“Jackson Heights is so much more than a Little India”, explains food writer Joe DiStefano. “The food and culture here encompasses both South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Nepal, India) and South America (Colombia, Mexico, Peru). There’s even a Japanese cafe. It’s the most diverse section of New York City’s most diverse borough. I would encourage people to blaze their own paths when it comes to culinary exploration of this neighborhood and others in Queens.”
DiStefano, along with photographer Clay Williams, is the creative mind behind the best-selling guidebook 111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss. Last month, the duo welcomed JBF Greens members to Queens for a culinary and cultural tour of Jackson Heights. Couldn’t make the tour? We asked DiStefano and Williams to share their ultimate one-day Queens itinerary so the rest of us can get in on the borough’s best bites and booze. Both start the day off with a bang in Flushing with spicy Southeast Asian street food. From there, their paths diverge, showcasing the diversity of Queens’s multitude of offerings, from Italian subs and a dip in a Russian banya, to Szechuan snacks, shopping, and sweet Manhattan skyline views.
Joe Distefano: There’s so much to do in Queens I recommend getting a really early start, perhaps even before sunrise, with a stop at New Curry Leaves in Flushing. During the day it’s a sit-down Malaysian restaurant with waiter service, but from 4 A.M. to 11 A.M., it’s a pop-up serving hawker fare (a.k.a. street food). Get a bowl of kari (curry) laksa, enriched with coconut milk and humming with chile heat. You get to choose your own noodles (I prefer the springy yellow ones) and fixings, which include half a dozen varieties of fish balls, char siu, shrimp, and bok choy.
Clay Williams: I’m not quite the early riser Joe is, so I’m more likely to get to Flushing for early lunch. Golden Shopping Mall is my go-to spot for afternoon snacks. There are other, more polished food halls in the neighborhood, but you can’t beat the spicy dumplings in chile oil from the Szechuan stand, Chengdu Heaven, or the lamb dumplings sold at the no-frills stand owned by Helen You, who also owns the famed Dumpling Galaxy a few blocks away. While in Flushing, I’d probably do a little shopping at the grocery stores in the area, picking up good quality noodles, dried shrimp, or maybe a fresh bottle of fish sauce to cook with at home.
JD: From downtown Flushing, I head to Flushing Meadows Corona Park’s Unisphere, that timeless symbol of Queens constructed for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Head west on Roosevelt Avenue until you arrive at Citi Field—the entrance to the park is just one subway stop away across the street. Come summertime, it’s great to cool off in the mist of the Unisphere’s fountain. From there, head over to historic Italian deli Leo’s Latticini in Corona (a.k.a. Mama’s of Corona). Get a Mama’s special hero—a trifecta of genoa salami, pepper ham, and creamy white housemade mozzarella. You will be asked if you want roasted peppers and marinated mushrooms. It’s an offer you shouldn’t refuse. Take it to-go and eat in the backyard of Mama’s Cafe. No trip to Corona is complete without a visit to the Lemon Ice King. Whether you go for the classic lemon or slightly more modern creations like orange–vanilla swirl (which tastes exactly like a Creamsicle), be sure to eat it in nearby Spaghetti Park. With any luck, you’ll be able to take in a game of championship bocce.
Now it’s time for some old-school Russian relaxation. Make your way over to Forest Hills Spa, the only Russian banya in Queens. Take a shvitz in the Russian radiant heat room. For a real Russian-style treatment, get a platza, which consists of getting thrashed with a bundle of oak leaves. Reward yourself with a plate of fried veal pelmeni in the cafe.
CW: From Flushing, I’d hop on the 7 train to Jackson Heights, for a Mexican ceviche cup at La Esquina del Camaron Mexicano. It’s filled with shrimp, octopus, avocado, and lime juice. It’s delicious and light enough that you can save space for your next meal.
It’s tempting to go to Elmhurst at this point, to get a big plate of spicy, funky laarb from LaMoon, which is just amazing, but that might do me in for the day. I’d need a nap. Instead, I would walk to 74th Street and shop for South Asian groceries at Patel Brothers. If my wife were with me, she’d go ogle the beautiful textiles at the various nearby sari shops while I picked up curry leaves and spices.
I can’t go to Jackson Heights without having at least one plate of momos. There are so many options for those Himalayan dumplings, each place different from the last. My favorite of late has been Potala, a small storefront on 37th Avenue. The momos are great, of course, but draw for me is the huge window onto the street perfect for some people watching.
CW: Back on the 7 train, I’d head to Long Island City to walk along the waterfront at Gantry Plaza State Park for a gorgeous view of the Midtown skyline. The park also has playing fields, lounge chairs, and the LIC Landing cafe that doubles as a beer garden in the evenings. It’s a great spot to watch the sun set over Manhattan and bask in the glow of the Pepsi Cola sign when dusk falls.
JD: I’d also head to Long Island City, but for an extra-special Queens dinner, you have to go to M. Wells Steakhouse, where chef Hugue Dufour puts his avant-garde spin on wood-fired steaks. While the beef is great, I come for his rotating roster of signature creations like grass-fed lamb’s testicles with chanterelles, chicken-fried quail, and heritage pork T-bone with sumac and pecan. Desserts range from an over-the-top beaver tail to elderflower–pistachio truffle.
After dinner, head on over to nearby Dutch Kills Bar for a killer-diller cocktail. Order from the menu, or better yet, let the guy or gal behind the stick shake or stir you a bespoke cocktail. If you’re feeling peckish after a few drinks, Hendu’s Sandwich Shop, which operates the bar’s kitchen, has you covered. Selections include a chicken Bolognese hero and a wonderful roast beef.
CW: A block away from Gantry Plaza State Park is SweetLeaf Coffee and Cocktail, a cafe by day and cocktail bar in the evenings. It’s full of comfortable couches and hidden nooks to relax over a drink or two after a long day or grazing. Or, if I was feeling like a beer, Big aLICe Brewing is a few blocks north of there. It has a small tasting room open to guests. Joe is totally right about Dutch Kills to wrap up the evening. It’s definitely the top spot for custom cocktails!
111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss is available here. Follow Joe DiStefano is on his blog Chopsticks and Marrow, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Follow Clay Williams on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Julie Weil is special events associate at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram.
Photo: EvanTravels / iStock / Getty Images Plus