The Definitive Neighborhood Guide
Just over the East River from Manhattan, the New York City borough of Queens is one the most ethnically and culturally diverse urban areas in the world. Within Queens is a remarkable microcosm at the confluence of Roosevelt Ave and Broadway, made up of bits and pieces of the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Woodside, and Elmhurst. This crossroads is a unique locale even by New York standards — a vibrant and cacophonous transection of the human race that never stops surprising.
Despite being a mishmash of several distinct nabes, because of the Jackson Heights / Roosevelt Ave transit hub, this whole geography is often referred to as Jackson Heights. For ease, this is my preferred label as well, even if it's slightly incorrect as far as neighborhood boundaries go. Within this one square mile of Queens, more than 65% of the residents are foreign-born and a staggering 167 different languages are spoken. While walking to the subway here, one might pass through "Little India," "Little Colombia," "Little Tibet," "Little Manila," a vibrant gay community, Queens' second-largest Chinatown and countless other little pockets of humanity. To no surprise, all this immigrant culture has resulted in some unbelievably good food!
Though the culinary merits of Jackson Heights are well documented by way of Andrew Zimmern, Joe DiStefano and of course Anthony Bourdain, I've spent a shameful amount of time and money eating my way through it in the time I've lived here. If you're a first time visitor to this part of Queens, Jackson Heights is a kaleidoscope of languages, eateries, vendors and street foods accented by the roar of the 7 train overhead. It's a fascinating assault on the senses that is not to be missed. As a photographer, I find the place endlessly inspiring and, as a gluttonous world traveler, all of my favorite places to eat are within a stone's throw of my apartment. There's no place in New York I'd rather live.
Before we get into the meat of this — what to expect and what not to expect.
First, don't think restaurants, think eateries. You will be waited on at many of these establishments but don't expect stellar service. In the US, the service culture is so ingrained that patrons often get irate if a service person isn't bending over backwards for them. Don't expect anything more than the most basic level of service eating out in this part of Queens. Most of these places are simple establishments that are all about the food and the community and not creating a memorable dining experience. Don't even expect English to be spoken. Instead, you might find yourself ordering your food by way of poking and grunting. A little patience and a sense of humor go a long way. It’s part of the fun of traveling in far-off lands and equally part of the fun exploring the comfort foods of New York City’s recently arrived.
Second, think Asia and South America. While you can get high-quality meals from literally any part of the world somewhere in Queens, in Jackson Heights the two continents currently best represented are Asia and South America. There are a few places for burgers, pizza and other easy American fare but most aren't great. Nearby Astoria has some excellent European and Middle Eastern fare. However, if you want Thai, Vietnamese, Nepali, Bhutanese, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Salvadorian, Peruvian, Dominican, Colombian, or Brazilian, then you're in the right place.
Third, while conducting this "study" I was looking for three things — authenticity, tastiness, and value. I've traveled in many of these countries so I know what the food should taste like. The real challenge is, can the skill of the local chefs make it taste as good as it should? It shouldn't break the bank either. While many of these places are pretty reasonable, some are a little overpriced for what it is. Expect $10 an entree on average, a bit cheaper than eating in Manhattan or Brooklyn. There are a few real bargains which I'll call out, but the problem is if you're like me, you want to try everything on the menu (for "research") and can easily rack up a $30 tab in no time.
So how to tackle this beast?
First we head a few short blocks west into Woodside proper to sample some divine Salvadorian fare at Izalco, la Casa de las Pupusas 64-05 Roosevelt Ave.
Pupusas are soft, not overly greasy, corn cakes, stuffed with cheese, beans or pork and served with pickled cabbage and hot sauce. A plato tipico in the Salvadorian style comes with some beans, rice, avocado, a bit of cheese, sausage, sweet plantains and maybe chicharron. Two pupusas with all the fixings here will set you back $14 and keep you full for most of the day. But we're only just beginning.
