A Whirlwind, Round-the-World Food Tour of Queens

The $3.50 kebab was supposed to be a stopgap measure, a placeholder for a lunch that would have to wait until after an appointment in Manhattan.

Neither the foil-wrapped sandwich nor the dumpy corner shop was much to look at. But the first bite — moist ground lamb laced with onion and a jolt of spice, wrapped in pillowy naan and doused with a Pakistani cucumber-yogurt sauce — stopped me short. It was the best thing I had eaten in a month. (And, pizza slices aside, the cheapest.) I sat down to savor it, then walked across a pedestrian-clogged plaza, past a Tibetan dumpling truck and a samosa-filled shop window before entering the subway. Three stops later I was in Midtown, easily making my appointment.

I was using an easy trick for finding delicious cheap meals in New York City: Eat in Queens. Though the city’s biggest borough may be home to Kennedy and La Guardia airports, most travelers fly in and head for the glamour of Manhattan and the bright, shiny objects of hipster Brooklyn. Alas, their wallets are the lighter for it.

The kebab shop, by the way, is called Kabab King, but there’s no pressing need to jot that down. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of others of its kind, unceremoniously serving unadulterated national cuisine to working-class compatriots.

[This story is part of our package about Queens, New York City’s most diverse borough. It also includes 36 Hours in Rockaway Beach, and a review of the new TWA Hotel, by our architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman.]

Whether you’re coming from another state, or country, or (in the case of Brooklyn) world, you have two options: Choose your own adventure by hopping off the 7 train at a random stop and following your nose, or do exhaustive research. If you tend toward the latter, start by looking for Queens articles on Eater, Serious Eats, Grub Street and this publication’s Hungry City column. Then explore specialized publications like Chopsticks and Marrow, Culinary Backstreets’ Queens page, and Edible Queens. For the deepest dive of all, click on any Queens neighborhood in the vast listings of Dave Cook’s Eating in Translation blog.

Joe DiStefano, the author of 111 Places in Queens You Must Not Miss and the creator of Chopsticks and Marrow, deftly sums up the borough’s culinary appeal: “If I want to eat Thai food, I eat where Thai people live and work and play and pray: Elmhurst,” he said. “When you go there, you’re getting a huge degree of specificity. You don’t go to where the menu is an encyclopedia, you go where ‘all we do is chicken and rice.’ That analogy holds true in every neighborhood in Queens,” he added. “ ‘We’re a Korean barbecue restaurant but our specialty is kalbi. Or we do Korean sashimi or we do just porridge and we don’t care.’”

There’s far more to do in Queens than eat, which is lucky, because you certainly want to have something to do between meals. What follows is a humble sample of my recent food adventures in three areas, plus a handful of suggestions for pre- and postprandial activities.

Walk east from the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway stop, and you’ll pass Mexican taco trucks and Colombian bakeries; north, and it’s South Asian sweets shops and Himalayan momo trucks; southeast and you’ll pass a Chinese supermarket on your way to some of (most of?) the best Thai food in New York. If this is not the most diverse neighborhood in the world, it’s at least the most diversely delicious.

As you stroll, occupy yourself by shopping for saris and spices on 74th Street, admiring the prewar buildings of the Jackson Heights Historic District, or having a drink at Terraza 7, a quirky, thumb-sized Colombian bar featuring eclectic live music. But the star nonfood-related attraction is a few stops east on the 7 train: Corona’s Louis Armstrong House Museum, the place where the trumpeting legend lived for three decades, frozen in time from the 1970s and open for tours Wednesday through Sunday.

But mostly you’ll eat, which is how I lured my friends Lee and Caryn and their two teenage daughters to join me one afternoon. We met up at Diversity Plaza, an accurate, if cloying, name for the pedestrianized block of 37th Road I mentioned earlier, in the South Asian business district of Jackson Heights. Our first stop was Namaste Tashi Delek Momo Dumpling Palace, a decidedly unpalatial eatery in a dingy basement where curries are sold alongside lottery tickets. On our visit workers were tossing pallets around just off the cramped dining room.

“This is what you’ve dragged us out here for?” my friends didn’t quite say as we found a seat at a table near the counter. But then came jhol momos: tidily crimped, doughy dumplings swimming in a tomato-and-sesame broth spiced up with chiles and Nepalese hog plum powder (eight for $7). They were good, but not as much fun as the steamed beef momos ($1 cheaper), which we dressed up with three sauces of varying heat, spooned out of glasses capped with plastic coffee lids.

