hundred items to choose from, including specialties such as sesame chicken, beef with broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, salmon Hunan style, spare ribs, and special creations, such as pastrami and apple pie egg rolls.  

“We’re obsessed with customer service, cleanliness, and quality food that includes getting daily shipments of fresh vegetables, chicken and meat,” David says, explaining what makes Danny’s different.

He also adds that their prices are comparable to most other Chinese takeouts. 

“We’re not reinventing Chinese food,” he says, “but we’re doing it right.” 

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen is located at 2370 Merrick Rd., Bellmore 516-783-9000 and 20 Broadway, Massapequa 516-809-9970. Visit at dannyschinesekitchen.com.

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Akbar Presses On Serving Up Iconic Indian Cuisine

Chef Reddy cooks up Indian cuisine at Akbar in Garden City (Photo by Ed Shin)

Akbar, a majestic-looking Indian restaurant in Garden City, is very much a family affair that traces its inspiration back to the 16th century in northern India, where royal Indian Mogul Akbar dined in grand surroundings. 

The restaurant’s owner, Meena Chopra, recalls that it was her father, A.N. Malhotra, who opened the first Akbar in New York City in 1976. He followed with other locations abroad including in Japan, Trinidad, and London.

“Watching my father build his career in the restaurant industry, I was always intrigued by the thought of running my own one day,” says Chopra, who was born in India and came to New York in 1976.  

Recalling the family’s history, Chopra says that after her father had returned to India, both she and her brother, Pradeep Malhotra, wanted to continue the legacy their father had worked hard to build in the city. 

“I opened up an Akbar on Long Island and my brother opened one in Edison, New Jersey,” she says, adding that she has always enjoyed the customer service aspect of the business. “I am so fortunate that we have built such a strong customer base, some of whom have become so close, they are like family.” 

Akbar first opened on LI in 1984, located on Ring Road near the Roosevelt Field Mall, before moving to the venue’s present Garden City location in 2001, on the site of a spacious, former healthcare supplies warehouse.

Fast forward to 2020 and Chopra explains that, like countless other restaurants across the region, her business has been hit “very hard” by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Staffing levels had to be reduced from a normal of about 30 employees to around 10. In addition to curtailing the regular flow of diners, Chopra says that her catering business for banquets, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays has been all but idelined. 

“Right now, we’re just trying to manage the takeout along with the outdoor dining,” she says, adding that although they never did close, even back in March, when many others were shuttered, staying afloat has been tough. 

“Our wedding business was not happening at all,” Chopra explains.  “There were almost no large gatherings happening and that took its toll on business.” 

Indoors, the restaurant has put cabanas in place, 12 feet apart, in order to better distance diners and outside there is a large patio area that spans the perimeter of the restaurant, where tables are at least 10 feet apart. Health guidelines mandate a minimum of six feet between tables.  

Ramit Malhotra, Chopra’s son, who handles consulting and management duties at Akbar, relates that outdoor dining has been fairly steady during the week and better on weekends. 

“It’s hard to operate on just takeout business,” he says, adding that Akbar can comfortably seat about 60 diners outside. “I’m hopeful, however, that our business is coming back … it’s just a matter of if and when this virus is stopped or at least controlled.” 

Lately, he says he’s been getting inquiries about catering operations for weddings, normally catered at nearby locations such as Crest Hollow Country Club and the Marriott Hotel, for anywhere between 400 and 500 people.  

Akbar also joined local efforts to help to feed frontline healthcare workers at hospitals nearby, including St. Francis Hospital and Northwell Health Manhasset. 

“We donated food but we just wanted to help and didn’t really want to call attention to the fact we were helping,” Chopra explains. “It was the right thing to do.”

In the kitchen, Akbar’s executive chef “Reddy” says he studied to be a chef in India, receiving a degree in kitchen technology. 

“Most of our staff have been working here more than 10 years,” he says, joking that “they don’t want to leave. There must be a magnet that keeps them here.”

Reddy himself is an Akbar veteran of almost seven years, who says he continues to refine and improve the menu and dishes. 