Scoot one block north to 39th Ave. skipping Sri Pra Phai (more on that later) and walking a block west to Thailand's Center Point 63-19 39th Ave. The wizard in the kitchen here is a sweet old lady who I've heard will make you any Thai dish you ask for, even if it's not on the menu. That is if you can ask for it in Thai! In a town where authentic pad thai in the Bangkok street style is notoriously hard to find, hers pretty much sticks to the script. However, that's hardly the best thing on the menu. Everything I've tried here is rock solid but my go-to is the Thai 5 Star BBQ chicken with sticky rice. Get this with the soft shell crab salad or crispy papaya salad for an amazing and relatively cheap meal.
Afterwards walk across the street to the Thai convenience store and get a Thai M-150 energy drink because it's going to be a long day. I'm not entirely sure these are fully legal in the US as I've heard they contain some form of liquid nicotine. I can attest that if you drink the whole thing at once you will almost certainly have heart palpitations.
Next it's a short jaunt to along Roosevelt heading east to Little Manila's Ihawan Restaurant 40-06 70th St., one of my favorite spots in the whole hood. This place is hiding in plain sight, tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript residential building on a side street. I'm not super into Filipino food but this is the absolute best I've ever had. Everything on the menu is good — curried oxtail, sizzling sisig — but the best is the banana leaf feast which I recall is about $15 a person.
The best part about banana leaf dining is that the proper way to eat it is with your hands! Messy, delicious fun. I love this place. Also just as good is Renee's Cafe which is right around the corner and has an extensive menu of cheap Filipino favorites.
Now let's walk (or roll rather?) east towards the intersection of Broadway and Roosevelt, the heartland of the neighborhood. Along the way there are many places to eat. Most are mediocre (Himalayan Yak!) Just because a restaurant isn't mentioned in this article doesn't mean I haven't eaten there. I've sampled the wares at pretty much every establishment in the area and am now disclosing only those that are IMO, the best of the best. Or the worst. Let's keep going.
This is where our trajectory gets a little scattershot but after eating all this restaurant food, surely you're in the mood for some street meat. There are lots of options and no better place than Sammy's Halal Food.
Every New Yorker knows the Halal cart deal. Chicken and rice, lamb and rice, combo and rice, falafel and rice. It's all just some kind of greasy junk on rice covered with a thin mayonnaise and hot sauce. While not overly imaginative and usually hideous to look at, it certainly hits the spot, especially after a few beers. It's also still one of the cheapest meals in NYC and at Sammy's, $6 will fill you up nicely. I don't know what's different about this cart other than the cilantro based green sauce option or why it's so good but it just is. People come all the way out here just to eat Sammy's.
Next we cross the street to Potala Fresh Food for Tibetan momo's. Momo's aren't that much different than any other Asian dumpling but these are so tasty and at $5 for eight steamed, beef-filled pillows, this is hands down the best deal in the entire neighborhood.
While we're doing Tibetan, let's go around the corner to Phayul 37-65 74th Street. There are many Tibetan restaurants in this part of Queens and most them are really just bad Indian restaurants with a few Tibetan items on the menu. Phayul helped me see the light on Tibetan food. This is the real deal. First of all, it's on the second floor and no one inside speaks English. These are always good signs.
Above the eyebrow threading salon and up a seriously shady hallway is the best Tibetan food in New York City. Laphing, wiggly mung bean jelly noodle type things, are interesting but not great. Anything that has beef in it here is delicious, especially the fiery tongue!
Back down the stairs and we're in the middle of Diversity Plaza, the epicenter of Queens' Little India and Himalayan community. Indian food around here is a surprising mixed bag. There are a handful of really good, authentic eateries but the first places you're likely to hear about (i.e., Jackson Diner) are tailored to western tastes and aren't spectacular. There are so many buffets and sweet shops on 73rd and 74th that do up the Northern Indian and Pakistani stand by's — meat and veg curries, saag paneer, daal, rice and naan. I'm not crazy about any of them except Delhi Heights 37-66 74th Street.
Heading north one block, we're now on 37th Ave, a very long commercial thoroughfare that while gentrifying, is doing so at a glacially slow pace compared to other parts of New York. Gradually the South Asian sari, paan stands and green grocers are being picked off by Starbucks, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts and the like. Fortunately, corporate interests have a long way to go here and the street still has a lot of character.