Jackson Heights is also known as a Colombian neighborhood, and the country’s largely chile-free, hearty and accessible cuisine includes great snack food: empanadas that pack meat or other fillings inside a fried cornmeal shell (try them at Empanada Spot, from $1.50); cheesebreads like pandebonos (Miracali, $1.25); and summertime fruit, ice and condensed milk treats called cholados for around $6. (I like the ones at Delicias Colombianas on 82nd Street near 37th Avenue.)

But I’ve been to all those places countless times, so I dragged Lee, Caryn and company to the adjoining East Elmhurst neighborhood to eat at Cali Aji, which a Colombian friend had recommended. A few eyebrows were raised (in a friendly way) when our non-Latino group goofily paraded into the small, homey spot that looks like a converted pizza shop. We feasted on sobrebarriga ($13) — a slab of brisket in a tomato-based sauce that, dressed differently, would have felt at home at a Seder or barbecue joint — and several seafood dishes. It’s also a good place to try juice made from the lulo — a citrusy fruit that looks like a persimmon on the outside and a quadrisected green tomato on the inside, and was a hit with everyone. The somewhat unlikely highlight, however, were the tostones, which were so perfectly round, hot and crisp that they even convinced Lee, whom Caryn referred to as an “avowed hater” of the fried green plantains, to reconsider.

Mexican food is tricky business in this area, where, along Roosevelt Avenue, some spots exist more as Corona dispensaries for tired workers than culinary temples. That’s why I was hesitant to take some friends to the Crus-Z Family Corp restaurant (sometimes known as Family Cruz online). But doubt faded when our server brought out warm, slightly greasy tortilla chips and dirty scarlet chile de árbol salsa that packed deliciously short-lived heat. We over-ordered — pozole and a packed cemita sandwich among our unfinished choices — but the highlight was a platter with four samples of goat tacos ($3.50 each): moist shredded barbacoa; an “enchilada” or chile-marinated version of the same; the surprisingly tasty panza (stomach); and “rellena,” coagulated blood with jalapeños and onion, my unlikely favorite.

I brought the group next to the cafe side of La Gran Uruguaya restaurant, just a few blocks away, for the most Uruguayan dessert possible: chajá ($5.25). Vanilla cake with peaches and dulce de leche is buried in nondairy whipped cream studded with chunks of meringue ($3 for a small piece). I’ve never seen it anywhere in the city except on these few blocks of 37th Avenue, where the neighborhood’s Uruguayan eateries are concentrated.

You’d need a week to explore the Thai offerings found largely in Elmhurst, but the place to start is the south side of Broadway between 81st and 82nd streets, home to two specialized restaurants, Eim Khao Mun Kai for that chicken and rice dish Mr. DiStefano mentioned, and Moo Thai Food, which serves pork only. Down the block is Lamoon, which opened last year and specializes in northern Thai cuisine and makes food writers swoon. Order anything that includes nam prik noom, a Northern Thai “young chili dip,” in the description. The ingredients of my second favorite Thai dish in town, sai aua, include an aggressively spicy sausage made with pork, pig ear, lemongrass, lime leaves and cilantro. (My favorite is miang kah-na, dried pork, onion, peanuts and chunks of peel-on lime wrapped in Chinese broccoli leaves. It’s $11 at Paet Rio on the same block, but I’m partial to the $9.95 version, spelled ming ka-na, a few blocks away at Kitchen 79.)

The two neighborhoods closest to Manhattan are also the ones you could visit even on a diet, stopping at the Museum of the Moving Image, MoMA PS1’s contemporary art exhibits, and the Noguchi Museum, dedicated to the work of the 20th-century sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Long Island City is also home to Queens’s lone Michelin star (versus 98 in Manhattan and Brooklyn) earned by Casa Enrique. It’s delicious. Skip it.

Instead, dive into traditionally Greek, now polyglot Astoria, starting with a startlingly non-greasy $8.95 pork gyro at BZ Grill or, even better, their sandwich made with loukanika, a Greek sausage stuffed with pork and leeks and fragrant with red wine. Others will tell you to hit an old school Greek taverna next, but to me the unique Astoria Greek experience is at Astoria Seafood, where I took two out-of-town visitors: my brother Jeremy and our friend Len. The day before, Jeremy told us, he had met a friend for lunch in Manhattan and had a mediocre $16 turkey burger. That was a wrong that had to be made right.

From the street, Astoria Seafood looks like an average neighborhood fish market. But the inside is as descript as the outside is non-. Boisterous lunch customers pack tables, blabbing in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Greek and English. Trays of fish line the back, and workers yak behind a counter filled with prepared dishes like spanakopita and seafood rice.

