Photo by David Cabrera.
Spicy cumin lamb burger at Xi’an Famous Foods.
Queens, New York, is a nonnegotiable must for anyone who wants to experience the world’s largest concentration of superbly crafted ethnic cuisine. With a population of more than 2.2 million, nearly half foreign-born, there’s no other place on Earth where you can cover more global food ground in as few square miles.
“There should be a separate critic for Queens,” says The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. “It could be a full-time job. It changes pretty rapidly and the people who know about it know about it because they try.” Enter Joe DiStefano, a native New Yorker who’s called Queens home for 15 years and chronicles the food scene on his blog, chopsticksandmarrow.com. Dubbed “The Guy Who Ate Queens” by New York Magazine, DiStefano serves as his borough’s de facto food critic. “Queens offers everything,” he says. “From real-deal Thai, Filipino, regional Chinese and even, of late, Tibetan food. And there’s also high-end restaurants like M. Wells Dinette and Salt & Fat in Sunnyside.”
Start your culinary tour in Flushing, home of the Golden Shopping Mall food court, where the food quality is off the charts, the ambiance is gritty and the few dozen stalls represent cuisines from all of China’s provinces. Xi’an Famous Foods is one of my favorites. In less than a decade, Jason Wang and his father, David Shi, have turned their humble food stall into a five-store mini-empire, importing the silk road-honed flavors of Xi’an. The spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles put these guys on the map, but I have never eaten a dud there.
Though Chinese make up the largest ethnic group in Queens, there are more than a hundred other countries represented. The Bukharians, who settled in what’s now Uzbekistan, poured into the borough after the fall of the Soviet Union, bringing their unique style of cooking with them. Bukharian cuisine is built around bread, and I fell head over heels for Rokhat Kosher Bakery. Several clay and brick ovens, brought piece by piece from Uzbekistan, churn out incredible Bukhara bread and, my favorite, chaat chaat loaves. The quick-hot baking method leaves the chaat chaat’s shell brittle as glass while the interior is incredibly soft.
For great Indian food, try Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing. The vegetarian restaurant specializes in dosas, and the spicy chili flecked, potato-stuffed version will compete for your attention. Go on a weekend and check out the temple, then head to the adjoining restaurant for some grub. It’s transformative.
Maima’s is a Liberian restaurant with perhaps the spiciest dish I have ever eaten in America. The full-throttle spicy crab and shrimp requires a fire hose to cool you off, but the home-cooked quality is high. Kababish is a 24-hour Pakistani kebab house that serves dishes such as katakat, a minced and griddled ginger- and cilantro-spiked offal melange that’s comfort food of the highest order. And then there’s Tawa Food in Jackson Heights, serving the most unusual and superbly crafted Nepalese fare in America. Owners Edi and Goman Thapa air-dry their own sukuti (seasoned beef) for their gorgeous food platters that look like stained-glass still lifes.
If you love food, you need to explore Queens. For me, it’s the king of the American food scene. //