This is one of the few areas of the city where you can get extremely authentic Southern Indian food, which is totally different than what's eaten in the north. They use more coconut instead of milk and cream and "breads" made of lentils and rice stand in for wheat-based naan and chapatis. Dosa Delight 35-66 73rd St is a great place to get a taste. I love this restaurant, the spicy, tropical flavors and stainless steel tableware really take me back to traveling in the south of India. No buffet though!
Now let's take a healthy stroll east along 37th Ave towards the more Latin part of the neighborhood. There's a Rite Aid along the way if you need some Pepto Bismal. Our destination is the La Gran Uruguaya 85-06 37th Ave for a strong coffee, Spanish tortilla and refreshing ensalada de frutas. I hope your Spanish is good because not a soul in here speaks English. This place is just like sitting at a lunch counter in Montevideo. And just like in Uruguay, they have a mate gourd waiting for you if you only ask.
Now a quick jaunt south down 85th back towards Roosevelt where many Latin gut busters await. My favorite cuisine of the lot is Colombian and one of the best places, Cositas Ricas, is right around the corner. The juice counter and the tiny bar with the guy making cocktails gives this place such an authentic vibe. Everything on the menu is delicious but the Super Bandeja is where it's at — carne asada, chicharron, sausage, beans and rice, avocado, fried eggs, sweet plantains and arepas. Similar to an Ecuadorian plato but with different combinations of items. The vinegary Colombian hot sauce is what really sets it apart.
Heading back west, let's stop at one last Colombian joint for some refreshing sausages before we go to East Asia. Los Chuzos 79-01 Roosevelt Ave, chicken kebabs and sausage with spicy mayonnaise and an arepa or two, washed down with a fresh squeezed tropical juice. Very tasty. Very cheap. This is a mostly a late night place to sop up the booze.
I don't know about you but I could really use a taco or four right about now. There are so many taco stands and Mexican restaurants on Roosevelt Ave. Most are decent but I have two go-to spots.
If you want a sit-down Mexican meal or any kind of antojitos, Taqueria Coatzingo 7605 Roosevelt Ave is the place but their claim to fame is tacos al pastor. They're the best I've had on the East Coast. Even friends from LA are impressed. There's a spit of roasting meat in there with a pineapple on top and a guy slicing it all up. Totally legit, they even serve it with the little grilled whole onions just like in Mexico. This place will knock your socks off.
How about a few more? Tacos de cecina y lengua anyone?
This is my taco stand. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Roosevelt @ 75th in front of the Chase bank. Is it any better than the two across the street? Hard to say. I just like this one because the ladies that run it are so nice. Everything they make is hot, fresh, delicious and extremely hygienic. It's also ridiculously cheap.
One final Latin spot and also maybe the tastiest. In Brazil, "Por Kilo" restaurants are very popular. They serve tons of different fresh churrasco (BBQ), hot sides and cold salads. You make up a plate, weigh it at the counter, pay and eat. Fast and easy but much higher quality than a buffet. Aroma Brazil 75-13 Roosevelt Ave is the neighborhood's first and only Brazilian Por Kilo joint and it's also a great value. Other than the BBQ, they do a good feijoida a couple times a week which is fun. Along with the juice and desert counter, Portuguese in the air and soccer on TV, you'd think you're in Rio or Sampa here.
We're about halfway through this madness. South Asia and South America — check. Now it's time to explore some East Asian flavors. How's everybody doing? We're a few blocks away from Elmhurst hospital which has one of the best trauma ward's in the city if anyone is verging on cardiac arrest. Let's walk southwest a few blocks towards the subway station for our first eastern cuisine and one of the best represented in the neighborhood, Vietnamese.
Confusingly called Thai Son 40-10 74th Street, there's not a single Thai item on this menu. There are a few of these restaurants around New York City actually but the one out here is IMO, the best. The Canh Chua (sweet and sour catfish soup) and Thit Bo Cuon La Luop (beef wrapped in grapeleaves) are the best things on the menu at Thai Son. They do a good pho too but there's a better place for that.
