Last week, Michelin announced the recipients of its coveted stars for 2016. This year’s list varies only slightly from previous ones, with New York’s leading lights — like Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, and Le Bernardin — crowned once again as top dining destinations. Many of the honorees are also exorbitantly expensive, and represent a limited number of types of cuisine (French, Italian, New American, and Japanese figure prominently).
Arguably a more interesting (and certainly more affordable) list, reflective of NYC’s cultural variety and abundance, is Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, which is published alongside the stars and recognizes cheaper and more casual venues. These awards reveal the bounty of delicious, budget-friendly options in the outer boroughs. Notably, three restaurants in Elmhurst were included. The smallish neighborhood is a fascinating place, at once considered Queens’ second Chinatown and its Little Bangkok; we checked out the winners to see if Elmhurst lives up to these monikers.
Uncle Zhou (83-29 Broadway, Queens; 718-393-0888)
One of many enticing spots on this eatery-packed strip of Broadway, Uncle Zhou specializes in the cuisine of Henan, a province of China considered the nation’s breadbasket for its wheat production. Accordingly, the menu features many variations on knife cut noodles, which here are noticeably thick and doughy. Dumplings are worth ordering, and a deal at 10 for $4. The lamb version was very juicy, rich, and just a bit funky, and the pork and chive, brightened by the herb, were equally good.
Big tray chicken, a dish that’s a little different in every place it’s served, is a crowd-pleaser not only for its size, but its depth: tender nubs of white and dark meat chicken and potato soak up a mellow-spiced sauce redolent of anise; red and green peppers add a bit of crunch, but the best part are the long noodles that must be carefully extracted from the bottom.
Dial oil noodles are a gentler take on dan dan noodles, with less Sichuan peppercorn but more vinegar and garlic; the thin strands are mixed with plenty of bright green bok choy. For something even milder, but still compelling, the wheat noodles appear in another vegetarian dish, paired with egg, wood ear mushroom, and tomato, an ingredient not often seen in Chinese cooking.
Paet Rio (81-10 Broadway, Queens; 917-832-6672)
Elmhurst also has tons of Southeast Asian spots, and its Thai restaurants alone represent some of the best in the city, like Ayada and Chao Thai. Paet Rio attracted Michelin’s notice; owner Phimploy Likitsansook is also at the helm of Wondee Siam in Manhattan. But this is the place to find real-deal Thai, and the setting is cozy, a long, narrow dining room with exposed brick and weathered wooden tables.
Steamed dumplings hold a potent, garlicky mix of minced chicken, shrimp, and pork; the same combination is even better wrapped in fried bean curd, which makes for a thin, crispy casing. Soft shell crab is hidden under a layer of crispy garlic, which yields to the fresh, creamy crab. And crispy duck has crunchy nuggets of the bird, strewn with chilis and fragrant Thai basil. The restaurant also serves a range of whole fish, fiery curries, noodles, and spicy salads.
Sweet Yummy House (8313 Broadway, Queens; 718-699-2888)
The name is charming, though a bit misleading: the Sichuan grub here is more spicy than sweet, a counterpoint to Uncle Zhou’s milder Hainanese fare. The region’s peppercorns — which were banned for years in the States — speckle many of the dishes, creating the tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue called málà. These come into play in entrees like fish in hot pepper, the mild white fish rendered vibrant as it swims in a fiery red sauce, and mapo tofu, the silky tofu and minced pork buzzing with heat.
You can give yourself a break with cooler appetizers, like cucumbers in sesame oil. Some of the less spicy menu items even verge on Chinese-American (lo mein, beef with broccoli), but with Sichuanese, it’s more fun when a little pain is involved.