The Greek Uncle (R.I.P)

21 Dec

When Zio picked Uncle George’s in Astoria, the restaurant really didn’t qualify for our criteria. This was late 2003 and having been around since 1985, it was well known among the burgeoning foodie crowd. But we hadn’t done “Greek” yet and it was cheap, so we let Zio slide on the pick. As you’ll read below, that was our mistake.

Uncle George’s Greek Tavern
33-19 Broadway
Astoria

Is Astoria now to Greek restaurants what Little Italy is to Italian restaurants? Are they just there to appease the tourist or wandering foodie; to present a pale imitation of what Greek-American or Italian-American cuisine was like 40 years ago. That’s what I was afraid of when Zio choose Uncle George’s as the next destination for our group of intrepid eaters. Uncle George’s had a reputation as one of those authentic Greek restaurants, but my sources had warned that the food had there had gone downhill. This was Zio’s choice, however, and it was not my place to interfere.

When I entered Uncle George’s, the fluorescent-bright interior looked much more like a dingy diner than a Greek tavern. This was a good sign, I thought. There were other good signs: men with bushy forearms reading newspapers with undecipherable, to me, Greek lettering, a bilingual menu in English and that same undecipherable Greek on the wall, a surly, casting-couch Greek waiter who scoffed at Gerry when he inquired about a glass of ouzo: “No ouzo here! Whattya think? This a bar?.”  Lamb head on the menu. I was encouraged. Maybe Zio picked Uncle George’s truly for the food and not just for the convenience; surely that it was only a couple of blocks from his Astoria love shack was not a factor at all.

After we finally all assembled and sipped retsina; bad Greek wine served ice cold out of an olive oil container, our brusque waiter took our orders. Of course most of the items we desired were not available. The waiter recited what was left and when one of our large, slightly deaf, contingent inquired again about something not on the menu, he became exasperated with us. Still, there were plenty of items to choose from—lamb head, sadly, was not one of them.

 

 

We started with the typical Greek dips; fish roe (taramaslata) yogurt, garlic and cucumber (tzatziki) and the very garlicky potato dip (skoradilia). All were very good and served with warm pita bread. Gerry tried the fried cheese and Rick was curious about the spinach pie, which was not anywhere near the equal of what I commonly ordered at Big Nick’s Burger Joint on the Upper West Side, not to be confused with Uncle Nick’s in Hell’s Kitchen, which also had a better spinach pie than Uncle George. I erred badly by choosing the baked macaroni and octopus. The macaroni, baked to a mushy consistency, was the antithesis of “al dente” and the octopus, canned and accompanied with an overdose of dill. Gerry had a similar unfortunate experience with his pastitio, the Greek version of baked ziti. Eugene fared better with the grilled whiting as did Rick with the barbecued baby lamb. Zio tried the lamb stew with spinach, which reminded me of one of the many common themes on meats, whether beef, pork or veal, that was the few dinner options at my college dormitory. Charlie’s roast leg of lamb was if nothing else, slow-cooked tender and highlighted by a large portion of lemon potatoes.

The food was certainly plentiful, but we’ll leave it at that. Zio had a “sheepish” look on his face as we left and it had nothing to do with our consumption of lamb. He shrugged. “They make good eggs,” he said. And to that we had no response.

No lamb head today!

Uncle George continues to thrive 24 hours a day in Astoria. It’s been “remodeled” since we visited in 2003, but the menu remains the same. Now, I think, the restaurant is more a guilty pleasure to its followers; like Wo Hop in Chinatown or Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy. They are comforting reminders of the past that are knowingly not very good, but still irresistible for, if nothing else, their continued existence in an ever-changing food universe.

2 Responses to “The Greek Uncle (R.I.P)”

  1. Kathleen December 21, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Taverna Cyclades on Ditmars is where we go for the best Greek seafood.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Mole-A in Astoria | Fried Neck Bones...and some home fries - November 25, 2014

    […] dining establishments. Who can forget the greasy Greek macaroni at now defunct Uncle George’s (The Greek Uncle)? Or the stupendous fish market cum restaurant, Astoria Seafood (The Ash Wednesday Fishing […]

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