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For restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, greengrocers, meat markets, and other places that proffer food and drink, the effects of the pandemic that arrived in Queens in early 2020 have abated – if not quite disappeared – as of late 2022. New businesses are appearing with increasing frequency, while others have found occasion to expand. Many older businesses and their longtime customers, after missing one another these past two-plus years, are re-invigorating connections with their communities. In at least one instance, an establishment that we thought was gone for good – a beloved food court – has managed not only to revive itself but to provide a home for a next generation of local small businesses. Here are a few of our recent favorite dining destinations, both old and new.

Queens Lanka

In search of spicy food from Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island that seems to fall from the southern tip of India, many New Yorkers travel to the southernmost borough of their own city, Staten Island. But although that island is home to New York’s best-known community of Sri Lankans, a smaller contingent keeps company with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica.

In 2022, Queens Lanka – a well-stocked market with a keep-warm case beside the checkout, where we could dependably quiet our hunger with a fish bun – expanded its menu. The chef (himself a recent transplant from a Staten Island kitchen) prepares a compact roster of curries and kothu rotis for takeaway, at an outdoor picnic table or (my choice) along an indoor counter furnished with a handful of stools. For good food, I don’t mind close quarters – my chopped-roti stir-fry shared counter space with a cricket bat.

Tibetan and Sichuanese Comfort Food at Nha Sang

Tibet shares a mountainous border with Sichuan province in southwestern China. It’s not uncommon, at least in Queens, for Tibetan and Sichuanese dishes to share a border on the pages of a restaurant menu, too. Imagine a hearty diet suitable for cold weather at high altitudes, and a bill of fare begins to fall in place. The setting will often be rustic.

By contrast, on a first visit, the high-ceilinged dining room of Nha Sang, in Elmhurst, was almost elegant (once this space had been a Cantonese seafood hall). My server wore what seemed to be traditional Tibetan attire, although her accent hailed not from Tibet, not from Sichuan, but from Nha Sang’s previous home – Minnesota, where the mountains are hardly Himalayan but the climate does inspire lots of comfort food. A sharable plate of beef and potatoes was not only comforting but also invigorating; some credit must go to the chili peppers.

Pera Ždera’s Lamb Flatbread

The street fair was disappointing, and my appetite was growing. On a sunny afternoon this past summer, several familiar restaurants were just a short walk away, in Ridgewood, but I decided to instead press eastward, into Glendale, a largely residential neighborhood bracketed by parks and cemeteries that I’ve visited much less often. Soon, on a shop front, I spotted a familiar face: Wimpy, an old-time cartoon character famous for his appetite and his lack of ready money. (His catchphrase: “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”)

Wimpy, I discovered, is also the mascot of a small Serbian restaurant called Pera Ždera – loosely, and fittingly, “Peter Eater.” In short order I secured a hunger-killing jagnjetina u somun, meltingly tender lamb on soft, chewy flatbread. My sandwich proved to be much bigger and better-filled than one of Wimpy’s burgers; I needed two hands and, eventually, a fork.

– Dave Cook

Brazilian Grills

Saudade is a term in Portuguese that is commonly translated as nostalgia or longing for something, someone or place.  It’s actually not that simple – it is one of those words that are near impossible to translate.  This has been a year of lots of saudades for me, starting, appropriately enough, with Brazilian food. There are several types of Brazilian restaurants, but I’m sticking to the two most common: the all-you-can-eat grilled meat and the “por quilo” restaurants (I’ll translate that as “per pound”).

Rainhas Churrasqueira is an old Queens establishment by now, and one of my Best Bites of this year. It falls under the first category – you pay a set price, then it’s all you can eat. First there is the amazing open salad bar that includes not only salads but rice, stews, plantains, mashed potatoes, beans etc. Once your plate is full, you sit down and switch the flag at the table to green. The runners then will start coming with the espetos, long metal rods used to skewer the meat, which ranges from cheaper cuts to skirt steak, sausages etc.

The “per pound” restaurants are similar, but the difference is that once you load your plate at the salad bar, you walk to the window and can chat with the grill master. He’ll tell you what he has; he’ll ask you how well-done you want it.  Then you get as many slices or pieces (of, say, ribs)  as you want. Everything gets weighed, and that’s what you pay. (This option is great as you feel less pressure to overeat.)

I love a couple such places in Queens. My very favorite is Villa Brazil Café Grill in Astoria. Their selection of meats always makes for a challenge when it’s time to decide. I usually stick to the more traditional picanha (round steak), costelas (beef ribs) and sausages. And you can’t skip dessert, especially the passionfruit mousse. Closer to where I live is another por quilo spot, Aroma Brazil.  It’s a similar set-up in a smaller space, but don’t let that make you think you won’t get the best quality, from simple starters to the full Brazilian grill experience.

– Esneider Arevalo

From the Colombian Coast

Also on my saudades list is Colombian food. But not just any Colombian restaurant – the kind of place that breaks the mold of just about every place in New York City. Such a place is Mister Cangrejo, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in food from the pacific coast of Colombia; lots of seafood, and dishes you can’t find just anywhere. I love their encocado de cangrejo, crab in a creamy coconut sauce; viudo de pescado, stewed fish with a rich hogao sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic and scallions, served with plantains and potatoes.

Return of the Food Court

I’m also very happy that the HK food court in Elmhurst has reopened (though saddened that is not coming back with the same size it had before). Hong Kong-style food courts were hard hit during the pandemic, so I celebrate that this one is making a comeback. There are two stalls right now that stand out the most to me. At Burmese kitchen Thar Gi, you must get the mohinga, a rich catfish and lentil stew with noodles served with limes and pepper sauce. At Filipino BBQ, there is barbecue pork which comes with rice and a variety of sauces and vinegars, chicken inasal (marinated grilled chicken legs), or go for a complete platter like the bila-o boodle fight, which includes grilled shrimp, stuffed squid, pork belly, chicken inasal and more. Make sure to bring a couple of friends for this one.

– Esneider Arevalo

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Dave Cook and Esneider Arevalo

Published on December 27, 2022

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