Editor’s note: In the latest installment of our recurring First Stop feature, we asked Queens-based food writer, culinary tour guide and consultant Joe DiStefano to share some of his go-to spots in Queens. Founder and publisher of the Queens-centric food blog CHOPSTICKS & MARROW, he authored the recently released book “111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss.” Joe has been exploring the borough’s diverse global cuisines for more than a decade and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet, Food Republic, and Serious Eats. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram – just make sure to eat lunch beforehand!
One of the first things I heard when I was putting together 111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss, was “There’s too much food.” It was my editor’s not so subtle way of reminding me that I was hired to write an overall guide to Queens, not a tome devoted to the borough’s amazing culinary complexity. An overwhelming diversity of food is a good problem to have, and it’s why I lobbied for this article to cover more than one spot. After all, the “World’s Borough,” as Queens is called, is the most delicious and diverse destination in the world itself.
I would love to take credit for discovering Lhasa Fast Food – a Tibetan restaurant tucked behind a Jackson Heights cell phone store – but I can’t. Fellow Queens culinary adventurer Jeff Orlick turned me on to it years ago. Nothing makes me happier than tucking into a plate of juicy beef momo – the beef dumplings that are beloved by Tibetans – and a fiery plate of sushi-style laphing sherpo while the Dalai Lama looks down beatifically. The latter are yellow noodles wrapped around blocks of gluten and doused in a fiery sauce with enough garlic and chile heat to melt Mount Everest.
It’s been a while since I took a red-eye into LaGuardia, but I know where I’m stopping the next time I do: Curry Leaves, where the specialty is Malaysian graveyard shift laksa. Served daily from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m., it’s worth getting up early – or staying up late – for. Walk up to the counter and one of the ladies will ask what type of broth you want. I always get kari laksa, a fiery coconut-enriched broth. The next question is what type of noodle; I always get yellow wheat, noodles. Now comes the fun part: kari customization. Choose from a dozen or so items to add to your bowl, including fried tofu, several types of fish cake, long green hot peppers stuffed with fish paste, fried wontons, char siu (barbecue pork), shrimp, veggies and bitter melon. I like to go just before sunrise and hit the eerily calm streets of Flushing afterwards as the sun comes up with a strong kopi bing (iced coffee) in hand.
There’s no finer way to lunch in Queens than enjoying a seafood cocktail as the 7 train rumbles by overhead.
Another downtown Flushing breakfast favorite is Joe’s Steam Rice Roll, where Joe Rong makes the Cantonese classic the old-fashioned way by grinding dry rice with water in a stone mill he imported from Guangzhou, China. The resulting chang feng has a delicate, rippled texture that can’t be found anywhere else in New York City. Incidentally this hawker stand’s Chinese name – Shi Mo Chang Feng Wang – means Stone Milled Rice Roll King, and it’s a well-deserved honorific.
My go-to filling is shrimp and egg, but lately I’ve been getting into plain rice rolls topped with curried fish balls and a mixture of peanut and sweet sauces. It’s a combo that King Joe says is particularly popular among folks from Hong Kong.
When I find myself in the mood for a Mexican seafood cocktail, there’s only one restaurant in Queens that will do: La Esquina del Camaron Mexicano. Perhaps restaurant is too grand a word, as the immaculate space where Pedro Rodriguez plies his craft sits at the back of a bodega on Roosevelt Avenue and 80th Street. Order a coctel mixto and grab a seat at the picnic table to watch the seafood mixologist at work. First, come plump pink shrimp then tender bits of octopus, salt, olive oil and a goodly pour of Don Pedro’s secret cocktail sauce. It even comes with an edible garnish: cilantro, onion and avocado. Be sure to ask for a splash of Valentina hot sauce. As for the accompanying Saltines, it’s up to you: either crumble them on top or eat them on the side. On weekends Don Pedro sets up outside. There’s no finer way to lunch in Queens than enjoying a pristine seafood cocktail as the 7 train – AKA the International Express – rumbles by overhead.