i live in queens, new york. more specifically: jackson heights. i don't live in queens by necessity, but rather by choice. sure, manhattan pulses with energy. and yes, brooklyn is on the cutting edge of culture. but queens feels like home. and for someone who is obsessed with food (like i am), i couldn't think of a better place.
first the stats. queens is home to over 2 million people, of which approximately 50% are foreign-born. if you include the transient (and often undocumented) part of the population, that foreign-born stat would probably be more like 2/3. the point is: queens is diverse, representing 150 countries. my little slice of queens -- jackson heights -- is often noted to be the most diverse part of queens. diversity-squared? you get the picture.
from a food standpoint, that means you can get mexican taco trucks, chinese groceries, indian bread and vietnamese banh mi all within a 5-square block radius. when we started i heart keenwah, the first batches were developed in my kitchen here, so i guess jackson heights had a role in developing the snack. in some weird way, we fit in to the culinary diversity as well.
but on to my favorites: if you are brave enough to take the 7 train out to queens, jackson heights-roosevelt avenue is undoubtedly where you should stop.
1. mexican street food at taqueria coatzingo: mexican taco joint transports you to mexico with its humble menu. enchiladas with green tomatillo salsa, chicken with chocolatey mole sauce, and tacos with chorizo are all solid dishes. since working at i heart keenwah, i've skewed vegetarian a bit, and now crave the corn-meal cakes topped with beans and veggies: huaraches. 76th street/roosevelt avenue.
2. himalayan momos at phayul: my good friend jeffreytastes runs momo crawls in the neighborhood (where you literally try to visit and rank the dozen-plus himalayan dumpling houses in a short period of time), and phayul was dubbed the winner. it's a solid place, with a picture of the dalai lama at the cash register, and a menu full of spicy pickled vegetables, noodle soups and plump himalayan dumplings. 74th street/37th road/2nd floor.
3. indian chaat at rajbhog: jackson heights used to be known as little india into the late 90s, and rajbhog is one of the last outposts of that era. a tiny indian sweets-and-snacks shop right across from a huge indian vegetable market (subzi mandi). order a hot cup of indian chai tea, with samosa chaat, smothered in tamarind sauce, cilantro chutney and tangy yogurt. finish your visit with some sweets: my favorite is a rich piece of barfi stuffed with pistachio. 72nd street/37th avenue.
4. beer and live music at la terraza: la terraza is an events space filled with spanish-speaking student-types. the music is live and diverse, fusing jazz with latin with world music. a lot of positive energy emanating from this place, and zero pretense. beer list is slowly adopting local queens breweries, such as singlecut in astoria. off 83rd street/roosevelt avenue on gleane street.
5. soft-shell thai crabs at ayada: ayada is the type of restaurant that makes the pages of the new york times or the village voice. it's a hole-in-the-wall that's cheap and serves super authentic ethnic food. tv-chef anthony bourdain would definitely approve! stick to the spicy meat salads, thai curries and (if in season) fried softshell crab served with papaya. 77th street/woodside avenue.
6. new orleans iced coffee at espresso 77: espresso 77 is a cut above your normal indie coffee shop. the coffee on tap is nyc-based gimme! coffee -- strong and flavorful. extra points for the new orleans iced coffee (slow brewed, slightly sweet). the main draw is the community vibe. the staff is extremely friendly, and the owner is extremely supportive of local arts and musicians. the walls double as a rotating art gallery, and live music performances frequently take place. all in what-seems-to-be 500 square feet! 77th street/37th avenue.