Earlier this fall, documentarian Frederick Wiseman released “In Jackson Heights.” The 190-minute film captures the cultural abundance of this neighborhood, where dozens of languages are spoken and locals talk unironically about authenticity. What also comes through are many residents’ fears that they’ll soon be displaced by buyers and renters fleeing stratospheric prices in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Seeing the movie is one way to grasp the plenitude of the area; another is through its food. For the uninitiated, going on a self-guided food tour is a great way to get to know Jackson Heights while still honoring its particular equilibrium. Here are our picks for where to try some of the regional specialties of the neighborhood.
Jackson Heights has been known as one of New York’s Little Indias since immigrants from South Asia began arriving in the 1960s, and the Jackson Diner (37-47 74th Street, Queens; 718-672-1232), perhaps the most well-known of JH’s Indian spots, anchors the micro-neighborhood. Many will argue that there are superior options nearby, but the affordable lunch buffet, with all the kababs and saag paneer you could want, is still a satisfying deal.
Just around the corner is Samudra (75-18 37th Avenue, Queens; 718-255-1757), which specializes in vegetarian chaat; try one of the massive, crispy dosas with fillings like spinach, potato masala, or paneer cheese. Or pick something up from Kababish (70-64 Broadway, Queens; 718-565-5131), a tiny takeout-only spot where the tandoor-grilled chicken, beef, lamb, and goat kababs are on-point. And make sure to shop at Patel Brothers (37-27 74th Street, Queens; 718-898-3445) for a dizzying range of very reasonably-priced nuts, dried fruit, produce, and spices.
Since the 2000s, thousands of Tibetans and Nepalis have relocated to Jackson Heights; for an introduction to Himalayan cuisine, look no further than the humble momo. Dozens of restaurants and food trucks sell the thick-skinned Tibetan dumpling, as evidenced at the recent Momo Crawl. Particularly worth checking out is Lhasa Fast Food (37-50 74th Street, Queens; 718-205-3188), a shop tucked at the end of a narrow hallway past a cell phone store, where the momos are particularly delicate and fresh-tasting. Go a bit further at Phayul (37-65 74th Street, Queens; 718-424-1869), a second-story restaurant where, in addition to momos, you can sample dishes like Tibetan blood sausage or a pungent soup made from yak cheese.
On the Nepali side, Mustang Thakali Kitchen (74-14 37th Avenue, Queens; 718-898-5088) specializes in the food of the northern Mustang district of the landlocked nation, like rotis, chaats, and thali (try the goat served in a pumpkin sauce). And near the JH border is Woodside Café (64-23 Broadway, Queens; 347-642-3445), whose vegetable-heavy menu focuses on the food of the Newar people, an ethnic minority in Nepal; try the Newari thali.
Those who claim New York City doesn’t have good Mexican food have never bothered to hit up the trucks beneath the 7 train. El Gallo Giro and Quesadilla Sabrosa (both at Roosevelt Ave. and 75th Street) are two favored stops for tacos, tortas, cemitas, tostadas, and more; don’t be shy about trying some with lengua or huitlacoche (corn fungus.)
For a sit-down spot, the expansive menu at Taqueria Coatzingo (7605 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens; 718-424-1977) has all that, plus soups, mole platters, and breakfast chilaquiles. The Arepa Lady (77-02 Roosevelt Ave, Queens; 347-730-6124) began by selling her decadent, buttery, cheesy corn discs on the same street, but now she has a brick and mortar restaurant highlighting the Colombian specialty as well as empanadas, patacones, and fresh fruit juices. Urubamba (8620 37th Avenue; Queens 718-672-2224) is the place for Peruvian steak and seafood; if the weather ever cools down, try the beef stew over tacu tacu, rice and canary beans. It’s BYOB, and non-drinkers should try the sweet chicha morada, made from purple corn.
Jackson Heights is at the edge of Elmhurst’s Thai Town, which merits its own exploration; nearby, start at Zabb Elee (71-28 Roosevelt Ave, Queens; 718-672-2224) for fiery Isan Thai. If you’re craving crispy, gingery Korean fried chicken, the drumsticks at Unidentified Flying Chickens (71-22 Roosevelt Avenue 718-205-6662) are solid, and pair well with one of the restaurant’s craft beers. And for dessert, head to Cannelle Patisserie (75-59 31st Avenue, Queens; 718-565-6200) for elegant, French baked goods, at the edge of this most international of neighborhoods.