Specialties include specially marinated New Zealand lamb chop cooked in a charcoal oven; chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, biryani, lamb curry, and spicy vindaloo dishes, which are among peoples’ favorites.

Reddy also supervises other cooks at Akbar’s numerous banquet functions. “Reddy multitasks very well,” says Malhotra. 

Overall, Chopra says she is “very grateful and blessed to have such a good team.” 

Chopra adds that she wants to reassure diners that Akbar is taking all necessary precautions to keep everyone safe during these challenging times. 

“We are doing whatever we can and just hope things get back to normal soon.” 

Akbar is located at 2 South St. in Garden City. It can be reached at 516-357-8300 or theakbar.com

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Las Vinas Chef Mark Astorga Perseveres With Peruvian Cuisine

Las Vinas Chef Mark Astorga cooks up Peruvian cuisine in Mineola. (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

While many people were sustaining themselves on a diet of fast-food delivery during the coronavirus crisis, others were peppering their palates with ethnic cuisines from across Long Island. 

And for those who never lost their taste for fine Peruvian food, Mark Astorga, the owner and head chef of Las Vinas in Mineola, is certainly thankful.

“Many owners didn’t open until a month into the crisis,” recalls Astorga, who says that his restaurant was open all along for takeout. “In the very beginning, we weren’t very busy. I started to think maybe I should have stayed home as well.” 

Astorga adds that while his takeout business has gone up and down, it has helped to keep the restaurant afloat during the past several difficult months.  

While he talks about the need to “fight through” these challenging times, he also says that some restaurant owners may take this time to leave the business entirely. 

“I know a few owners who may not come back at all because they’ve taken too big a hit,” he says.

Long Island reopening rules as of press time allows for limited inside dining along with strict adherence to regulations such as continued social distancing and enhanced cleaning. 

“We had already changed the entire setup of our restaurant to handle takeout and delivery and now we have to change again to a new system of having diners indoors,” Astorga says. “It’s daunting.” 

He adds that a lot of people may still not feel comfortable coming back inside the restaurant. Astorga also says he’s had to cut some of his prices on food as well as to-go liquor to make it easier for people.  

“We’re trying to accommodate,” he says, “we went to keep a steady flow of business.” 

But, on the bright side, Astorga says that county and state agencies such as the Nassau County Department of Health and the building department have helped make things easier for restaurants to comply with new health and safety regulations, including expediting permits for outdoor dining tables. 

Las Vinas has been using a shared driveway, just off Jericho Turnpike as an outdoor dining area for the time being but his staff can only set it up after 5 p.m. each day. 

While Astorga did not attend culinary school, he says his knowledge of Peruvian cuisine springs mostly from watching and helping his parents cook at a restaurant they opened in California. In 1976 the family, originally from Lima, Peru, moved to New York and opened one of the first Peruvian restaurants in the city in Jackson Heights. 

“I started out in my teenage years peeling potatoes and helping out in the kitchen, but I always had a passion for cooking,” recalls Astorga, 45, who grew up in California. 

After working with his parents for many years, Astorga had the opportunity to open his own place, and in 1998 opened a Peruvian spot in Kew Gardens called Inca’s. 

“After Inca’s, I found another location in Manhasset on Plandome Road around 2010 and I stayed for about four years, developing a solid following in Manhasset as Las Vinas,” he says. 

From there, he relocated to Mineola near the end of 2015, where he continued with the Las Vinas concept of mainstream Peruvian cuisine. 

Astorga still does most of the cooking at Las Vinas, although he has experienced chefs as well as a few family members who also help. 

Some of Las Vinas’ most popular dishes include lomo saltado (skirt steak with onions and tomatoes over rice), ceviche mixto (mixed seafood in lime juice), jalea (mixed fried seafood with lime-marinated salad) and arroz pollo verde (chicken and vegetables in cilantro-seasoned rice).  

In addition, his hot sauce is a big favorite, made with 15 different ingredients, based on Jalapeño peppers. 

Astorga adds that even though outdoor dining is an option as well as limited indoor service, he believes that pickup will still be a preferred option especially for people who are nervous. 

