The largest of New York’s five boroughs, Queens is the home of over two million people, half of them born outside the United States, speaking more than 150 different languages. It’s also home to countless immigrant stories of the most classic kind: a newcomer arrives and sets up shop – or, more frequently, cart – selling the food of his or her homeland as the first step towards making it in America.
As a result, for the culinary explorer, Queens is truly the promised land. With so much available in this land of plenty, it can be difficult to choose favorites. But our Queens correspondents were up to the task. Here they are reminiscing about their best bites of 2018.
The oatmeal marshmallow sandwich cookie at Rudy’s Bakery & Café
In my campfire days, I never liked marshmallows that much. As a kid, my favorite part about toasting them wasn’t the marshmallow itself, but the process: finding the perfect stick, peeling and whittling the tip with my pocket knife, smoothly impaling a marshmallow and putting it to the flame without setting it on fire. Often as not, I’d let someone else eat the toasty brown product of my labors.
Rudy’s oatmeal marshmallow sandwich cookie, however, I’d never let out of my hands. Hefty, yet beautifully balanced between a marshmallow center and twin layers of oatmeal cookie, it would be a great traveling companion on the urban trail, or so I imagine; mine never made it out of the café.
Kahtein celebration at a Burmese Buddhist gathering in Elmhurst
Burmese food is rare in Queens. A night-market pop-up has morphed into a weekday food cart, but with a limited bill of fare; several under-the-radar businesses cook broader menus in home kitchens but rely on customers to ring the right doorbell. The handful of annual food fairs and festivals are duly noted on my personal calendar long in advance.
So I was surprised, while walking to an early lunch one weekend, at the sight of a Burmese banner hung above the entrance to a church parish hall. (I can’t read the language, but I recognize its looping script.) Inside the hall I saw the trappings of a Kahtein celebration, in which lay Buddhists offer robes, food and other items to the monks. They also share food and fellowship, even (or perhaps especially) with a passing stranger like me. I squeezed a little lime into my bowl of mohinga, the beloved Burmese fish noodle soup, then chased it down with a quivering plateful of sweets.
Mashed potatoes at Shelly’s Café
Mediocre mashed potatoes are easy to make. Just imagine the industrial-sized tub of potato flakes, and the simmering cauldron, behind the swinging doors of your local greasy spoon. Scratch-made mashed potatoes, on the other hand, are more labor-intensive and more time-consuming, and their texture is incomparably superior.
I could make a meal of the mashed potatoes at Shelly’s, but then I couldn’t use them to help mop up other flavors – say, a tangy chicken curry (shown at the back of my plate lunch) or a runny pool of baked beans. For this meal I added a jambon (Jam-bone), a folded-over savory pastry filled with ham, cheese and white onion, and with a reputation (which I haven’t put to the test) as a hangover chaser.
Kang hung ley and kang hoh at Lamoon
I’m fond of dishes assembled from leftovers – and I heartily endorse efforts to make good use of what otherwise would be food waste – but kang hung ley and kang hoh present a conundrum. The first (shown here) is a pork-belly curry native to Northern Thailand; the second is based on the curry, which is stir-fried with noodles and vegetables.
A meaty, starchy stir-fry can be delicious the morning after (I’ve had my share). But, to guarantee the prospect of kang hoh, it’s necessary to set aside sufficient kang hung ley – both the tender chunks of pork belly and the thick, sour, spicy sauce. Set me loose near the kang hug ley at Lamoon in Elmhurst, and you can forget leftovers.
– Dave Cook
Quesadillas at Mi Bella Puebla
I have a running game with Amilcar, my best friend of many years. I take him to get food from around the world, and he tries to find the best Mexican food in NYC. His latest find is Mi Bella Puebla in Jackson Heights. Right now when I get a text from him that simply reads, “I’m going to get tacos,” I know what he means and where. My favorite thing to get there are the quesadillas, which come in handmade corn tortillas and are stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and a variety of fillings. I usually go for a mix of crunchy chicharron (pork rind) and grilled chicken. As for salsas, hot is the name of the game: the green tomatillo cilantro salsa is spicy, but the red roasted chile salsa with lots of garlic and onions is even hotter.
Burmese Bites food cart
When I had just arrived in the U.S., one of my first jobs was running the concession stand at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. I worked long, hard hours and didn’t earn much, but every so often I would splurge on a luxury. One of those luxuries was eating at a Burmese restaurant that used to be on 7th Street near Second Avenue. I had a classmate in language school who was from Burma, and she took me there and helped me navigate the menu. It was one of my first encounters with “world” food. That place closed a long time ago, but I was thrilled this past year to find the Burmese Bites food cart. I biked there on a particularly cold day to get chicken curry parathas and ohno kaukswe (coconut chicken noodle soup). The warmth and spiciness of these two dishes was fantastic. Even though it’s not the cuisine I grew up with, it’s now one of my comfort foods.
Stinky tofu at Taiwanese Gourmet
I have worked with tofu for many years (decades at this point) and find myself having a hard time liking it. I don’t order it at restaurants, and when I try it I rarely enjoy it. But recently I rediscovered my love for it thanks to reading about more traditional ways of cooking it, like an old recipe for samurai tofu that is just tofu with soy sauce. One recipe that particularly appealed to me was stinky tofu: the tofu is fermented for days, sometimes even weeks, in a brine giving it a smell that resembles rotten garbage, and then sliced and fried.
After finding a couple of Taiwanese places that serve superb stinky tofu, I’ve become quite addicted to it – much to the chagrin of everyone that dines with me. “Maybe if they change the name… maybe pungent tofu?” says one of my dinner companions. I laugh and keep eating. There are a few great places in Elmhurst that make stinky tofu, but Taiwanese Gourmet is on top of my list.
I find myself feeling saudades, a word in Portuguese what defies translation, or at least accurate translation. You get approximations: to miss something, to long for someone, something or someplace. It’s a beautiful word that I learned when I was in Brazil. Sometimes I feel saudades for Brazil and my friends there – I guess I left a piece of my heart in the country. So I was thrilled when Brazilian restaurants started to pop up in Queens. And no, not the usual rodizio or never-ending meats that people in the U.S. know as Brazilian restaurants, but the more familiar-to-me spots where you buy prepared foods “by the kilo,” or by the pound. The salad bar and savory buffet are fantastic all on their own, with choices like fried yuca, plantains, poached fish, palmitos (palm hearts) and more. But you still have your choice of wonderfully grilled meats served on the speto, the traditional long Brazilian skewer.
Another close friend introduced me to Samudra, a southern Indian restaurant. My friend is a strict vegetarian and her mom was in town to visit. Out of the many different restaurants in Jackson Heights, she was sure her mom would feel most comfortable here. I was happy to tag along for some food, but also to get mom’s review of the place. For appetizers, we ordered the Samudra platter, a mix of pakoras (onions, eggplant and peppers battered and fried), samosas (flaky pastries filled with potatoes and peas) and vadas (fried flour balls) in thick dahi (yogurt sauce). I got a Pondicherry dosa, which was filled with a layer of red-hot chutney and potato masala, and a mango lassi. Pleased with her meal, my friend’s mom approved of our choice of Indian places – a small victory indeed.
– Esneider Arevalo, CB’s walk leader in Queens