Sinatra Eats: Affordable places to eat near Sinatra

By Adamaris Sanchez and Kaylin Ruiz

Two Sinatra students go on a quest for cheap eats.

As the school day comes to an end, many students at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSSA) in Astoria leave feeling hungry and wanting something quick and cheap to eat. However, eating around the area can be pricey, with a typical meal at the nearby Starbucks costing up to $15 and the satisfaction at the end is subject to preference. Besides the fast food and big chain restaurants in the area, we uncovered a few small food spots most Sinatra students likely haven’t heard of: From Mexican street tacos to West African cuisine, here are three of the many small businesses that provide quality food for under $10 dollars near Sinatra.

As most high school students can relate, our budget manages how we spend our time outside of the school. We spoke to some Sinatra students about their spending habits and on average the majority spend roughly $10 dollars on a meal daily outside of the building.

So, with only $10 in our pockets, we ventured out to our first food spot, the Tacos El Tri truck on Steinway between 34th and 35th Avenue.

Tacos El Tri

At first glance, one see a bright green truck with fluorescent lettering listing the many dishes the woman in the tiny vehicle serves, ranging from the classic Mexican street tacos to more traditional, homestyle Mexican dishes such as breaded chicken served with Mexican rice and refried beans. The delicious aroma of spicy meat being cooked to perfection runs through the air as one approaches the truck. Hungry and tempted to taste the food, we each ordered three tacos Al Pastor for $10, and chose to add the creamy salsa verde sauce on both our orders. The spicy-savory flavor of the Al Pastor complimented the fresh cilantro. Topped off with the green sauce and lime, it’s easily a full meal for only $10 dollars.

Next, we stopped at Mahmoud’s Corner Halal Food Cart on 35th Avenue and Steinway. The baby blue cart lined with bright white led lights quickly catches ones attention when walking toward the train station directly across the street. Bringing only $10 once again, we scanned the menu printed on the side of the cart to find the $9 chicken over rice meal. We chose to add a $2 Snapple onto our orders as a drink. Once our orders were placed, the three men in the cart quickly got to work chopping vegetables and cooking meat. Afraid to interfere with their focus, we hesitated to ask the men questions about their bustling business. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we were met with a friendly smile from the business’ owner who happily agreed to answer our inquiries.

Mahmoud’s Corner Halal Food Cart

As we asked the man about the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on his business, the true passion and motivation behind his craft came to light. He explained with such emotion the emptiness his business closing down caused him to feel.

“We were closed for two months and a half. We have been here for 25 years and when we just disappeared it was very difficult. I needed to see my customers again. This isn’t just a job for the money,” he said.

He shared how even after the business re-opened, the customer to chef connection he once appreciated had disappeared due to customers’ constant fear of the ever present virus, and the slow rate at which his business was moving. Yet, with the many obstacles the pandemic placed in front of him, his passion for cooking remained deep within, and it’s seen through his work in the truck. “When I go to sleep I dream about cooking. I love cooking. I am always in the kitchen and I’m always around food. I grew up in a family of cooks,” he added.

After thanking him for his courtesy and time, he shared with us his heartwarming ambition to one day open up a permanent restaurant where he can have a full kitchen of his own, and we left with our food.

We chose to indulge in the food at home and were delighted by the huge portion of food we were given for the price we paid. The meal was large enough for two people and left us full after a long day of school. The passion and love these men have for their food was clearly reflected on its quality and taste.

Finally, we went to Nneji, a West African food spot located at 32-30 34th Ave in Astoria. As we walked in we were hit with the aroma of sweet confectioneries, mixed with the salty, savory scent of homemade food. The small shop walls were littered with miscellaneous items ranging from West African handcrafted organic soaps to tin cans holding cooking utensils. The friendly worker waiting inside greeted us with a warm smile as we scanned the shop. 

After requesting to interview him, we quickly learned that he was not the owner of the establishment and did not speak English very well as he recently moved to the states from a country in Southern Africa only 4 months ago. While the man claimed to speak English poorly, he easily explained the contents and cooking techniques used to make the various dishes that he had readily available to serve us. 

Due to health issues, only one of us was able to eat the cooked meals, which included jollof rice, egusi stew with chicken, yassa beef and saltfish stew, and a choice of a grain, which we chose garri. A personal favorite was the egusi stew, as the taste of tomato was rich and smokey with a very smooth texture that nicely complimented the tender, juicy chicken. 

Upon learning that we were planning on reviewing the food for a school article, the friendly man gave us small amounts of each dish to sample for $8, although regular dishes would fall within the $8-$12 dollar price range. The meal combined with the confectionaries, including baked goods such as biscotti, a chocolate covered almond cookie, cost us a total of $14. 

We first tried the biscotti variations, which had a sweet, nutty flavor to them. They were soft, yet rigid enough for them to hold their shape, making them the perfect finger food to pair with morning coffee or tea. Following we tried the mini baklavas, which were layered pastry desserts that had a syrupy smell to them. They were a little harder to eat due to the sticky and flakey texture; it almost resembles a pastry puff. This is definitely something to enjoy with hot tea. 

Although the popular chain restaurants are always present in our school journey, one almost always fails to recognize the vast amounts of small businesses located around. Most of the time these small restaurants offer bigger meals for similar prices; all it takes is a walk around the block.