Queens...has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.
Brooklyn has been holding its own as a hotbed of coolness, particularly in the gastronomic realm, for more than a decade now. The boon of farm, ocean and forest-to-table eateries—not to mention the coffee, tea, and matcha cafes, the trucks that dole out steamed, grilled, and fried food all hours of the day and night, the artisanal bakeries, the gastropubs, wine bars, dessert bars, microbreweries, distilleries, and cocktail-slinging speakeasies with their herb-infused simple syrups and their small-batch liquors—has lead to a culinary explosion that now extends far beyond Kings County.
But the brooklynisation of America that has influenced the eruption of white subway-tile clad, reclaimed wood-countered, dimly Edison-lightbulb-lit, urban-rustic-chic eateries and drinkeries from Williamsburg (Brooklyn’s epicentre of hipness) to California is old news. What’s new is that Queens, long considered Brooklyn’s almost entirely un-compelling sidekick to the north, has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.
Food writers from the New York Times and other food-focused magazines and blogs have been evangelising about Queens cuisine with regularity for sometime now, but the borough has largely remained under the radar for most. However, with Queens topping Lonely Planet’s “Best in the US” list for 2015, our humble borough’s secret is out. Now even international tourists know that we have world-class museums and sculpture gardens, an east coast Tinseltown, a colourful music history, a surf scene, a county farm on the ground and a few more up on the rooftops. And being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind.
This is not to say that the restaurants in Queens rival the level of artistry, sophistication, or innovation that can be discovered in Manhattan’s finest restaurants or that you’ll find the same obsession with hyper-locavorism that has put the greenmarket-driven seasonal New American fare of Brooklyn on the gastronomic map. What we offer instead is a nearly incomprehensible concentration of eateries that showcase authentic cuisines from all over the world.
...being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind
The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America. And, reflecting its origins, the food culture here is not limited to traditional sit-down restaurants. You might be grabbing the best kebab, curry, or plate of momos (Tibetan or Nepalese dumplings) you’ve ever sunk your teeth into from a food cart on a corner in Jackson Heights while a subway train roars above your head or the most scrumptious Taiwanese pork bun on the subterranean level of a Flushing food mall, where pungent, heady aromas of hot oil, Asian 5-spice, grilled meats, stir-fry, and spicy broths thicken and perfume the air.
And sometimes, in Queens, the most amazing food just materialises in an unexpected setting, such as when you’re sipping a sweet and salty lime-, lychee- and chile-laden cocktail at the Thai bar Pata Paplean in Elmhurst at 4PM on a Saturday, and even though the bar only serves drinks and bar snacks (as far as you knew), you’re suddenly presented with the option to order a bowl of sweet and tangy noodle soup brimming with pork and fish balls and a zing of lime juice, fish sauce, chile, and cilantro. Naturally, you seize the moment. Gobsmacked by the heat and bright flavours, you start to mentally reorganise your life so you can come back and slurp down these magnificent noodles every day. But then you’re informed that noodles are only served here for a few hours a few days a week. Sometimes you’re just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
As with many American families, the first big trip of my childhood was to Disney World. I was nine years old, and what was most memorable about it for me was not the Magic Kingdom but the international food pavilions at the newly opened EPCOT Center. This was back in the early 1980s, so American food culture was still, for the most part, in the dark ages. Not yet having been exposed to many foreign cuisines, I was intensely curious about what people ate in Japan, France, Germany, Mexico, and other parts of the world. I remember being surprised and delighted that nothing tasted as I had expected. I had no frame of reference for the new sweet, sour, and spicy flavours that were sparking my taste buds. It was an awakening. This feeling returns repeatedly in Queens as I deepen my explorations into the regional cuisines of countries whose food I thought I knew.
