For Queens, one culinary claim to fame has always been the variety of cuisines on offer. That was the case in 2019 and before, it held true in 2020 and continues to this day, late in 2021. The onset of the pandemic, however, meant that businesses sometimes felt as isolated as individual families. Many were cut off from the cross-pollination of ideas and intelligence – not to mention customers – that helps them grow and thrive. Survival, of course, had been the immediate business goal. But today, street vendors are going as strong as ever, and more and more restaurant owners are openly discussing plans for new dishes, new locations, new collaborations. In a city whose residents are almost 80% vaccinated, from an itinerant diner’s point of view, it’s becoming much easier to assemble a group of friends to head out and explore them.
No matter where I stood or how I contorted myself, I couldn’t find the right spot to take a single clear photo of all the food on offer at Boishakhi, a Bangladeshi restaurant in Ozone Park. If I focused on ruddy roasted legs of tandoori chicken -– and it was hard to overlook them – I’d be neglecting the ilish, a river-going fish also known as hilsa, whose oily, tender flesh is highly prized in its home country.
Like the original location of Boishakhi, in Astoria, this newer Ozone Park outpost makes do without a written menu. The abundant bill of fare is on display inside a crystal-clear enclosure that separates customers from staff, who will patiently explain what’s what, in Bengali or English. Choosing from fish, chicken and what might be dozens of other dishes in between is a challenge, and a joy, at Boishakhi. If the server and I need to repeat ourselves once or twice – nowadays, we’re both wearing a mask – that’s a minor inconvenience. – Dave Cook, Queens contributor
On my first visit to Singapore, ages ago, the daylong journey from New York left me wanting nothing more than to head back out for a bite after stowing my bags. In the apartment tower where I was staying, the ground floor was devoted to all sorts of shops; one was a bakery. I bought, and quickly scarfed down, an impossibly delicious curry puff. It seemed impossibly inexpensive, too, given the exchange rate at the time.
Yeh’s Bakery, in Flushing, might insist on U.S. currency, but what the owners call a curry dumpling still cost me, on a recent visit, only a dollar and change. With decades of baked goods behind me, my standard for “impossibly delicious” has risen considerably. Perhaps Yeh’s curry pastry is merely very delicious, but it transports me back to that first exciting visit. Is it time to start thinking about some long-haul travel?
– Dave Cook
Angel Indian Restaurant
To say 2021 has been a peculiar year is an understatement. I am glad there has been some stability in my life. Just about all of the restaurants I frequent have pulled through, and life is slowly going back to “normal” as much as possible. This year, I stepped into Angel Indian Restaurant, which has become a welcome addition to the neighborhood, on the Southeast Asia strip around 74th street. Angel sits right down the street from Patel Brothers, the stalwart supermarket for Indian groceries and spices. It’s a gravitational force in that part of Jackson Heights for the Desi community
Their ample indoor and outdoor seating is a blessing in these uncertain times, and service is great – they will answer any and all questions one might have about their North Indian cuisine. I had ordered a lamb biryani, a mixed rice dish that comes baked inside a fluffed-up naan bread. It’s like opening a gift: you break open the naan to find the mildly spicy biryani inside. With a salad and lassi (a yogurt-based drink), it’s enough for two people.
Added to my list of regular vendors to visit this year is Sandwich Therapy. They set up by Travers Park on the weekends with a menu posted on their Instagram a few days before. When heading out for a bike ride, I grab myself a sandwich – last time, it was fried cauliflower with tahini, roasted potatoes and eggplant. Most of their food is Middle Eastern with Georgian accents. It is a pleasing addition to the already surreal diversity of the Jackson Heights neighborhood, which is known for having one of the highest concentrations of different communities in the world. A tiny operation, all of their menu items are crafted in small batches. Homemade spice mixes and personal touches make this food special. Their menu changes rapidly with each season and depending on market availability. On my next stop, I’ll pick up their Kharcho soup, a spicy Georgian rice and tomato soup. It’s perfectly paired with a falafel from a similar operation not too far away, the Lebanese joint El Toum. It’s always necessary to have a go-to place for falafel, and this is it.
El Gauchito is another spot with a great story. When the owner Elias was able to open his own place, he could finally expand his butcher shop. During the quarantine, he adapted rapidly, added produce and other Argentinian items for the homesick community (like alfajores, a dulce de leche-filled cookie sandwich). The best part is that Elias finally got his parrilla grill going, serving up lunch and dinner on top of snacks – steak empanadas, milanesa (schnitzel) sandwiches, or a full Argentinian parrillada (mixed grilled meats) with his house-made chorizos, grilled steak and chicken, which you can top with his own chimichurri sauce. When I want a whole parrillada, I am sure to plan ahead and drag someone along with me, as it is way too much for a single person!
Merguez and Frites
When exploring Astoria, besides hitting up Foda’s food truck, I love going to Merguez and Frites for their Merguez sandwich. The merguez sausage, a red beef sausage from the Maghrebi cuisine, is grilled before being added to bread, and you have the choice of sauces, including harissa. I usually ask them to put a combo of a few different kinds. There are always new things on the table there, and I obviously must ask what they are before finally getting one or two to go.
Strolling through Corona Plaza
The street vendors around Corona Plaza at 103rd St. have expanded a lot. Now, you can pick up food, handcrafts and even traditional Mexican and Central American shirts, dresses and bags. During the weekends, it feels like a serious street fair, with many more vendors and endless eats to be sampled. More than savoring a fine meal, this best bite luxuriates in the taste of normalcy, walking through stalls full of food, crafts and music, with whole families out for a shopping day, grabbing lunch or just strolling past. What is more, it also fills that nostalgic gap to be back in whatever towns we, or our families, might be from. An idea or a memory of a Latin American market in a main plaza, full of life, has come to fruition here. We are not back, but at least we are in a better place, full of optimism for the future.