So much more to eat .. From here, let's shuffle our bloated, distended bodies south down Broadway for some incredible Chinese, Thai and Southeast Asian food. Technically, we're now in Elmhurst Chinatown but it's so close I'm including it in the Greater Jackson Heights area. First up, Eim Khao Mun Kai 81-32 Broadway, a place with only one thing on the menu (always a good sign) — Hainanese chicken. Originally from South China, this simple, satisfying dish is now made all over Southeast Asia but the Thais do it best. Perfectly cooked and mildly flavored chicken, ginger rice, chicken soup and incredibly fiery hot sauce. That's all there is to it.
A few more blocks to the south is Coco 82-69 Broadway, one of my top five places to eat in all of NYC. Extensive Malaysian menu of hard to find items, massive portions and incredibly cheap to boot. The noodle soups are my fav, their Curry Laksa takes just like Singapore. Close your eyes and you're there. They do a mean Assam Laksa as well. Beef rendang, roti canai and nasi lemak are all divine. I've never had a bad meal here.
Below is Ice Cacang aka Air Batu Campur aka ABC, a ridiculously tasty Malaysian shaved ice confection of syrup, condensed milk, sweet beans, peanuts, corn and a few other things. Shaved ice deserts are on the menu at Coco and if you ask for ABC, they'll happily make it for you. A little knowledge and friendliness in this part of town really goes a long way.
There's an ongoing dispute about who makes the best Thai food in Queens — Sri Pra Phai or Chao Thai. Sri Pra Phai is a massive place; factory-like and churning out overly sweet, mushy dishes tweaked for American palettes. It's true their garden is a lovely place to have a meal when the weather is nice but the food isn't anything special. Chao Thai 85-03 Whitney Ave, on the other hand, seats about 10 and is hideously lit by greenish overhead fluorescents. The decor was dated 20 years ago but none of that matters. I've eaten at all 33 of the Thai restaurants in this part of town and Chao is the tastiest, most authentic, and also the best value. Whenever you're in a hole in the wall run by a sweet old Thai lady running around in an apron, what you're about to eat is going to be delicious. Chao is that place.
They do a lot of dishes at Chao that you won't find in other Thai restaurants, like pig blood soup, lots of offal dishes, fish head, frog legs, and raw shrimp salad but my favorite is their khao kha moo, or pig leg on rice with Chinese greens. This dish and the Cowboy Lady of Chiang Mai, who supposedly makes it better than anyone, were made famous by Anthony Bourdain. I've eaten the khao kha moo at her stand and while it is knock-your-socks-off good, Chao Thai's is nothing is scoff at.
Across the street from Chao is an odd place. Well, odd for Queens anyways — a strip mall with an actual parking lot. There are no Five Guys or Cold Stone Creameries to be found here, though. Instead there are two Vietnamese places, a Chinese restaurant, pharmacy, grocery and dim sum place, a Thai restaurant and a Malaysian joint. After sunset it's also crawling with street carts hawking Chinese curries and BBQ.
The beef pho at Pho Bac 82-78 Broadway is actually slightly better than at Thai Son. This place is also open until 11 for late night noodle benders whereas most places around here close up at 9. They also do a pretty good banh mi. Though if it's open and not too crowded, JoJu down the street is way better.
Pho Bac is the only place I've found that does a really tasty, really authentic Bun Cha Hanoi. This dish consists of grilled pork, cucumber, peanuts and pickled radish drowned in fish sauce. It's served with fresh lettuce, mint, cilantro leaves and the all important cold rice noodles. You put the meat, noodles and herbs in the lettuce, pour on some fish sauce and gobble it up. This is a dish like no other and is insanely popular for lunch in its city of origin, so much so that this is what Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama dined on at their chance encounter in Hanoi, Vietnam. Roads & Kingdoms has a good article on the dish.