Though my palate has evolved with a couple of decades of international travel, I still experience anticipatory glee when I read a description on a menu and I can’t really imagine what the thing will look or taste like, even if I recognise some—or most—of the ingredients. The initial element of surprise can occasionally turn to disappointment, but taking the risk and ordering the mysterious item often reaps delicious benefits. For instance, a combination of pork organs and blood with the right spice, herbs, and seasonings can be transformative—and yes, seriously delicious, as evidenced by the num tok noodle soup served at Plant Love House, an adorable little Thai restaurant run by two sisters and their mom in Elmhurst. A tongue taco sprinkled with cilantro, a spritz of lime, and a squirt of crema (a Mexican version of sour cream or crème fraiche), like the one thrown together by the women inside the Mexican truck, Tacos Rey de Oro, that’s often parked below the 52nd Street and Lincoln subway stop in Woodside, turns out to be the ideal after-midnight morsel. Next, I’m looking forward to trying the jellyfish hearts at Fu Ran (formerly Fu Run), a Chinese restaurant in Flushing that specialises in food from the northeastern Dongbei region.
Walt Disney may have designed the EPCOT Center to showcase a microcosm of global culture, but Queens is the real deal. Four or five subway lines can take you on an authentic culinary tour of the world (and this is still only a small fraction of what the borough has to offer). Heading out on the N or Q train will land you in the Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European neighbourhoods of Astoria. The first ten stops on the 7 Train will take you out to Irish pubs, Italian pizzerias, French bistros, Middle Eastern bakeries, Turkish falafel joints, Thai steam tables, spicy Korean hotpots, Filipino barbeque, and some of the city’s best Japanese food. After that, you’ll pass through Jackson Heights, which is still thought of as Little India, though it’s now home to many Pakistani, Himalayan, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Mexican restaurants too. The 7 and the R and M trains will deposit you in Thai Town or Little Bangkok, officially known as the neighbourhood of Elmhurst, which in addition to all of the Thai eateries also has its share of Indonesian and Vietnamese food. Flushing, our Chinatown, is at the end of the 7 line. Here you can feast on food from China’s most sought-after culinary provinces, including Szechuan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hunan, and Guangdong, as well as its more obscure, like Dongbei and Yunnan. But you’ll also find a holdover of Korean restaurants here along with the occasional Korean barbecue cart perched on the sidewalk grilling up skewered meats and serving them with a side of chilli-soaked kimchi. Before the Chinese took over, Flushing was home to a large Korean population. Koreatown has since branched out farther east into Murray Hill, Bayside, and beyond. Finally, the E and the F trains will drop you in the Caribbean, African American, and South Asian enclaves of Jamaica.
Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists
Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it. The buzz about Queens food culture really started in Long Island City (LIC), the southwestern-most neighbourhood in Queens. It’s almost as if the culture of “food cool” came across the Newtown Creek by way of osmosis, or perhaps via the Pulaski, which is the drawbridge over there that links Brooklyn to Queens. Whether it was a result of the waning trend and oversaturation of Brooklyn’s glorification of its own grub or a matter of zeitgeist, it’s hard to say.
Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists. The former PS1 art exhibition space (known, since 2000, as MoMA PS1) has been a beacon of creativity in the area since it was first erected in a late 19th century public schoolhouse back in the early 1970s. Artists began funnelling into this industrial quarter and took up residence and workspaces in the increasingly defunct factory warehouses throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. A gallery and coffee-house culture ensued, followed by a new wave of restaurants and bars, which helped put LIC on the map as a cultural destination and paved the way for a complete renaissance.
Now considered the swankiest Queens neighbourhood, it boasts a skyline of luxury residential high-rises, a picturesque waterfront park overlooking Manhattan, art galleries, sculpture gardens, theatres, dozens of trendy restaurants and bars, greenmarkets, a weekend flea and food market, and an annual food festival. Even if it feels more like an extension of northern Brooklyn, LIC offers a good first taste of Queens, especially for tourists, as it’s just one subway stop from Midtown Manhattan and there are some real standout places to eat, drink, and visit.