“Pull the bag inside out and use it as a glove,” the man behind the counter said, directing me to pick out my own fish, which I did: a $12 slab of swordfish, $11 for eight chunky scallops, and a bargain $4 for a slippery handful of calamari. I dropped it off with him, and minutes later, my purchase reappeared at our table, grilled and doused in olive oil, minced garlic and several jolts of vinegar. The caramelized tentacles of the squid were crunchy outside and silky inside; the swordfish was impossibly juicy. With drinks and sides, our bill came to $48: the equivalent of one lame Manhattan turkey burger each.

You could go Egyptian or Brazilian or more Colombian in Astoria, but for my next visit, I took my friends Zack and Carolina and their young kids to Ukus, an extraordinarily casual Bosnian restaurant where we were greeted, waited on, cooked for and served by the same somberly friendly man. Beverages were self-serve — we tried the Cockta soda, a citrusy, less cloying version of Dr Pepper, and thick Croatian pear juice. Ukus’s family-friendliness was tested when 5-year-old Clara began shooting spitballs, but neither our multitalented server nor the other customers batted an eye.

We shared a $6.50 begova corba, a chicken and rice soup just like what your grandmother would have made, were she Bosnian, and five beef kebab/sausages called cevapi, served inside pita bread and ready to be doused in ajvar (a red bell pepper condiment) or kajmak (a fresh cheese spread) — a bargain at $7.50.

We also had a dense dessert called a Russian hat, in this case a yellow cake buried inside shaved coconut and drizzled with chocolate syrup, but a better idea would have been to up the international quotient by heading over to Point Brazil for some tangy Brazilian passion fruit mousse ($3) and coffee.

No part of Queens presents a more bafflingly spectacular array of restaurant options than Flushing’s Chinatown and the heavily Korean neighborhood of Murray Hill, easily complemented by the digestion-aiding (or at least digestion-neutral) attractions, situated in and around Flushing Meadows Corona Park, home to the Unisphere and other less-well-maintained structures from the 1964 World’s Fair, as well as the Queens Zoo, Queens Museum and eastward, the Queens Botanical Garden. (The park is also home on Saturdays to the Queens Night Market, open April to August and for a month in the fall. It features food vendors from Norway to Singapore to Puerto Rico, and a crowd diverse in age and origin.) Flushing, a town merged into New York City in 1898, has several historic buildings you can visit on specific days, including the 17th-century Bowne House (Wednesdays), the Queens Historical Society (Tuesdays and weekends), and the Quaker Meeting House (Sundays).

I had three meals in the Flushing area, each of them nothing like the other. My first stop was a splurge, Xiang Hotpot, on the second floor of the New World Mall and, like a portal to a different universe, a palatial China-themed hall halfway between elegant and raucous, where on a Sunday night a friend and I were the only non-Asians.

The fun of a hotpot restaurant is that you cook your own food, in our case pork meatballs, pig kidney, black tofu, shrimp paste with bamboo and (because I couldn’t resist) a bullfrog. Here, the built-in pots are divided, in modified yin-yang style, allowing you to choose two soup bases including the “special spicy pot,” with chiles, Sichuan peppercorns and globs of melting beef tallow. (Beef tallow is a standard cooking fat for hotpot restaurants, just as it used to be for McDonald’s French fries and still is for Belgian street fries, for deliciously crisp results.)

The rest of the fun is that sauce bar, where you can whip up your own dipping bowls based in soy or sesame or seafood sauce, say, and adding ingredients like ground peanuts, cilantro or red chiles. Despite the near-infinite combinations, it’s really hard for even the most amateur sauce maker (me) to make something that isn’t delicious. The cost, at just over $120 for two (with tip), is a worthwhile splurge.

My guide to Murray Hill was a Korean-American dentist and Flushing local, Ester Linton, who suggested we have the knife-cut noodle soup called kalguksu at Dae Sung Kal Guk Su. That the noodles are cut (into delicate, silky strands) is an important detail, for we also ordered sujebi, a hand-torn noodle soup traditionally associated with lower classes. “Ah, you like the peasant food,” Ester told me when I indicated a preference for the sujebi. But it was actually a reaction to the variety: Whereas our kalguksu had come in plain, light broth with short-neck clams (delicious), the sujebi came with fish cakes and was jazzed up with spicy broth (more delicious). Both soups were $13.99, and were plenty for two or three.

Ester also brought us to Myung San to try ganjang gaejang ($19.95), raw crab in a fishy, salty, soy-sauce-based marinade. The dish, she explained, is known as a “rice thief,” since once the meat is gone, soaking the rice in the remaining marinade pooled in the crab shell yields results so allegedly delicious that Koreans cannot stop eating it.

I had a different reaction and declare the dish innocent of all charges, and kind of disgusting. But if everything you try in Queens suits your palate, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Seth Kugel, a frequent contributor to the Travel section, is the author of “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.”

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