Some of the most diverse neighborhoods on the entire planet, Jackson Heights, Woodside, and Elmhurst (all in Queens, NY) are also home to an ever-changing mosaic of immigrant communities, cultures, and cuisines.
On Wednesday, Local Pickins took Jeffery Tastes’ “Queens Tastes of the World” tour and explored this culinary metropolis. In one afternoon, we sampled Filipino, Nepalese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Tibetan, Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian food. Jeff gave us the lay of the land, history both international and hyper-local, and even a little primer on the state of food truck regulation and the black market in street vendor permits (attention fellow food policy nerds!)
Here’s what happened:
We hop on the subway from Brooklyn up to Jackson Heights. Stepping off the 7 train, we meet our tour guide, Jeff, a casually dressed local hailing originally from Long Island. He informs us that we’ll be visiting nine different establishments from different countries, and sampling the food at each.
Our first stop, Fiesta Grill, is a few blocks away in the heart of Little Manila, Woodside. This place has Turo-Turo style dining, a type of Filipino fast food that means “point-point”. From the bubbling vats of curries, meats, and rice, Jeff selected a white curry dish and rice for us.
It’s Ginataang Langka, a Jackfruit curry, with coconut milk, prawns, and “Long Hot Peppers”, and it’s delicious; sweet and spicy with a well balanced consistency.
Our appetites piqued, we made our way to Dhaulagiri Kitchen, a combination Nepalese café and Roti factory. Here, we sit down to Thali, a platter with various pastes, dried beef, pickled vegetables, peppers and dal, served on a stainless steel circular plate, with a bowl of rice in the middle.
Jeff tells us this is the most popular way you’ll eat at Nepalese restaurants, and the chef here serves their Thali with whatever dishes they’ve decided to whip up that day. We’d never had Nepalese food before, and found it similar to Indian food, but earthier and saltier. The dried, spiced, sauced beef is incredible.
Jeff tells us that this space began as just as a roti factory supplying the different Himalayan restaurants in the city. Roti is Himalayan style bread, similar to chapatti in Indian cuisine. We bought some paratha roti on the way out for later devouring.
Around the corner, we find Kebabish Pakistani, where we find spicy chicken kebab rolls waiting for us. This place roasts their kebab (ground, spiced meat prepared according to muslim Halal practices) in a clay oven, and the proprietor shows us how they stretch their pita dough over round baking stones before lowering them into an oven to bake.
After this baking demonstration, we take a detour to a Nepalese store/travel agency selling everything from electronics, media, and phone cards to statues, incense and prayer rugs. Here we try dried yak cheese, which looks like muddy cave rocks and has a taste that may take some time to acquire….!
We stop next outside of Café Taj at a brightly colored stall, about the size of a speaker’s podium. We’re here for Jhal Muri, Bangladeshi street food made of rice crisps, mustard oil, and various vegetables and spices. It tastes like spicy and savory breakfast cereal and seems perfect for a late night snack after the bars close.
For our next detour, Jeff lead us through 74th street, the most famous in Jackson Heights, where Indians-Americans and tourists of all stripes come from all over the northeast for a taste of India. This was a local’s tour, so fittingly we bypassed the famous tourist spots and walk into the only non-Indian storefront on the block. Walking through a cell phone retailer and then through a travel agency to a back room, we find Tibetan Mobile2, a stellar Momo joint. Momo are steamed Tibetan dumplings and perhaps the only Tibetan food that one can eat “on the go.” Jeff took us into the kitchen to watch the chef prepare our next meal.
While we dipped our Beef Momo in chili sauce and vinegars, Jeff gave us a mini-lecture on the Tibetan Diaspora. According to Jeff, most Tibetans you’ll meet will actually say they are from China, India, or Nepal, because of rampant displacement caused by the Chinese government, which has occupied Tibet since 1950.
Afterwards we tried some butter tea, which is exactly what it sounds like— black tea with butter, milk, spice and sugar. A hearty, salty, filling drink for trekking through the Himalayas.
Our next jaunt brought us into a discernibly different neighborhood. I begin to notice that all the storefronts and billboards suddenly change to Spanish. Jeff brings us to El Guayaquileno Mini Picanteria, an Ecuadorian food truck where we try Quaker, an oatmeal based drink mixed with Passion fruit. It is the sunrise in a cup: smooth, sweet, and tart, with the consistency of a light milkshake. We drain it ravenously and sally forth.
8. We stop at the bottom of the stairs for the 82nd st. 7 train to visit a tamale vendor with an impressive crowd waiting for her blessings. Her sacraments are perfectly cooked, moist tamales (we have ones with Mole sauce and pork filling), sweet hot rice drink and a spiced hot chocolate. Jeff tells us this cart is frequently cited by police for lacking proper permitting and setting up right below the subway exit, but nobody, including us, seems to care.
By this point, we are almost bursting with fullness, but we press ahead!
Our next stop is Las Delicias de Pandebono Colombian, a Colombian bakery known for their specialty Pandebono, a baked cheese pastry. It’s both sweet and cheesy, with a secret ingredient known only to the head baker that I can’t quite put my finger on. It was like eating a sweet and a savory breakfast pastry all at once.
Now we reach Ray’s Famous BBQ, a food tuck known for its Flaming Pork Belly Satay, a Filipino preparation of BBQ on a stick. The pork is tangy, perfectly seared, and tender on the inside.
Our final stop is at Broadway Bakery, a Peruvian lunch spot representative of the huge influx of Peruvians to Queens at the present moment. Here we partake in Chaufa, a spicy garlic fried rice dish and Emoliente, a flax oil drink with the consistency of egg yolk known to be great for digestion and tasting like a subtle, tart jello.
We can honestly say that we’ve never experienced half as diverse a smorgasbord in a single day as we covered in one afternoon with Jeff. On top of that, the tour barely feels like a tour at all, more like a visit to a fascinating, vibrant neighborhood with a new friend who loves to share his favorite spots to eat. Jeff is full of great conversation, peppering the tour with a mix of international history, local gossip, and urban geography.