In terms of eating, people flock here for M. Wells Dinette and the M. Wells Steakhouse. However, I’d steer you toward LIC Market, an earnest little restaurant just a stone’s throw from MoMA PS1 on 44th Drive. Chef-owner Alex Schindler is passionate about creating internationally influenced New American dishes with local and seasonal ingredients. At any time, you may find Japanese, Italian, or Latin American influences highlighted on the ever-changing menu, but Schindler has a way of delicately wielding his seasonings so that the pure flavours of his locally-sourced main ingredients remain the most resonant in each dish. He makes a great chocolate croissant too, with just the right combination of crispy and fluffy, salty and sweet, bitter chocolate and bready elements. Other neighbourhood gems include the old-school French bistro, Tournesol, where they whip up their own homemade terrines, and its sister wine bar, Domaine, both on Vernon Boulevard. The expertly mixed signature cocktails at Dutch Kills Bar on Jackson Avenue are the best I’ve had in the neighbourhood.
As a New York City dweller, I’ve migrated from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens over the past twenty years. My first Queens neighbourhood was Astoria. I moved there back in the summer of 2001. Having lived in Rome the previous summer and Paris the summer before that, it took a while for me to embrace the simpler flavours of Greek cooking which rely heavily on olive oil, lemon, oregano, and thyme—and honey for sweetening. But nearly a decade and a half later, I will still make special trips to Astoria for a dinner of fresh catch-of-the-day fish and boiled potatoes at Elias Corner, pistachio cookies and baklava from the Greek pastry shop, Artopolis, and on occasion, Czech beer and sausages at the Bohemian Beer Hall.
Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to exploring the clusters of ethnic restaurants that jut out like constellations of deliciousness from the 7 train, the subway line that cuts across Midtown Manhattan at 42nd Street and then shoots straight through many of the best eating neighbourhoods in Queens, including where I currently live. Once predominantly populated by working class European immigrants, Irish, Italian, and German neighbourhoods like Sunnyside, Woodside, and Jackson Heights have been evolving to accommodate an influx of South and East Asian, Hispanic, and Caribbean immigrants, as well as a wave of upwardly mobile renters and first-time home buyers who are getting priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I relish the opportunity to get a proper pint and my fish-and-chips fix at pubs like Molly Bloom’s and The Dog and Duck in Sunnyside, but there’s one restaurant that surpasses the many other good ones in the neighbourhood: Takesushi. Locally, it’s said that this Japanese restaurant comes with a Park Avenue pedigree as owner, chef, and fishmonger, Robin Kawada, opened one of the first Japanese restaurants in Manhattan—on Park Avenue—more than 30 years ago.
Decades later, Kawada is still serving traditional Japanese dishes and ultra-fresh fish at his latest spot on 42nd Street in Sunnyside. His omakase selections are generous, manifesting in a seemingly endless stream of artfully executed small plates of fish and shellfish, and other seasonal ingredients. The Kaisen Don is one of my go-to dishes here. It comes in a regular and a deluxe version, each with an assortment of sashimi, a few thick ribbons of briny sea urchin, a sprinkling of salmon roe, and slices of seaweed, cucumber, and pickled ginger draped over a bed of rice with a little ball of tuna shavings—tuna surprise, as I always refer to it— tucked into the middle of the rice bowl. At Takesushi, the food is as fresh and delicious as it is tantalisingly beautiful, and sidling up to the bar to chat with Kawada can leave you feeling like you’ve just had a conversation with the interminably good-natured Socrates of sushi.
Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it
In Jackson Heights, the 35-year-old Jackson Diner is a local institution where you can fill up on a vast selection of curries, dosas, tandooris, and Indian breads, but I’ve recently been enjoying the South Indian fare at Samudra, a vegetarian restaurant opened by Jagdish Shetty, a former hotel employee who emigrated from India nearly 30 years ago and whose dream it was to eventually open his own restaurant in New York. It’s worth a trip just for the enormous dosas, which look like three-dimensional abstract art popping off your plate. If you’re feeling carnivorous, Kabab King, a Halal restaurant on 37th Road, will be more likely to satisfy. For dessert, treat yourself to a Chai tea and check out the curious array of colourful sweets at shops like Raja Sweets and Fast Food or Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks, both on 37th Avenue, or Al Naimat on 74th Street.