“We recently switched to using our own drivers for delivery as opposed to the third-party platforms such as Grubhub and Uber Eats,” he says, noting that such services charge too many fees and those fees cut into profits. 

In addition, he says that some people aren’t spending what they used to pre-pandemic. 

But, looking to the future, Astorga admits there is “much uncertainty,” with everything going on. 

“I want to stay positive,” he says. “We’re all going to have to fight through these tough times to survive.” 

Las Vinas is located at 178 Jericho Tpke. in Mineola. It can be reached at 516-747-0194 or lasvinasny.com

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Claudio’s of Greenport Feeds The North Fork

Executive Chef Kevin Garcia is overseeing a rebirth of historic Claudio’s in downtown Greenport.

While many New Yorkers applaud the efforts of healthcare workers and essential personnel during the pandemic, one iconic Long Island restaurant is going further by cooking and donating local cuisine to healthcare workers and the needy on the North Fork. 

The venerable Claudio’s, which is commemorating its 150th anniversary this summer after being sold to a new management group in 2018, is donating food to Community Action Southold Town (CAST), an organization that serves low-income individuals and families on the North Fork.  

“We’re now involved with a variety of community partnerships starting with biweekly and then weekly food donations, giving 100 individual meals every Tuesday from Claudio’s pizza kitchen, including on- and off-menu items such as popular clam chowders, pastas and burgers,” says Tanya Doggwiler, a spokesperson for the restaurant. 

Founded in 1870 in downtown Greenport village on the North Fork, the restaurant was America’s oldest same-family-run restaurant in the nation, staying in the same family for four generations until recently. 

After the first donation, Doggwiler says that those in need can visit CAST every other Tuesday to pick up individually packaged meals. She also notes that Claudio’s Waterfront recently opened for takeout, delivery, and dockside pickup so those visiting the restaurant can also donate canned goods, clothing, and more that will be brought to CAST. 

Crabby Jerry’s is also open for takeout and delivery while food from Claudio’s main restaurant is limited to pizza. 

In addition to donating food to CAST, Claudio’s is also supporting the efforts of healthcare personnel at Stony Brook’s Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport by donating gift certificates for weekly raffles to the staff. 

“The staff can take home food with them so they don’t have to eat at the hospital every time,” Doggwiler says, adding that it “gives the workers a bit of flexibility to enjoy a meal with family, or their partner.”

Moreover, there is also a project underway to decorate masks with local elementary school students in honor of the hospital’s 475 employees. The masks will be hung at the hospital as a thank you to the community’s first responders.

Patrons and first responders enjoying Claudio’s signature dishes such as clam chowders or lobster rolls might want to toss a thank you to Executive Chef Kevin Garcia, who is now helping his partner celebrity Chef Franklin Becker oversee all three kitchens at Claudio’s after lending Becker a hand last summer with menu changes at the storied restaurant complex. 

Garcia, who started in the restaurant business at age 15 washing dishes, worked his way up the culinary ladder for more than 20 years at high-end restaurants such as Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Drew Nieporent’s Lucca in Boca Raton, Mario Batali’s Lupa and later as chef di cucina at Del Posto. 

He says that working out on Long Island’s North Fork is very special due to its “small farms and availability of fresh fish, excellent produce, and local wineries.” 

“It’s been like a dream… amazing,” he says, noting how he’s built relationships with local farmers, and has had access to very fresh, local seafood.

However, Garcia couldn’t help note how the restaurant industry has been “decimated” by the coronavirus.

“We’re dealing with the rules of COVID,” he says. “It’s a complete reinvention of everything. It’ll work out for some people, and some not.”

He predicts this pandemic will have a lasting effect on the hospitality industry and that many restaurants won’t reopen. 

Garcia, who grew up in New York City and Connecticut, notes that they are trying their best to keep the integrity and history of Claudio’s intact, despite the difficulty of grappling with the new reality of social distancing. 

“We’re just preparing for when we can have seating outside,” he says, but…”we still have staff to pay and we are in the process of hiring, but at the moment, we’re not covering expenses from just doing takeout and delivery.” 

