Double Happiness at Merit Kabob and Dumpling Palace
There's only one place I know where you can get Bangladeshi trotter stew and Tibetan spiced tripe in the same room, and that's Merit Kabob and Dumpling Palace, an accurately named compound restaurant in Jackson Heights. Skip down the stairs from the 7 train, and the brightly lit spot sits smack in front of you, with a take-out window looking onto the street.
Don't be put off by the giant piles of weirdly uniform fried shrimp, unnaturally blond onion rings, and goopy buffalo wings displayed in the window. Each time I go, they seem totally unchanged, perhaps waiting for a troop of drunk kids that never arrives. You'd be a fool to fill your belly with that stuff when the two restaurants that occupy the space offer such tasty food otherwise. The first counter—on your left as you walk in—is a Bangladeshi kitchen called Merit Kabob Palace, a South Asian diner of sorts with a long steam table, two microwaves, and a small tandoori oven glowing in one corner. The second, smaller booth in the back is called, variously, Dumpling Palace, Tashi Delek Momo, or Namaste, owned by a Nepali family that offers Nepalese, Tibetan, and Bhutanese specialties. Neither spot could be called the very best restaurant of its kind in the city, but the food is satisfying in the homemade manner: flavorful, cheap, and generous in every way.
The lively, bare-bones room is mainly populated with tables of young men, almost all chowing down on biryani. Toward the back, families share Nepali thalis and big bowls of noodle soup. A television on one wall plays Bollywood movies with English subtitles. One night, I set up a group of hungry friends at one table and went over to order our first round of dishes at Merit Kabob. The fellows who man the tandoor and counter are exceedingly friendly, and also patriotic: A picture of the pyramidal monument to those who died in the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan adorns almost every surface.
I asked for keema naan, the flatbread stuffed with heavily seasoned ground meat, flaky lachaparatha, and onion kulcha. The tallest man grabbed rounds of dough and shaped them between his palms—smack, smack, smack—before slapping them onto the inside wall of the tandoor for a brief, hot grilling. Warm and pliant, those breads are highlights of an evening at Merit. The keema naan is particularly fine, almost a meal in itself, the puffy bread harboring a thin layer of turmeric-stained, garlicky chicken.
It's a kabob palace after all, so you won't want to neglect the grilled meats. The slightly charred cylinders fashioned from ground chicken and flecked with onion are wonderfully juicy, as are the heavily spiced chapli kabobs—so called for their flat appearance similar to a shoe, or chapal. Both are flavor-bombs, still hinting at the smoky taste of the grill although they're briefly microwaved before serving.
Everyone's eating biryani for good reason. Although the rice is less fluffy than the ideal, these pilafs are shot through with whole black cardamom pods, green chilies, bay leaves, and bits of cinnamon bark, to aromatic effect. So popular are the biryanis that large platters of them sit within easy reach of the counterman, and empty quickly. They come in chicken, goat, shrimp, beef, or vegetable versions, although the goat triumphs, replete with bone-in hunks of the tender, musky meat. Don't forget to suck out the marrow.
While breads, kabobs, and biryanis are the specialties, you'll see scads more food on the prolific steam table. (Steam tables get a bad rap—sometimes deservedly so—but they also make sense. No one in their right mind braises goat feet to order.) There's even a section devoted to Desi-Chinese food, or the foods that Chinese immigrants adapted for Indian tastes, a cuisine that's wildly popular across the subcontinent. Once you've had Desi-Chinese—tart, spicy, sugary—you'll crave it forever. I sucked down Merit's vinegary chicken chili in no time, a sweet and hot dish of fried chicken and peppers in a fluorescent red sauce. Sure, it's junky, but, oh, it is delicious. There's also a credible goat paya, the trotter stew popular in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here, it's more about the spiced, thickly cartilaginous gravy than the feet themselves, which are nearly bare of meat.
I could go on about Merit Kabob Palace's comforting Bangladeshi cooking, but we have to move on up to the Himalayas, and a few feet over to Dumpling Palace. Momos—the dumplings of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan—get star billing for good reason. These are juicy specimens, spurting broth on the first bite almost the way a soup dumpling does. The beef rests loose and bovine beneath the chewy skin, but the chicken is better still, shot through with zingy ginger. Dip them into the homemade chile sauce. Beware the vegetarian momos, though, which are soggy and lack seasoning.
Dumpling Palace also has a steam table, shorter than its neighbor's, and filled with a half-dozen or so dishes, including spiced honeycomb tripe stewed to tenderness, and shapta beef, composed of chewy beef slices in a dry masala with chilies and coriander. There's also a nice selection of thupka, noodle soups with vegetables, beef, chicken, and mutton. The soups are agreeably simple, with mild, fresh-tasting stock and springy wheat noodles.
For a side dish, don't miss the achar, or pickle, including one composed of daikon radish and cucumber. It's pungent with mustard oil and turmeric, with a bitter-tart intensity balanced by the vegetables' sweet, refreshing quality.
Like Merit Kabob, Dumpling Palace is proud—adorned with the Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese flags. And, like its compatriot, it's friendly and neighborly, prominently displaying its Halal Certification, as well as a sticker that reads: "I heart Buddhism." Only in Queens.
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