With the arctic throes of winter upon me, I’ve been looking to spicy foods to help boost my weathered spirits. In particular, I’ve been enjoying the spicy lime and lemongrassy fare that can be found at the Thai restaurants in Elmhurst, particularly the fragrant, meaty soups at Plant Love House on Whitney Avenue which is run by Manadsanan Sutipayakul and her daughters Benjaporn Chua and Preawpun Sutipayakul. Last time I was there I warmed up with a delightful bowl of tom yum and a rich and creamy gang gai, a spicy green curry with tender pieces of chicken and melt-in-your-mouth eggplant poured over rice vermicelli noodles and then heaped with fresh basil leaves. I finished up with a piece of dessert toast, an ambrosial brick of bread that’s drenched in butter and toasted until crisp on the outside (yet still soft and fluffy on the inside), and then drizzled with warm honey. If you’re in a hurry though, I’d recommend checking out the cafeteria-style Khao Kang, a Thai hipster steam-table joint on Woodside Avenue where you can simply point at a few different curries and stews on the steam table and it’s practically instant gratification. Afterward, wet your whistle across the street with the inspired Thai cocktails at Pata Paplean.
I have also been frequenting the Golden Mall. Its chaotic and claustrophobic little hive of food stalls with menus on the walls all written in Asian characters makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another country altogether. In the basement digs here, you can find some of the most succulent dumplings in all of New York at the Tianjin Dumpling House. When they arrive, be sure to douse them with garlic sauce, black vinegar, and chile oil. Another dish that’s not to be missed down there is the spicy cumin lamb hand-pulled noodle soup at the original Xi’an Famous Foods stall. The rich broth is infused with fiery Far East-meets-Middle East flavours, and you can watch as the hand-pulled noodle chef slaps, stretches, and tears little disks of dough into long, glutenous tendrils that will be imminently dropped into your soup.
The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America
New York City is often colloquially referred to as a “melting pot.” This cultural term was coined back in the early 1900s when waves of European immigrants were settling in New York and other American cities. The concept, which was originally put forth in a play written by Israel Zanwill, a Jew from England, was that all immigrants coming to the United States could be fused together and then forged into new American citizens.
Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. But I don’t think of my borough as a melting pot. If anything, it’s more like a hotpot, a type of stew generally prepared by placing a metal pot over a heat source in the middle of the dining table. A variety of ingredients are then added to a simmering stock inside the pot—everything from meat, offal, and seafood to vegetables, tofu, noodles, spices, herbs, and condiments. Unlike in a crucible, the contents of the hotpot don’t meld together when heated. A sliver of beef is still a piece of meat, a chile a pepper. But as the ingredients simmer together, they impart their individual flavours to the stew, and this is what makes these one-pot meals so delicious and gratifying. As I see it, the diverse ethnicities of Queens are contributing exponential depths of flavour to our borough, literally and figuratively in both the culinary and the cultural realms.
Another memorable aspect of my childhood EPCOT holiday was the relentless repetition of the saccharine tune, “It’s a Small World,” which is still etched in my mind as the soundtrack to all of my memories of the trip. Perhaps it was Disney’s attempt at subliminally reinforcing the notion that peace and understanding around the world could be gained through exposure to other nations’ art and culture—and food. Incidentally, the first time the song was ever played publicly was at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens.
In the Queens Museum, the permanent collection contains something of a shrine to the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, including a 867 sq m Panorama scale model of New York City. It is astounding to stand above it and see how big Queens is in comparison to the other four boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx—that make up New York City. (Queens covers an area of 460 sq km, Brooklyn only 250.) And yet, fifty-one years later, Queens is proving that it is a small world after all. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to deem it the number-one place to visit in the United States this year.
I’ll save a seat for you at the hotpot, just bring some chopsticks.
Jen Laskey. Photographs courtesy of the author.