Queens residents, depending on their inclination, either groaned or cheered earlier this month when Lonely Planet named the borough its top destination in the U.S.A. Like it or not, the area is no longer an underdog. Looking back on 2014, though, it seems unlikely — at least for now — that Queens will go the way of hyper-developed, hyper-expensive Brooklyn. For every celebrity chef who opened a slick new spot, there’s also a beloved local turning out affordable eats from the far corners of the globe. Here’s our look back at our favorite food happenings of the year.
Food festivals: Queens played host to a number of fantastic festivals and street fairs throughout the year. For one day in June, the Burmese food fair came to Sunnyside to make up for NYC’s sad lack of restaurants serving this bold cuisine, which features flavors reminiscent of Thai, Indian, and Chinese. The annual Indonesian food bazaar popped up again at Astoria’s Al-Hikmah mosque, drawing fans of the island nation’s satays, fritters, and soups. And just last weekend, the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden welcomed Grandma’s Kitchen, a feast of Czech and Slovak dishes.
Michelin stars: Four of the borough’s restaurants were awarded Michelin stars this year, and in true Queens fashion, they’re not all stuffy, white-tablecloth affairs. Zabb Elee, for instance, is a Jackson Heights institution that offers intensely fiery Northern Thai in a no-frills setting. And Long Island City’s Casa Enrique became the first Mexican restaurant in New York to snag a star.
The arepa lady gets a permanent home: Maria Cano was a judge in Colombia, but when she sensed her family was in danger from narco-terrorists, she relocated them to Queens. She started over, selling arepas from a food cart under the 7 train, and over the years built up a devoted following for her surreally delicious disks of cornmeal and cheese. This year, she finally settled in to a brick-and-mortar store in Jackson Heights, called — of course — Arepa Lady (77-02AA Roosevelt Avenue).
Himalayan Heights continues to grow: Jackson Heights is typically thought of as a South Asian enclave, and over the past few years, it’s become home to immigrants from the Himalayan nations as well. Tibetan and Nepali spots have proliferated to the point that local food tour guide Jeff Orlick recently hosted a momo crawl, dedicated to sampling all the Tibetan dumplings the neighborhood has to offer. New restaurants like Dhaulagiri Kitchen (37-38 72nd Street) join other stalwarts like Himalayan Yak and Mustang Thakali Kitchen, serving rotis, curries, chaats, noodles, and soups.
Big-shot chefs come to Queens: When M. Wells Steakhouse debuted late last year, the enthusiastic response proved that Queens is primed for high-end, innovative cuisine. No wonder, then, that chefs like Julian Medina, of Manhattan standouts like Toloache and Coppelia, opened a restaurant in Queens in 2014. His Tacuba Cantina Mexicana (35-01 36th Street), in Astoria’s recently christened arts district, has a menu of inventive Latin dishes, like grasshopper tacos, Peruvian ceviche, and steamed mussels with chorizo. Queens has room for a few more like him — we’re the biggest borough, after all.