The southern Mexican food is fine at El Jalapeno, but maybe you’d rather go for the opulent nachos regulares, shaped like a sunflower.
To look at the neighborhood today, with its bustling commercial strips, tidy frame houses, apartment towers, and plentiful parks, you wouldn’t know Elmhurst was founded in 1652, when it was named Newtown. By the 19th century, the wafting stink of Newtown Creek caused the town elders to rethink the name, and they came up with Elmhurst–a rather poetic moniker that stuck. The town became part of New York City when it was consolidated into the new borough of Queens in 1898.
Today, only the random twisting and abrupt turns of the streets of Elmhurst recall its colonial heritage. More important, the town became home to one of the broadest collection of ethnicities in New York, as immigrants from 111 foreign countries arrived in the 1980s, making Elmhurst one of city’s best places to eat. So hop on the R train, and join us in a tour of the best and most interesting restaurants in the neighborhood.
10. El Jalapeno – This storefront on the northern reaches of Elmhurst’s Broadway was once a bakery, which morphed into a grocery store, and then into a nifty little taqueria. You can get all the southern Mexican standards like chiles relleno and chicken mole poblano, but this place also will surprise you with its facility at Tex-Mex. Suffice it to say El Jalapeno offers obscenely opulent nachos (see above) made with good, freshly fried chips, and a mustard-slicked hamburger that may remind you of the Lone Star State’s Whataburger. 81-10 Broadway, 718-205-2666
9. JoJu – When this banh mi specialist arrived late last year, it caused a sensation, with lines snaking out the door. It was the first place in the neighborhood to specialize in Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, tweaking them for the diverse local population. One skewed version featured Korean bulgogi, while another showcased Japanese braised pork belly. Many patrons, however, go specifically for their kimchee fries, so damp and pungent you’ll skip the ketchup. 83-25 Broadway, 347-808-0887
8. La Fusta – This 30-year-old Argentine stalwart―located right across the street from the Elmhurst Hospital emergency room, in case the old ticker stops mid-meal―flaunts a horse-racing theme and offers some of the borough’s best-cooked steaks. Go right to the Parrillada section of the menu for a shell steak, pork chops, or sweetbreads, or do the Argentine thing and get one of several mixed grills. Other “don’t miss” selections include gnocchi (“noqui” in Spanish) in mixed sauce and grilled calves liver with onions. 80-32 Baxter Avenue, 718-429-8222
7. Ayada – While everyone gets terribly excited about Isaan food, this comfortable and obscurely located Thai almost in Woodside takes all of Bangkok cooking as its purview, including some Japanese elements, about which one of the waitresses confided, “Several of us worked in a Japanese hotel in Bangkok.” That accounts for the marinated raw-shrimp sashimi, but what about the kang som sour curry, laced with tart tamarind paste, or the plebeian pig-leg over rice, and its unexpected trumpet-mushroom component? Pictured above: chile-soaked whole fish. 77-08 Woodside Avenue, 718-424-0844
6. Mei Wei Kitchen – In a recent piece on the 10 cheapest restaurants in town, this place grabbed the number one spot, for a great served-from-a-buffet deal that includes four dishes, plus soup and canned beverage, for substantially under $5 (price varies according to time of day). At lunch, the place fills up with earnest eaters, who bend over their trays of fried fish, stir-fried noodles, slightly creative vegetable dishes of things like snake gourd and bitter melon, plus wild-card fare that may or may not have been influenced by traditional American cooking. 82-53 Broadway, 718-205-7571
5. Taiwanese Specialties – While Taiwanese restaurateurs often dabble in the cuisines of mainland China, they rarely offer their own cuisine―which shows Korean, Japanese, Fujianese, and American influences―in its unreconstructed form. Thrill to their version of the Chinese hamburger: braised pork belly and mustard greens in a hoisin-slathered steamed bao. Or try “fly heads” (above), a sardonically named dish of ground pork and flowering chives that does, believe it or not, resemble the bulbous forward extremity of the buzzing nuisance. But beware of names on the menu: Taiwanese tempura, for example, is nothing like its Japanese counterpart. 84-02 Broadway, 718-429-4818
4. Sweet Yummy House – Restaurants using actual Sichuan peppercorns in their recipes (which were illegal only a few years ago) have flourished in neighborhoods such as Midtown, Flushing, and the Upper East Side, but this style of cooking was slow to arrive in Elmhurst. Sweet Yummy House (love the name!) offers a compelling version of the cuisine at bargain prices, with a little more emphasis on organ meats than you might find on the usual Sichuan menu. 83-13 Broadway, 718-878-6603
3. Taste Good – One of the city’s best Malaysian restaurants, part of a sadly dwindling collection, Taste Good is an intimate venue situated across from a handsome public park on the spot where “The Night Before Christmas” may have been composed. The place makes you feel like you’re eating dinner in someone’s living room, and the staff is unfailingly friendly and helpful. Sit at one of the round tables and enjoy “stuffed bean curd” (tofu filled with shrimp paste in a curry gravy), the crunchy vegetarian summer rolls called popiah, or the spicy assam shrimp―in fact, anything containing seafood here is great. 82-15 45th Avenue, 718-898-8001
2. Chao Thai Too – It’s a three-way toss-up about which is the best Thai restaurant in the city. (Other candidates include Woodside’s Sripraphai and the East Village’s Zabb Elee.) Chao Thai Too, and its nearby cousin Chao Thai, offer a pleasing emphasis on Isaan dishes from the country’s northeast, plus Chinese-leaning northern Thai noodles and curries and stir-fries from Bangkok and environs. There are bar snacks aplenty, sausages and jerkies served in ceramic boats with garnishes like herbs, raw garlic cloves, and shards of fresh ginger. And don’t miss the wonderful and surprising fish mousse called amok (above) or the raw-shrimp sashimi with mint and bitter melon (below). 83-47 Dongan Avenue, 718-424-9888
1. Pondok Jakarta – This cozy Indonesian warung specializes in the everyday fare of the capital of Jakarta, focusing on street-cart food. Highlights include flame-grilled chicken smothered in chile sauce (above) and beef satays with the most soulful peanut sauce you’ve ever tasted. There are soups both fiery and bland, but one of the most interesting creations is ketoprak (below): a vegetarian salad featuring fried tofu, compressed cubes of rice starch, and boiled eggs. Also recommended is “Jakarta beef soup,” bobbing with cubes of potato and beef, plus ribbons of chewy cow tripe. The restaurant is successor to Mie Jakarta, a similar establishment in the same space; Pondok is even better. 86-20 Whitney Avenue, 718-606-8025
Also check out My 10 Favorite Queens Restaurants