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Each year in late summer, some of the best athletes on the planet converge on Flushing Meadows Corona Park to compete in the United States Open Tennis Championships. In 2021, the U.S. Open begins with practice sessions and qualifier matches on Tuesday, August 24, and concludes with the men’s singles final, scheduled for Sunday, September 12.

The tournament site does provide hungry fans with several cafés and casual bar-restaurants as well as a pair of “food villages.” But when in Queens – where some of the best food in the city is so close at hand – why would we confine ourselves to the boundaries of the tennis center? To energize ourselves beforehand or wind down afterward, here are a few of our favorite nearby dining destinations.

Flushing, the neighborhood immediately to the east of the tennis center and the park, is home to New York’s most exciting Chinatown, including a pair of lively food courts. Among the vendors in the New York Food Court is Liang Pi Wang, where the namesake “cold skin noodles” – dressed with julienned cucumber and drizzled with soy sauce, black vinegar, sesame oil and chile oil are prepared before our eyes, all in three minutes’ time. A hot, handheld alternative is the jian bing, a griddled “Chinese pancake.” For a dainty change of pace, anything from Distinctive Dim Sum, two stalls to the left of Liang Pi Wang, is worth a try.

We’re always happy to take a seat at a table on the broad, inviting sidewalk outside Maxi’s Noodle. Despite the name, the principal attractions might be what the menu calls, with modesty, the “toppings” for lo mein or noodle soup. Sweet and spicy pork, fried fish skin and beef stew surely have their champions, but for our case of noodle-soup indecision, the best antidote was the combo of hand-fashioned wontons, fishballs and dumplings, each large enough to require two bites, if not three. The noodles themselves, and the pork bone broth, were wonderful, too.

The long, low-lit main dining area of Alley 41 is well-suited to intimate conversation over classic Sichuan cuisine – sauteed vegetables, perhaps, and a shared order of tea-smoked duck. But we’re even happier in one of the restaurant’s large private rooms, where we can load up the lazy susan with new favorites such as pork belly in garlic sauce, golden pumpkin porridge, sizzling eel, spicy crispy tofu, or spare ribs with garlic and salted duck egg yolk. These private rooms easily accommodate a dozen hungry diners; the only jostling might be for the last spare rib.

Chicken – grilled or fried, slathered in soy and garlic or doused with hot pepper – headlines the bill of fare at The Coop. This Korean bar-restaurant also serves a full menu of stews, stir-fries and grilled meats in a sleek, minimalist setting where sporting events, on a pair of flat-screen TVs, play silently against a musical backdrop of K-pop. Nestled on an upper floor of the One Fulton Square hotel and restaurant complex, The Coop stocks a full bar and serves drinks, and drinking food, late into the evening.

To the west of the tennis center, Spanish is the local lingua franca. Many residents and business owners have Ecuadorian heritage, including the proprietors of Cafe Con Leche. It has the character of a luncheonette, but with a “blue-plate special” – the chuchucara – that’s likely to be loaded with roast pork, fried sweet plantains and toasted large-kernel corn. In lieu of soda fountain classics, we might cool down with a cholado, a thick shake with fruit-salad aspirations, or a morir soñando, which has always reminded us of a Creamsicle in a cup.

Tortillas pressed by hand, and griddled to order, are available every day at La Estancia de la Espiga for tacos or alongside soups and homey, stewy guisados. But on Saturdays and Sundays at this casual Mexican restaurant, they also accompany carnitas, or braised pork, and barbacoa, slow-roasted goat or lamb. (We’d make sure to arrive in the morning, before these weekend specials sell out.) The proprietor hails from the state of Guerrero, as does his closely guarded family recipe for barbacoa. The only way we’ll ever identify his secret blend of spices and chiles is one barbacoa taco at a time.

Just a half-volley away, the sandwich-making ladies of Leo’s Latticini (also known as Mama’s of Corona) still talk of a time when the neighborhood was largely Italian-American. Their celebrated Italian special is a throwback to that bygone era: cold cuts and fresh mozzarella are piled high, while hot and sweet peppers, mushrooms, and oil and vinegar are added with near-abandon. It’s a big sandwich, best shared with an equally hungry doubles partner. We’re happy to take a seat at the adjoining Mama’s Backyard Cafe, inside opposite the tempting pastry case (cannoli? pignoli? sfoliatelle?) or outside, in the back garden, when the weather is mild.

A meal at Park Side Restaurant, like the state of play on the single bocce court at tiny William F. Moore Park, is, to say the least, unhurried. At one of the city’s last destinations for red-sauce fine dining, the Italian-American menu is frozen in time – marinara, say hello to your cousin fra diavolo – as are generous portions of scungilli [conch] and calamari, chicken piccata and veal parm. Although the wait staff wear classic black-and-white, for customers, business casual is sufficient – but phoning ahead for a reservation is essential.

Despite the name, The Lemon Ice King of Corona boasts more than 30 flavors; many sport chunks of the fruit they were made from. Although this corner shop doesn’t offer tastes and doesn’t mix flavors, each serving is so inexpensive that it’s hardly a budget-buster to try one of the more exotic flavors (peanut butter? rum raisin? licorice?), then follow it with a second, palate-cleansing cup of lemon. Let’s be clear: Every summer, dozens of flavors compete for the attention of local and visiting customers alike, but lemon is the undisputed, all-time champ.

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Dave Cook and Jared Cohee

Published on August 17, 2021

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