Driving down Hillside Avenue in Floral Park, Queens, it’s hard to believe we’re still in New York City. Modest brick houses with well-kept lawns flash by; there’s an old-school Carvel ice cream shop and a ramshackle wooden pub called Hagar’s. We also pass Usha Foods, Hakoba Sarees, Patel Brothers, and New York Wedding Gallery, which rents all the elaborate paraphernalia you need for a Hindu wedding. This small neighborhood is the easternmost outpost of the city, adjacent to Nassau County. It is also home to a large and growing population of Indian immigrants, as well as some of the city’s best Indian food.
Hina and Mahendra Shah, Gujarati Jains from Mumbai, opened Mumbai Xpress last spring. True to their cosmopolitan roots, the two speak Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, and English. Their restaurant is sleek and no-frills, with self-serve plastic cutlery. On the walls, you can read facts about Mumbai or be encouraged to “learn Hindi through Bollywood movies,” a feat that, I can assure you, is near impossible.
Mumbai Xpress is entirely vegetarian and specializes in the fast foods and street foods of Mumbai. There are many New York spots for dosas and chaat, but Mumbai Xpress is unique in its single-mindedness and scope—there are 99 dishes offered, ranging from the familiar (samosa chaat, masala dosa) to the relatively obscure (misal pav, tokri chaat). Prices are low, ranging from about $3 to $8.
The lengthy menu is divided into sections that name-check famous Mumbai snacking spots. Chowpatty Specials is a list of items like chaats and pakoras, referencing the beach where Mumbaikars go to get bhel puri and other chaats. Likewise, Breach Candy Specials (named for a neighborhood that once housed many colonial British) includes Anglo-Indian inventions like “chili-cheese toast” and “Mumbai grilled sandwich” (grilled cheese with coriander chutney and onions).
Many dishes are made to order, so the fried pakoras are resolutely crisp, the bhel (puffed-rice mix) is freshly made, and the Gujarati flatbreads called rotli are just off the griddle, the ghee on top still soaking into the bread. The basic bhel—a quintessential Mumbai snack—is a crunchy-tangy pile of puffed rice, sev (skinny, fried chickpea noodles), raw onions, diced boiled potatoes, and cilantro and tamarind chutneys. It’s a bit less spicy than usual, so avail yourself of the self-serve hot sauce.
A few dishes are only available on weekends, including misal pav. Misal is a mixture of multicolored lentils scattered with sev, cashews, diced potatoes, curry leaves, and mustard seeds. A bowl of hot sambar (spicy vegetable soup) comes on the side; pour it over the lentils to create a soupy, chili-like concoction. The pav (pronounced “pow”) is simply a white bun served on the side, which you can dip in the lentils.
The Sichuan paneer sandwich is a delicious exercise in cultural exchange. The mild cheese called paneer is dressed in a spicy sauce and pressed between two pieces of buttered white bread, along with raw onions, bell peppers, sliced green chilies, and coriander chutney. The Mumbai classic vada pav (“waada pow”) is an equally great sandwich—a spiced potato fritter sandwiched in a bun and dressed with garlic chutney and raw onions.
Just down the street, New Kerala Kitchen offers more rustic, homey dishes from the Indian state of Kerala—a green, coastal state with food that’s characterized by a love of fruit and seafood. The restaurant is owned by Abraham Thomas, a member of the large Keralan Christian population, so beef and pork dishes are available, as are chicken, mutton, and seafood.
Sadly, New Kerala Kitchen seems to be barely hanging on—on all three visits, only a fraction of the menu was available. Thomas can’t afford to buy expensive fruits and seafood on the off chance that someone happens to come in and order a jackfruit seed curry or crab roast. Your best chance to try the widest variety of dishes is the weekend buffet. Attempting to order from the menu gets a little depressing, although it’s certainly an interesting read. It’s best to tell your server that you’d like to try typical Keralan food and ask what’s available today. He might offer to make you a thali—a big plate with multiple dishes—that will cost about $8.
When our server set down our thalis, he suggested we eat with our hands, in the traditional style, saying that we would taste the food better that way. He was right, of course, although it’s always a challenge for me to eat soupy dishes with my hand without looking like a five-year-old. That night, our thali included a beef fry, thoran (carrots with shredded coconut), avial, pulissery, kingfish curry, mango pickle, and a large pile of the fat-grained, firm-textured par-boiled rice that’s customarily served in Kerala.
The beef fry looks a bit like Indonesian beef rending—a dry, chocolate-brown mix of heavily spiced beef chunks with small bits of fresh coconut and curry leaves. Avial is a mild, yellow-green concoction of tiny lily gourds, potatoes, and other vegetables, stewed to a flavorful mush in coconut milk. I especially liked the pulissery, a little dish of tart, yogurt-coconut soup, zipped with curry leaves and mustard seeds. Nitasha, a half-Keralan friend, pronounced our dishes “very good,” saying they reminded her of the meals at her aunts’ houses.
Although there are many seafood dishes on the menu, the only sea creature that is available with regularity is kingfish, which has strongly flavored, moist white flesh. You can get it as a curry—sauced with a mustard-seed, brick-orange gravy—or as a fry, in crispy, spice-rubbed chunks.
It’s difficult to get to Floral Park (a bus runs from midtown or from the F train’s last stop in Queens), but these restaurants are worth a trip. In a hard economy, it’s a pleasure to support mom-and-pop joints that cook such soulful, rooted (and affordable) food.