Jackson Heights with Suketu Mehta: A Secret Grocery


“When my relatives came from India,” says Suketu Mehta, author of Maxium City, “they would want to see two things: The Statue of Liberty, and Sam and Raj’s appliance shop.” We’re standing in front of Sam and Raj’s, which is still on 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, where Mehta’s relatives would buy two-way radios or electric juicers to bring home to India.

I’ve met Mehta here to tramp around his old stomping grounds, do some eating, and learn the secret to getting into an undercover food market.

Mehta moved from Mumbai to Jackson Heights when he was fourteen; his family lived on 83rd Street. Not many of the shops and restaurants from his youth are still in business–although he notes that his family didn’t eat out much anyway, unless it was to go for south Indian food (“That’s what Gujaratis eat when they go out.”) The neighborhood has evolved, as Indians who immigrated in the 70s move out to the suburbs and newer immigrants move in. Now, the area has become mainly Bangladeshi and Pakistani, whereas it used to be full of Indians, and Gujaratis in particular.

Mehta brings me to a secret, illegally run grocery, after the jump.

Chile powder from the underground grocery

Now we come to a problem: I can’t tell you much about this illegal market, because, well, it is illegal. The family, from a certain South Asian country that I promised not to reveal, runs the business out of their apartment, and would not appreciate a visit from the Health Department. Mehta discovered the shop while working on his second book, about immigrant communities in New York.

 We stand inside the foyer, where you would have to notice a small sign (not in English) on the apartment door to know that there’s anything interesting inside. Mehta knocks, and we wait. “It’s like we’re trying to get into a crack house,” he laughs. But when the door opens, a spacious, orderly little grocery reveals itself–shiny wood floors, a flat screen playing Entertainment Tonight, one wall displaying spice mixes and snacks, and a giant freezer containing perishables. The woman who owns it is a consummate shop-keeper, buzzing around the room to suggest products and explain how they are used. I buy a fish soup base and the chile powder shown above, which is smoky and has a dark, slow burn.

Outside again, we walk past a restaurant with large windows. Mehta peers inside and notes that it is Pakistani. How could he tell so quickly? “Pakistanis [mainly Muslims] all eat straight from the same plate,” he says. “On pilgrimages, rich and poor share the same food. Indians [mainly Hindus] take from the communal dish and eat it from their own tiffin [plate].”

We pass the Eagle movie theater, which now shows Bollywood movies. Mehta points out that the “G” in the sign was in a different font than the other letters. “That’s because it used to be the Earle Theater,” he says. “It showed porn. The new owners just replaced the “R” with a “G.” I still look closely at the seats before I sit down.”

We stopped at the newly reopened Himalayan Yak for dinner, because Mehta had been telling me about the restaurant’s rendition of the Bhutanese national dish of green chiles and cheese called ema datsi. We ordered it:

Himalayan Yak’s version of ema datsi seems almost Tex-Mex–sliced green chiles floating in melty yellow cheese that reminds me of queso dip. Mehta tells me that in Bhutan, it’s made with yak cheese. The truth is that I’ll happily eat any combo of chiles and cheese, so I thought it was tasty.

Because Himalayan Yak is Nepalese-owned, we ordered the rest of our meal off the Nepalese side of the menu.

This is the Nepalese samayabajee, a vegetarian sampler platter. It includes pounded rice, a pickle-daikon salad, crunchy fried soybeans and an herbal-spicy potato salad.

Stay tuned for the possibility of more eating adventures with Mehta, as his reporting in immigrant communities is bound to turn up good food.

Himalayan Yak
7220 Roosevelt Avenue,, Jackson Heights, Queens

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2009

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