For the Love of Queens

Admittedly, it’s not a borough I spend a ton of time in. When I do, I remember how Queens is a New York that is all its own, away from the insularity of Lower Manhattan and the postcard cutesy-ness of Brownstone Brooklyn. It’s the city, both the literal place, as well as what it’s come to represent, distilled to its DNA: a melting pot of people and cultures from every point on the globe.

Many neighborhoods in Queens feature distinct, bustling centers of commerce. An Indian enclave bleeds into a Latin American enclave that’s near a Korean and Chinese enclave. It’s a comprehensive world tour packed into 108 square miles. In fact, according to New York City census data, Queens is the most ethnically diverse place on the planet, where residents from 100 countries speak more than 138 languages.  A fascinating recent New Yorker article profiling the borough’s Elmhurst Hospital described how the institution, which serves 1.7 million patients a year, has become a lesson to admitting physicians in some of the most obscure diseases in the world.

If you’re making a day of it and hitting up multiple spots, Queens is best explored by car, since the borough is large, and there are only two main subway routes through its central section.

There is too much to cover in one short post, but below is a good jumping-off point for a beginner’s exploration of the borough and specifically, its food scene. And food, we can all agree, is the best form of cultural introduction.

Astoria, the most familiar to Queens’ novices, is a bustling Greek neighborhood, with casual tavernas, diners, fine dining establishments and bakeries. I loved a recent meal of traditional dips and freshly grilled porgy at Gregory’s Corner 26 Taverna. On the weekends, Ditmars Boulevard is a bustling scene of overflowing cafes. Like almost every other neighborhood in the borough, it’s not just Greek, it’s also Arab and Brazilian and Balkan.  The popular Kabab Café, run by eccentric owner Ali El Sayed  is a must-try for expertly spiced Egyptian dishes.

Nearby is Woodside, an Irish enclave with plenty of pubs, including one touted for its burger. Down the Roosevelt Avenue stretch is Jackson Heights, home to South Asian residents and businesses, including plenty of places to stock up on provisions. Further on is the Latin American section, home to taco trucks, Colombian chicken purveyors, a bakery serving delicious filled churros and the famed Arepa Lady, whose late-night arepas con queso are the ultimate post-going-out food. There’s also Rego Park, home to a large Bukharian Jewish population, making regional specialties like plov and chebureki, and Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills, with Kosher restaurants and bakeries. Bunker, a new Vietnamese restaurant in out-of-the-way Ridgewood, was recently named the best new “cheap eats” joint by New York magazine.

To really appreciate Queens, though, you must go to Flushing–NYC’s Chinese and Korean hub–on a Saturday afternoon or evening. The neighborhood, concentrated along Main Street, has the buzz of Times Square, minus the slow-walking tourists and cheesy chain restaurants. Much of the colorful store signage is in Chinese, touting noodle restaurants, Asian groceries, dumpling spots, hot-pot purveyors, skewered meat stands, bubble tea places and Asian-French bakeries, to name a few of the area’s food options. Explore Flushing’s cavernous mall food courts with these great guides. I’ve eaten at the oft-reviewed $1 duck bun stand at Corner 28, Golden Shopping Mall’s, Xi’an Famous Foods and Biang!, and all have been delicious. I have lots more exploring to do myself, clearly. Dosas, South Asian-style crepes, at the nearby Ganesh Temple’s canteen (which I’ve also tried and highly recommend) are often atop citywide best-of lists.

A special shout-out to Bagel Oasis and Brother’s Pizza in Fresh Meadows, my husband’s family’s sentimental favorites.

And we still haven’t hit Rockaway or Maspeth or Jamaica or College Point or Corona or Long Island City…

Stay tuned as I share more of the borough (and try really hard not to let the worst street configuration in the country get me down).

Apps at Kabab Café

Apps at Kabab Café

(Image via Edsel Little, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Tacqueria Coatzingo, one of the more popular taco spots in Jackson Heights. Try the lingua tacos.

Taqueria Coatzingo, one of the more popular taco spots in Jackson Heights. Try the lingua tacos.

(Image via Jason Lam, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Main Street in Flushing, Queens

Main Street in Flushing, Queens

(Image via The Eyes of New York, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

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