In front of the strip mall are a variety of street carts hawking Chinese foods Juicy, cumin coated lamb on skewers, tastes just like Xi'an in Northern China! At $1.50 for a big skewer, this is another ridiculously cheap and tasty meal in the hood.
So close! The end is in sight. JoJu 83-25 Broadway, this place only does banh mi and fries but they do them lots of different ways. This is a deadly good banh mi sandwich and the addition of fries on the side is a nice touch. My go-to is the classic — Vietnamese ham, pate, head cheese, mayo, cucumber, pickles carrot and daikon, cilantro on a toasted baguette. That and Loaded Kimchi Fries make for a true gut buster that will leave you riddled with guilt if you didn't run a 10k or spend at least an hour at the gym in the morning.
I'm including Taiwanese Gourmet 8402 Broadway because it's something a little different than the average Chinese food in the neighborhood. The food is very authentic, it's cheap, there's parking and the place is open late. If you're already well versed with the standard Mainland fare, this is a good place to try something new. Taiwanese standby' like ginger chicken, duck tongues, pig blood rice cake and oyster omelete are all on the menu.
For the final leg of this outlandish journey, we need to get over to nearby Woodside Ave. It's not far but walking could result in intestinal rupture, so perhaps an Uber is a good idea. Hopefully, no one will explode in the guy's car.
First stop is another of my Top Five's — Khao Kang 76-20 Woodside Ave. Modeled after the night market curry buffet experience in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and other Thai cities, they cover a plate in white rice and then ladle on three items of your choosing. It's about half the same daily dishes — red curry, green curry, voon sen noodles, bbq pork — and a revolving cast of new ones, so there's lot's of variety to choose from. Have your plate with a fried egg for a true Thai night market experience. $10 for three items and one egg. They also do really nice Thai sweet drinks and desserts. The family that owns and operates Khao Kang is lovely and has given it that warm sense of hospitality the Thai's are famous for.
Indonesian food, while sharing some DNA with Thai and Malaysian, is definitely its own thing and one of the more underrepresented in the city. Upi Jaya 7604 Woodside Ave is no frills and the lady who runs it is a little grumpy but expect a delicious meal. Have we already had nasi goreng today? I'm dizzy so can't remember. It's Indonesia's take on fried rice but exceptionally delicious and these guys make it superbly. It's best paired with rendang padang, big chunks of beef cooked in coconut and hot spices for ages over low heat. It practically disintegrates in your chopsticks.
If you're not on fire yet, you surely will be now. I've saved the most masochistic dining experience for last. Time for some Bhutanese at Ema Datsi 67-21 Woodside Ave, an uncommon cuisine to find outside of the country. From high in the frosty Himalayas comes ema datsi, the namesake dish that's actually little more than green chilies stir fried with yak's milk cheese and served with a hot sauce made from what else but red chilies. This is the hottest food I've ever eaten and it about killed me so what better way to end our food tour than with our actual death?
Below is a Bhutanese set. On the left, ema datsi, the national dish of green chilies, onion and a little tomato stir fried with yak's milk cheese. On the right, cheese soup, fermented chilies, ema datsi with the addition of salted, dried beef and red rice to sop it all up. I lost about 10 pounds in sweat eating this meal. It was $20 for all this food and putting the body through such trauma surely must have some therapeutic value worth far more than that.
28 restaurants and a nice chunk of cash later, the insanity is finally over but you and I live on to keep going with this madness another day, to satisfy an insatiable urge to eat our way through this remarkable part of New York City. I'm of the Anthony Bourdain school of thought that food is the bridge between cultures and there's no better place to cross those bridges than here.
Sik Gaek Korean BBQ 49-11 Roosevelt Ave. In the shadow of the 7 train and a taxi wreck lot is this gem. This is a fun place to go with a big group. Expect for a big bill as well and to wait for awhile to be seated. I can't include it in my list because it's in Sunnyside and quite a ways away from the main action.
