Punjabi was the first Indian food we fell in love with. Not only was the cuisine relentlessly rich and meaty, but it actually seemed to improve as it sat on the steam table in the narrow greasy spoons where it was served, with gravies colored every shade of coffee brown from “lots of cream” to “none at all.” And there was a parallel universe of strictly vegetarian dishes, which—when they didn’t feature frozen mixed vegetables—were alluring enough to distract us from the meat, flaunting rectangles of fresh cheese and strange veggies like snake gourd and loofah.
As Southern Indian and Gujarati appeared, and later a dozen other regional cooking styles, we were temporarily distracted from Punjabi, which originated in a region of northwestern Indian known as the Punjab (“Land of Five Rivers”). This fertile alluvial plain is where much of India’s wheat is grown, resulting in a lush collection of flatbreads, often extravagantly stuffed with herbs or minced meat. While the earliest Punjabi steam-table joints were aimed at cab drivers and other budget diners, a new sort of establishment has arisen in the farthest corners of Queens, tendering a refined version of the cuisine meant for a Punjabi-American middle class.
If you zoom up Union Turnpike past Creedmoor, a mental-health facility founded in 1912 by the state’s Lunacy Commission, you reach Floral Park. Among the neat frame houses and strip shopping centers find Sohna Punjab, named after a resort town famous for its sacred and sulphurous hot springs. The dining room is decorated with ethnographic photos of dancers and artisans. A full bar dominates the front of the room, while a swinging door at the rear leads to the kitchen.
On my first visit, I brought a friend who has knocked back lots of Punjabi food, both in the States and in India. I asked him what the restaurant’s signature should be. His unhesitating answer: “chicken tikka.” I blanched, because it’s one of the worst things you can get in the steam-table places—desiccated knobs of boneless breast dyed an alarming shade of red. Similar color notwithstanding, Sohna’s version ($11.99) is the exact opposite—plump and flavorful tidbits, still moist from their yogurt marinade, jumping up and down on the cast-iron platter like a cat on a hot skillet.
Indeed, anything that emerges sizzling from the tandoor is special at Sohna. One thing you mightn’t have tried before is tangri kebab ($12), a quartet of chicken drumsticks tasting principally of lemon and smoke. The shanks have been wrapped in aluminum foil to keep them from charring, which also allows you to pick up the drumsticks and enjoy them properly without besmirching your fingers. The biggest crowd-pleaser is the lamb chops ($16.99), five bulbous beauties that the menu describes rather confusingly as “ribs of goat with Indian style.” That’s because, as in many South Asian restaurants, no distinction is made between the two meats.
At nearly every Indian restaurant in town, selections from the newly popularized Indian-Chinese menu have infiltrated the bill of fare. In this case, it’s a good thing, because “chilly chicken with bone” and “fish chilly” are two of the best starters, pleasantly spicy and sweet, with plenty of onions and cilantro in a red, oily sauce. As far as the conventional coffee-brown stews of Punjabi cuisine go, opt for the ones enriched with nuts (often made without nuts in steam-table joints). The name handily telegraphing an origin in the Mughal Empire, which ruled a recalcitrant Punjab for several centuries, lamb mughlai ($10.99) designates boneless chunks of lamb edged with fat in a sauce thickened with cashews. The combination of fat and crushed nuts, while repulsive in a human being, make this one of Queens’ most desirable dishes.
Subtly seasoned with cumin, the basmati rice that accompanies the main courses is scrumptious, but the catalog of breads—many cooked in the tandoor—might persuade you to skip the rice entirely. Grab the phenomenal “special Punjabi paratha” ($3), which conceals between its whole-wheat layers a wealth of vegetables diced so fine, you’ll be convinced there’s someone working in the kitchen with a microscope and a scalpel. But the finest starch of all is the great ceremonial centerpiece of the region: biryani. Of the eight varieties offered, “Sohna Punjab biryani” ($9.99) is best, freighted with chicken and lamb, and furnished with a tart yogurt sauce. It represents all the flavor and zip of the old steam-table joints, folded into a single luscious creation.