Whether you're off to a day of hiking, biking, boating or just lazing at the beach, the last thing you probably want to do is sit down to a lengthy meal. What you might be looking for, though, is an experience beyond fast food.
Which is where these counter-serve stars come in. At each, you'll find culinary excitement as well as a dash of originality. Step up, place your order and expect to be impressed -- in short order.
At the Pollo Campero, a Latin chicken restaurant, menu options like these chicken empanadas (pictured), add variety.
The airy, attractive Vege Favor in Islip is one of the few exclusively vegetarian restaurants on Long Island. Vegans, too, have lots to choose from. The rule here is that "chicken" and "beef" are made of soy products and that nothing served contains gluten, MSG or anything that's been genetically modified. Very good "chicken" soup and pepper "steak." (Pictured: A combo plate with eggplant with spicy garlic sauce and lo mein.)
A Venezuelan eatery, Chicken's Road in Bellmore specializes in more than just rotisserie-roasted chicken. A must-order dish is gallo rice (pictured), a Chinese-South American stir-fry with chicken, pork and vegetables.
At the Roslyn location of Wild Fig, a sleek cafeteria-style branch of a Long Island Turkish-Mediterranean chain, you get in line and pick out what you want. Choose from set options, like pide (a filled Turkish pizza-like pastry) or a falafel-hummus sandwich. Or put together your own sandwich combo by choosing from a panoply of ingredients, like chicken or beef meatballs, chicken or steak kebabs, babaganoush and hummus. Salads (including chicken, pictured) are another way to go. Finish with prepackaged baklava.
Cook's Scratch Kitchen & Bakery
Skillful from-scratch cooking is the rule at the casual Cook's Scratch Kitchen & Bakery in Northport, where co-owner brothers Josh and Dave Cook and chef Stacey McDevitt source ingredients carefully and, often, locally. In the morning, get a breakfast sandwich on a house-made biscuit or English muffin (pictured, with ham, Gruyère cheese, arugula and Dijon mayonnaise) or try the supremely light and tender pancakes. At lunch, there's a "hipster" Reuben sandwich done with house-cured smoked pork or an unconventional BLT made with smoked salmon. Finish with one of McDevitt's freshly baked muffins or cookies.
Virtually everything is made from scratch at Cabo Fresh, an eco-friendly Tex-Mex place owned by Jim DiVilio and family with locations in Stony Brook and Commack. Move down a line and choose your protein -- dark meat grilled chicken, sweet pork carnitas, grilled shrimp and a vegetarian mix -- for tacos, quesadillas, salads, burritos and bowls (pictured, with chicken).
Merengue Dominican Restaurant
In a modest-looking but comfortable Garden City Park storefront, Merengue Dominican Restaurant offers counter service only at lunch, though, at dinner, you can get waited on. Try a big, fresh seafood salad, baked chicken, oxtail stew (pictured) and pernil asado, roasted pork served in its own juices. Shrimp ajillo, in a citrus-garlic sauce, works well over rice.
In Amagansett, La Fondita is a popular East End vortex of authentic Mexican flavors and offers takeout and some outdoor seats overlooking a pond. Try such specialties as chorizo tacos, posole stew, pork tamales and sopes (hand-pressed corn boats with refried beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, crema, cheese and a choice of fillings, pictured).
Mekan Gyro & Grill
A simple Turkish cafe-grocery in Medford, Mekan excels with its pide (pictured), a savory stuffed flaky pie, as well as spicy beyti kebab, juicy chicken chops and superior falafel wrap. The house-made gyro is a treat.
Nick's Pizza & Clam Bar
Order at the outdoor window of Nick's Pizza & Clam Bar in Smithtown and stake an outdoor table (or indoors in inclement weather) at this casual warm weather spot for pizza and seafood. Raw cherrystones are fresh and briny; slurp some with a squirt of fresh lemon. Linguini with white clam sauce is a standout; so is the crusty, cheesy pizza.
The bare-bones Taqueria Mexico in Riverhead has delicate, delectable house-made tortillas stuffed with carefully prepared fillings. Try the excellent pork tongue, which comes topped with cilantro and chopped onion. Hot sauces are offered on the side.
Noodles & Company
At Noodles & Company, an around-the-world-in-noodles place in Garden City, you order at the register and are handed a number. Then, your food is delivered to your table. Most pasta-based dishes involve adding the protein of your choice, such as pork, steak, shrimp or tofu. Pasta options include pesto cavatappi, pad Thai, Bangkok curry and Indonesian peanut sauté. You can also get spaghetti and meatballs as well as a BBQ pork sandwich or a grilled chicken Caesar salad. Gluten-free noodles are available.
Salsa Salsa, casual Cal-Mex spots with locations in Bayport and Port Jefferson, offers fajitas, burritos, tacos and salads. The deeply flavorsome chipotle chicken-white bean chili is a winner.
Tasty American Coo Coo
Secreted in a Huntington alleyway is Tasty American Coo Coo, a quirky Persian Middle-Eastern spot offering an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes (including lamb kebabs, pictured), most served on a bed of bright, fresh vegetables accompanied by "coo coo" bread, a flaky flatbread similar to Indian naan. Try the coo coo sabzi, a custardy dish similar to a crustless quiche.
Tiger Lily Cafe
Vegans and vegetarians join carnivores at the art-filled Tiger Lily Cafe in Port Jefferson. Try the Napoleon-like version of eggplant Parmigiana or the fine grilled veggie burger on a whole-wheat roll, as well as the fine falafel wrap.
Medina Kebab House
A casual Afghan spot, Medina Kebab House in Bethpage offers such selections as chicken or lamb tikka, beef kofte kebabs, falafel, burgers and house-made chicken shawarma, sliced off a spit. Choose a sandwich or a platter.
At Greek Street in Massapequa Park, the signature dish is the sandwich dubbed the "authentic street gyro." Tucked inside a pita are shards of juicy house-made pork gyro, tomatoes, red onion, lettuce, tzatziki sauce and fab hand-cut fries. Also on the menu are an Greek horiatiki salad, spinach pie and a "street bowl" of chicken souvlaki over rice.
Pinata's Mexican Grill
A surprising degree of authenticity informs Pinata's Mexican Grill, a casual spot in Bethpage whose Greek-American owner is well-versed in Tex-Mex cooking. Recommendations include a soft corn tongue taco, a satisfying fish taco and a spicy chorizo taco. Ask for salsas and mayonnaise-based sauces on the side and customize. Other choices: a shrimp quesadilla, chile con carne, a chicken fajita burrito. A fresh salsa and condiment bar adds to the appeal.