Living in Queens is certainly a blessing for a man with a small budget and a large appetite. Constantly battling over the title for “Most Diverse Place on Earth” with Toronto, Queens is home to good, cheap food from around the globe. Of course, Queens also has the worst subway service of any part of New York City that’s not called Staten Island, so many of these great eats are in places that I never go because I am not taking a train and two buses to get Bukharian food…
Thankfully, one the best places I’ve found to eat in New York City is near me. A few years ago, I was walking around Sunnyside and stumbled upon El Shater on 43rd Avenue. It was a dingy old grocery store, that had a food counter in the back. It looked like it hadn’t changed a lick since 1978, and neither had the prices: all meat sandwiches were $3.50. I tried a shawarma and was surprised how good it was for that price. It seemed like a spot that mostly catered to local Lebanese and Syrians buying groceries, so the prices were kept reasonable.
Fast forward to April 2011. El Shater is closed! I am sad, but I guess that’s the way the world works; places don’t stay open selling 3.50 shish kabab sandwiches in 2011. But, God bless my cynical heart, I was wrong. Turns out, that like some shawarma serving paramecium, El Shater was splitting in two. I don’t know if there was a falling out among the brothers who owned the store, all I know is now there is Habibi, occupying the old El Shater spot on 43rd Ave, and a new Souk El Shater on Queens Blvd and 43rd St.
The new stores are totally excellent and big moves up from the old spot. Both are clean, brightly lit, and now have small seating areas (a big plus, as at the old El Shater, it was strictly takeout only). Compared to the old El Shater, the grocery section is slightly smaller at Habibi and much smaller at Souk El Shater, which is focused more on raw meats and prepared foods. But, the prices haven’t changed a bit at either place. In fact, the menus are basically the same at both places.
I find this sort of amazing, as I don’t think I’ve paid 3.50 for a shawarma since the 90’s. Even the street meat carts will charge you 4.00! And, even more amazing, it’s a great sandwich. I usually go for the beef and lamb mix and it’s tender, and not the slightest bit gamey. It comes like it should, dressed with those bright pickled turnips. It’s no surpise, since I presume they are working off the same recipes, but the shawarma at Habibi and Souk El Shater taste pretty much identical, but I would say the sandwich is slightly bigger at Souk El Shater, with more meat. I’ve had every sandwich there but the falafel and the sausage, and they all compare favorably with any I’ve had in New York City. Before El Shater, my favorite schwarma was Karam in Bay Ridge, by the 86th St R train. I had one there recently, and I have to say, the one at Souk El Shater is just as good, for literally half the price (7.00 vs 3.50).
I have definitely developed a preference for Souk El Shater over Habibi for a few reasons. First, it’s about 5 minutes closer to my apartment. Second, the sandwiches are a little bigger. Third, they are nicer in there. It’s not to say they AREN’T nice in Habibi, but they don’t go the lengths to be nice that they do at Souk El Shater, where it seems like half the time I go there, they give me a free dessert. Also, sometimes at Habibi, they seem a little disorganized and you have to wait a while to be rung up. Again, not a big deal, but I’m not going to walk an extra 5 minutes for worse service. Habibi does however have one thing that El Shater does not: mosque shaped alarm clocks.