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$20 Dinner

There’s No Palestinian Food at This Year’s Queens Night Market. Here’s Where You Should Go Instead

The founder of Baba's Olives, whose "Free Palestine" signs were torn down last year, has three suggestions for a stellar meal in Astoria.

Lamb adana platter from Zyara, with fries, pickles, pita, and cucumbers in yogurt, $19.99

Lamb adana platter from Zyara, with fries, pickles, pita, and cucumbers in yogurt, $19.99. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Tala, the founder of Baba's Olives, was thrilled when she first joined the Queens Night Market in the summer of 2021, setting up her Taste of Palestine tent along with dozens of other vendors in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. 

"I was the first and only Palestinian vendor there," Tala, who asked to only use her first name for privacy reasons, told Hell Gate this past weekend. "I've always seen Baba's Olives and Taste of Palestine as a mechanism for food diplomacy—a way to humanize Palestinians, and tell the story of our rootedness to the land. There was a much bigger purpose to being there." 

Tala's Taste of Palestine tent on opening night in 2021. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Last fall, however, her tenure at Queens Night Market came to a sudden, disheartening end. On October 28, according to reports from Grub Street and Eater, Tala and her Taste of Palestine team started the night by displaying signs on their booth with a straightforward message: "Your tax dollars are funding the genocide of Palestinians. End the occupation—Free Palestine." Queens Night Market officials, who said they had received two complaints from patrons that the signs made them feel "unsafe," asked Tala to remove them. When she refused, security guards tore them down—multiple times. A shaken but defiant Tala gave away the rest of her food for free before she left for the rest of the year. Now, she's refusing to return for this year's night market, which opened for the season last Saturday

"Ripping down the sign was really the personification of racialized capitalism and cultural appropriation," Tala said. "Especially when it comes to Palestinians, there is a complete lack of recognition and ability to see our humanity, and I have no interest in serving our food without the recognition of our humanity, and of our struggle."  

Crowds on opening night in 2021, with the Taste of Palestine tent to the right. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

"Where was this food borne out of?" she continued. "Who are we as a people? What is our history? What is our struggle? What is our humanity? The sign was meant to get people to think critically. This is a U.S.-subsidized war. This is a U.S.-funded genocide. This moment in time demands and calls all of us to be in touch with our humanity. This moment in time demands that we don't silence Palestinian voices. So it felt like a really inhumane thing to do."

I spoke with Queens Night Market founder John Wang last weekend about last year's incident, and about opening night this year, though most of our conversation was off the record. He did send Hell Gate an official comment: "Our vendor policies are intended to create a safe, welcoming, and family-friendly environment for the tens of thousands of visitors we see each night. When those policies are broken and that noncompliance results in visitors reporting feeling unsafe, it's an issue we take very seriously."

In solidarity with Tala, several autonomous groups, including Queers for a Liberated Palestine, have called for a boycott of the Queens Night Market this year—and, at least on opening night, I joined them. I admit I struggled with the decision for a minute or two. I've met many, many good people among the vendors there over the years, small business owners who aren't getting rich from slinging, say, $5 bowls of mantu. None of them had anything to do with the incident at Tala's booth last fall. 

In 2021, Tala served makloubeh, which she described as Palestine's national dish. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

But to go and gorge myself and pretend we don't need to hear from Palestinians, that we can't handle even seeing any sort of anti-war, anti-genocide messaging, wasn't an option. As a U.S. taxpayer, I'm already (extremely unwillingly) paying for these atrocities in Gaza. The least I can do is stand by those who are screaming for them to stop. 

I did still need to eat some dinner on Saturday night though, so I also asked Tala if she could recommend a few of her favorite places in Queens where I could get good food in an environment where Palestinians voices are most definitely not silenced. Her suggestions, all Astoria mainstays, were excellent, and each fell well within the $20 Dinner parameters. 

King of Falafel and Shawarma

Both Trump and Biden come under fire at the King of Falafel storefront. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Freddy Zeideia is a Queens icon, a native Palestinian whose King of Falafel food trucks and storefront by the elevated train on Broadway have earned him awards (the Vendy in 2010), acclaim (from me, among countless others), and a deep respect in the community for his unapologetic attitude about his heritage. 

Falafel platter, $10. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

If you haven't been here in a while, don't worry: The falafel is still as good as ever, the outer layer fried to a crackle. The shawarma also rules, and the mixed-meat pita is a messy monster of a sandwich. What's changed? Zeideia's "Free Palestine" messaging, always present, has these days been amped up to levels that are impossible to ignore. 

Mixed shawarma sandwich, $12.49. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
Detail of artist Gabriele Perici's huge Gaza mural. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

You step on the faces of world leaders complicit in the atrocities in Gaza as you walk in (and while you pee). The exterior is festooned with, among other things, anti-Trump and anti-Biden flags and posters calling for an immediate ceasefire. There's an amazing mural by Gabriele Perici inside that takes up the entire wall facing the counter; it depicts the horrors happening in Gaza right now. 

Saturday night at King of Falafel and Shawarma. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The place was bustling last Saturday, filled with a diverse group of Astorians getting takeout or dining inside, including several families with little kids. No one seemed to feel unsafe. 

King of Falafel and Shawarma is located at 3015 Broadway, just west of 31st Street, and is currently open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Zyara Restaurant 

Outside of Zyara. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Speaking of bustling, the delightful, slightly chaotic Zyara over on Steinway Street was packed on Saturday evening, with big groups filling the tables in the covered back patio and takeout crowds spilling out onto the sidewalk. I waited over half an hour for a seat, but it was well worth it for my lamb adana platter, starring three plump, juicy, well-seasoned meat patties slathered in fiery and garlicky sauces. 

Zyara's enormous shawarma spits. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Zyara is not, strictly speaking, a Palestinian restaurant—the owner, Feras Alzughier, is from Jordan—but the menu features an array of familiar Middle Eastern delights. That includes pitas and laffa stuffed with shawarma carved from three of the largest rotating spits I've ever seen, and lots of good sides and salads. Alzughier doesn't hide his Palestinian solidarity, with "Stand With Palestine" stickers all around and a big donation box smack in the middle of the aisle. This place is a blast. 

Hardly an empty seat in the house. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Zyara is located at 25-53 Steinway Street, between 28th and 25th Avenues, and is currently open on Monday through Thursday from noon to midnight, and on Friday through Sunday from noon to 1 a.m.  

Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries 

Dessert heaven. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

A few blocks up Steinway from Zyara is where you should get dessert, at the cramped but wonderful Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries. Tala told me the place is famous for its kanafeh, a sweet and cheesy pastry that some say originated in Nablus and comes soaked in simple syrup and often is studded with pistachios. You can get your kanafeh soft here (it looks like flan, but it's chewy like mozzarella) or topped with a crunchy shell. Or do what I did, and get both. 

About $7 worth of both soft and crispy kanafeh. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
Look at all that baklava! (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Maybe even better, though, is Al-Sham's baklava, which comes in at least a half dozen different varieties. Again, the proper order here is "one of each." Wolf them down out on the sidewalk, getting your fingers increasingly sticky with every bite. 

About $6 worth of assorted baklava. (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Al-Sham Sweets and Pastries is located at 24-39 Steinway Street, just north of 25th Avenue, and is currently open from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily.

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