Jackson Diner: Next Stop Greenwich Village
The so-called kachori chat at the new Jackson Diner -- no kachori in sight, but good nonetheless.
Long ago and far away (well, Jackson Heights, Queens), there was once a tiny café called Jackson Diner. The proprietors had taken over a Greek diner near the corner of 74th Street and 35th Avenue, and transformed the menu to meet the dining needs of Indians from every corner of the country, who were fond of shopping at the specialty groceries and sari purveyors in the vicinity and needed a snack or a meal.
A picture-perfect garlic naan was strangely served with a side of ... hummus!
In doing so, the diner was one of the first places in the city to serve the vegetarian menu of southern India, including dosas, iddlies, and utthapams. (The only previous place was an Indian franchise near the United Nations called Madras Woodlands.) For Indian food aficionados accustomed mainly to meaty Punjabi and Bangladeshi fare, this meatless cuisine came as a brain-distorting revelation.
The original Jackson Diner served meaty northern fare, too, of a fresher-tasting sort than the steam-table joints of East 6th Street. Indeed, as the Age of Foodism dawned in the mid-'90s, Jackson Diner was clearly the best cheap Indian restaurant in the city.
Well, as often happens, the place got a swelled head and moved into a far larger space on the same block, closer to the subway. The new space was dramatic and modernistic and obviously designed by someone who thought of himself as an interior designer, and the old restaurant's sense of intimacy and quaintness was entirely lost. The food wasn't quite as good either, though, as compensation, Jackson Diner mounted a large and magnificent buffet that became the standard by which all others are judged.
Although we ordered goat vindaloo, the waiter brought chicken vinadaloo instead -- but it was properly spicy and generously portioned.
The lacha paratha was photogenic, but kind of a dud, taste-wise.
As is common today, the management decided to franchise, and the result is a new restaurant with the same name -- exploiting the notoriety promulgated by Chowhound and other websites -- located on University Place in Greenwich Village. But such a repositioning, alas, can't occur without a substantial tinkering with the menu, as we've seen recently at Manhattan's Lotus of Siam, and earlier at the short-lived DeMarco's.
So, out goes the vegetarian south Indian menu. Entirely. And a handful of frankly odd dishes have been added. This is only a first look, however, at a place that's only been open a few days, so don't take this assessment as gospel.
I immediately leapt for some of the oddities, which included the first item on the appetizers list, "kachori chat" ($5). The outlines of this dish will be familiar to many Indian food fans: globular green-pea fritters in a nest of onions, crunchies, and chutneys. Instead, there were six small pastry cups made of Greek filo, with yogurt, garbanzos, and various sauces. Not bad-tasting, but there were no actual kachories in sight. What hubris on the part of the management makes them think no one will know the diff?
The interior is spacious, and nicely decorated with backlit boxes filled with colorful autumn leaves.
Only the sarson ka saag (mustard greens) were truly awful.
Another invented oddity was "humus with garlic naan" ($6). Actually, this rejiggering was a good idea, because the perfect garlic naan turned out by the restaurant tasted great with the doctrinaire hummus. Hey, who doesn't enjoy eating an invented dish now and again?
Here are some of the other things a friend and I tried: a lacha paratha (multi-layered bread, $3) that was not buttery or moist enough, and a chicken vindaloo that was spicy and delicious, though made with boring skinless chicken breast. It came with perfect basmati rice dotted with ... frozen peas. Oh well.
The only dish we really hated, among several that were promising, was sarson ka saag (mustard greens, $10). The pureed green had a strange chemical taste, something like polyethylene. I wracked my brain trying to figure out what the taste could be, then it dawned on me as I tasted the leftovers when I got home: mustard oil that hadn't been heated to smoking before it was used. Maybe not, but that's what it tasted like to me. Possibly it was the result of cooks unfamiliar with oil's properties -- it's often used as furniture polish.
Oh, and the mustard greens were not served with the usual accompaniment, a cornmeal-based flatbread called makki roti. Maybe the proprietors thought no one would notice the omission.
The verdict: Much of the food was good, and not too expensive. This place is worth watching, despite early gaps in service and dish execution.
Jackson Diner 72 University Place 212-466-0820
Jackson Diner (original) 37-47 74th Street Jackson Heights, Queens 718-672-1232
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