The craziest thing you'll eat here is the octopus which is served alive basically. Some guy brings a nice plump little guy to the table and with a pair of sharp shears, cuts the legs into bite sized pieces onto a plate of raw peppers and garlic. It's not "good" but it's certainly an interesting dining experience feeling the tentacles wriggle around in your mouth as you chew. Order this for friends who don't see it coming for a real sadistic surprise. The "Living Lobster" hot pot is another shocker. Tasty but disturbing!
Taste Good 82-18 45th Ave, is a solid, no frills Malaysian spot with a die hard fan base. The stuffed tofu curry noodle soup is the best thing on the menu.
Donovan's! 57-24 Roosevelt Ave. This is Woodside's proper "Old Man Pub." A little far from "the triangle" but a nice place for a drink or two, brunch on the weekend and the burger is consistently rated one of the best in the entire city. Donovan's is a throwback to Woodside's Irish roots and one of the few places you can get very good American fare around here.
Back in the day, starting with a modest cart among the taco trucks, the famous Arepa Lady now has a brick & mortar restaurant at 77-02 Roosevelt Ave. These greasy, cheesy corn griddle cakes are admittedly delicious but they sit in the belly like a ball of lead. I realize there is a lot of heavy fare on my list but these are just too much for me. I also don't do lactose so that prohibits 90% of the menu. The arepa lady has been around forever though and do a Jackson Heights food blog without at least mentioning her would be sacrilege.
Flushing, Queens! If you want Chinese food, just get on the 7 and go to Flushing. The most fun place there is the food court in the basement of the New World Mall. Every stall is a different regional Chinese cuisine. This place has been visited by more food TV shows and personalities than can be counted and for good reason,, there's no place in New York City quite like it.
Astoria, Queens! 1.5 miles to the west is the bustling, prosperous neighborhood of Astoria. Long established, there are many great places to eat here, especially for the less adventurous or those craving more typical Western meals. Lots of cocktail bars these days and other nice date night spots which are hardly to be found in Jackson Heights.
All these great places, surely there must be some bad ones as well. Actually way more than can fit on this page. Here are a few that are associated with Jackson Heights that IMO should be looked past.
Ah the famous Sri Pra Phai. Everything served in here is so sweet it could induce diabetic shock. There was a time I thought this place was the best and then I went to Thailand and learned what Thai food is supposed to taste like — the subtle balance and interplay between the five flavor profiles is nowhere to be found on this menu. Go two blocks west to Thailand's Center Point instead.
Ayada 77-08 Woodside Ave is like Sri Pra Phai but smaller. This place is really popular with people who come to the neighborhood is search of good Thai but aren't aware of the some of the more authentic options like Chao, Boon Chu, 8 Paet Rio, or Ploy.
Another Jackson Heights go-to that just isn't anything special. The Jackson Diner's buffet is a machine and the giant dining hall is usually half empty these days which feels weird when you're stuffing your face at the buffet.
When New Yorkers think of Tibetan restaurants they sadly think of the Himalayan Yak. This isn't a Tibetan restaurant but rather a mediocre Indian one. The food is not good in any way but the decor is fun and they do a live band every now and again that's pretty cool. If you want Tibetan, there are many better choices but Phayul is the way to go.
Emoji Burger is a new place on gentrifying 37th Ave that's trying to fill the void for Western food but it's nothing special and if you want a good burger, go to Donovan's or F. Ottomanelli instead.
Kabab King is as gross as it looks. Unfortunately, it's the first thing you see when you get off the train so a lot of people end up eating here. I actually know people who swear by it. Those people are nuts. It's only real selling point is that a lot of cabbies hang out in here after their shifts and the place can get pretty lively, especially in the middle of the night. It's kind of a weird transport to the subcontinent if you come at certain hours of the day.
Kababish, is another place made unjustifiably famous by Andrew Zimmern. This is just a little curry house, standing room only and nothing special. Yes they have a tandoor in the window and the naan is incredibly fresh but the appeal of Kababish has always escaped me.
That's all I've got for this one. I had no intention of writing such an exhaustive neighborhood guide but these projects always take on a life of their own. If you're looking for a great place to eat in this part of Queens and have stumbled upon this article, then the effort was worth it. Thanks for stopping by.