Some of the dishes Garcia has been helping get out the door include lobster rolls, lobster Cobb salad, soft shell crab, and oysters and clams served a variety of ways, from steamed to sandwiches.  

“Although we sometimes have to make changes for takeout and delivery, you still have to put out your best things and do the best you can,” he says.  

Claudio’s is located at 111 Main St. in Greenport. It can be reached at 631-477-0627 or claudios.com

Related Story: The North Fork: Farm Country Plus A Lot More

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Pomodorino Rosso Chef Antonio Bove Cooks With Grace

Pomodorino Rosso co-owner Chef Antonio Bove, left, uses only the freshest ingredients.

Carol Cesone and Chef Antonio Bove, co-owners of Italian eateries Pomodorino Rosso in Valley Stream and Uva Rossa in Malverne, are doing more than their share to keep their tight-knit community going during the seemingly endless coronavirus crisis. 

For starters, Pomodorino Rosso is open for takeout and delivery, something that can’t be said for many restaurants across the island. But Cesone says that even more rewarding is regularly donating meals to healthcare workers at nearby Long Island Jewish Valley Stream. 

“We do it just because it’s the right thing to do … we’re not looking for a medal or anything,” says Bove, who started cooking at age 18 with a family business in Italy.  “We also send food to the police, to churches, and other members of the community. We’re a very tight-knit community and we’re very fortunate to have successful businesses and people that have been very supportive of us as well.” 

Cesone, who started out as a designer before partnering with Bove, says that initially both restaurants were shut down during the pandemic. But they decided to open Pomodorino Rosso for takeout so their staff could at least get “some source of income.” 

“Between both restaurants, we had close to 35, 40 employees in total,” Cesone says, adding that for a majority of their employees, this work was their sole source of income. “We really are like a family in both restaurants, between the servers and the cooks.” 

Cesone says that opening Pomodorino made more sense than opening Uva Rossa as they have a large pizza oven at that location. They boast that it bakes “some of the best pizza on Long Island.”

Some of the restaurant’s specials include eggplant rolls, grilled brussels sprouts, rigatoni Napolitano, chicken Uva Rossa, chicken Margherita, and various salads such as seafood and spinach salad.

Both Cesone and Bove report that so far their takeout business has been very brisk, and they praised the Village of Malverne for supporting them. They do the same for the community.

“We’ve donated all year long to many other local and civic organizations, such as schools, churches and others,” Cesone recalls. 

But now, like many eateries, they’re stepping up and helping feed healthcare heroes working overtime on the front lines of the pandemic.

“We’ve donated a variety of dishes from pizza, penne, chicken dishes and salads to the hospital, enough to feed about 100 people at a time,” she says, adding that their donations were aided by the help of the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce. The chamber designed a food donation schedule called a “meal train,” so that other businesses could regularly donate food to the hospital and make sure all the food was distributed to nurses, doctors, and other workers who were interested. 

Cesone says they’ve donated to the hospital at least three times already by simply loading up their delivery van and dropping off the food.

“The food is a little something special for the healthcare workers to look forward to during an otherwise dismal day,” says Cesone. 

Bove, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Italy before opening Uva Rossa in 2013 and Pomodorino Rosso in 2018, says he’s always believed in supporting people in hard times. 

Hospital executives also seemed heartened by the community efforts. 

“The team at LIJ appreciates the thoughtful food donations for the caregivers on the frontlines,” said LIJ Medical Center Executive Director Michael Goldberg. “It’s reassuring to the team knowing that the community supports them with quality meals, which adds an element of regularity to their day.”

Cesone says that presently, business overall is good, thanks to a brisk takeout business. 

“Weekends get very busy,” she says, adding that she hears people looking forward to going out and getting their food. “It’s like a nice diversion.” 

And, at times, Cesone says that business has been so good it has “gotten out of control at times.” 

However, she adds that the future is uncertain. 

“I’m not sure how we’ll be at the end of this thing, when we can have people back in the restaurant,” she says. “This new way of life now seems normal, because we’ve been doing it for a few months already.”

Pomodorino Rosso is located at 47 Franklin Ave. in Valley Stream. It can be reached at 516-812-6171 or pomodorinorosso.com

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