A One-Day Food Tour of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, New York's Most Diverse Dining Destination

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz, unless otherwise noted]

Whether you're just visiting New York or you've lived here all your life, chances are you haven't spent enough time exploring Jackson Heights, Queens. Take it from someone who lives there—truly knowing this immigrant-dominated neighborhood, where Colombians and Mexicans rub shoulders with Tibetans and Thai—is an impossible task. It's the New York dream writ small: astonishingly diverse, always changing, and endlessly interesting. Few other places on earth are as culturally rich and complex, and even fewer are dense enough to walk through in an afternoon.

That's enough of a reason to learn more about Jackson Heights. Then there's the food—dumpling shops hidden in cell phone stores, tacos and tortas cooked on every block, late night ceviche hawkers under the rumbling 7 train. Step off the subway and the air itself tastes good: grilled lamb and the perfume of a hundred curries.

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It's no reach to call Jackson Heights, and its neighbor Elmhurst, one of the most fascinating food destinations in the city. But it's also one of the most misunderstood.

Following a boom of Indian immigration in the 1970s, Jackson Heights earned a reputation as a Indian restaurant hub, with the outsider-friendly buffet-style Jackson Diner as its crown jewel. That reputation remains, even if the Jackson Diner's no better than your corner take out restaurant these days, and many of the Indians have moved out to Long Island and Jersey, taking their good food with them. Not that you can't find Indian cooking in the neighborhood; it's just that the quality is often lacking.

But that's okay, because in its place is an even more diverse population than ever before, with about two dozen Himalayan restaurants near the 74th Street subway station, two Thai food enclaves to the south in Elmhurst, a long stretch of Peruvian chicken joints along nearby Northern Boulevard, and of course the tract of Roosevelt Avenue between here and the Flushing River, with Latin American food carts on every block.

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There's no way to eat it all, but if you stick to a strict game plan, you can span continents of edible territory in a single afternoon, all for less than the price of a sit-down meal at some stuffy Manhattan white tablecloth restaurant. To that end I've put together a gutbusting tour of the neighborhood. Some of these spots have earned citywide fame; others are more reserved for locals. And absent are at least two dozen restaurants also absolutely worth your attention when you're packing less food into a limited amount of time. But we'll save those for round two.

Starter: Tibetan Dumplings

Step off the subway at Roosevelt Avenue and one of the first things you'll encounter is a half dozen food carts vying for your dollars. Closest to the station's main exit is a cluster of taco carts. Walk past them for now, but don't worry, because you'll be back soon enough.

Your first stop is a truck in a side street just off the Roosevelt hustle: Amdo Kitchen, which sets up shop around noon and serves good, cheap Himalayan grub through the early evening. Jackson Heights is the Himalayan food capital of New York, which means it's also the city's foremost momo destination.

These chubby steamed Tibetan dumplings are traditionally filled with beef and come with thicker, pleasantly chewy skins than most of their Chinese cousins. And while there are two dozen places to get your momo on in the neighborhood, none are quite as juicy and accessible as Amdo's, where a fiver buys you eight freshly steamed dumplings that'll drip juice all down your chin if you're not careful. Hit 'em with the house hot sauce, which isn't joking around, to balance the buzz of Sichuan peppercorns hidden in the mildly seasoned beef filling, then get ready to slurp these simple but excellent almost-soup-dumplings.

A Hidden Noodle Shop

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There's more to Tibetan food than momos, though, and you don't have to go far to get the good stuff. On a more leisurely crawl than the one I'm sending you on, you might want to take the time to hit up celebrated Himalayan mainstay Phayul, or my personal favorite, Woodside Cafe. But you still have many stops to make, so hurry on down to Lhasa Fast Food, which you access by walking down a hallway past a cell phone store to a tucked-away dining room presided over by a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

In this small kitchen you'll find Jackson Heights' best thenthuk (ten-took), which is to Chinese handpulled noodle soup what momo are to Chinese dumplings: heartier and more starchy, but good as all get-out. It's an unassuming but deeply satisfying bowl of beef broth filled to the brim with thick, chewy noodles as wide as a stick of gum. It benefits from the fiery dried chilies on the table, but go light—this soup is all about the subtlety of beef with grassy herbs to wash down little pillows of starch. Add a cup of salted butter tea and you have a meal to soothe any throat.

The Arepa Queen of New York

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The Arepa Lady is a New York street food legend, made famous in the '90s when Jim Leff raved about her in the New York Press. Up until last year, the only way to get her delightfully cheesy Colombian-style arepas was to hang around the corner of 79th and Roosevelt late at night on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer. The work to find her, and the wait, were all part of the fun, but her family's brick and mortar restaurant, which opened last year just a couple blocks from where the cart still pops up, makes getting your hands on her excellent arepas that much easier.

You're here for gooey, buttery cheese pocketed in cornmeal dough with crackly griddled crusts—not rocket science, but wholly satisfying. The base model, the queso, comes with gooey cheese in a fat puck of white cornmeal, with crumbles of salty cheese on top for good measure. A sweeter option is the chocolo, which swaps in sugary yellow corn and a squeaky white cheese that pairs best with the squeeze bottle of condensed milk on the table. And don't ignore the patacones, a choice not available at the cart: slabs of crisply fried green plantains topped with chunks of ripe avocado and your choice of meat. The fatty hunks of pork are my go-to, and worth an order if you're coming with a crowd.

Hit the Markets

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Half the fun of hanging in Jackson Heights is buying ingredients to take home and cook later, and you have no shortage of options here. 74th Street is home to the massive Patel Brothers, the Indian grocery chain where you can buy a pillowcase of cardamom, fresh curry leaves, and every spice and grain your Indian pantry could ever need. There's the giant New York Mart for all your Chinese grocery needs, with a wide range of jarred condiments, higher quality fresh produce than many Chinese markets, and—my favorite—a bulk fish ball bin with a dozen varieties for all your soup and kebab desires.

But the must-visit, one-of-a-kind market is in neighboring Elmhurst, a little shop called Thai Thai Grocery, whose warm proprietor sells the usual Thai staples—curry paste, coconut milk, loads of snacks—as well as a wide selection of homemade items from the local community. Those stocks are highest on the weekends, and if you're lucky, you'll walk out with some home-fried pork rinds and fresh (not canned) curry paste. Also check out the freeze and fridge cases for frozen coconut milk (richer and superior to canned), rare Thai herbs you won't find anywhere else in New York, and dense, meaty Thai river fish to fry yourself, a rare find stateside.

For something completely different, here's a place the locals keep to themselves: Despana, a small outlet of the Soho flagship Spanish specialty store. While it doesn't quite have the selection of its Manhattan big sister, it's the best place in Queens to buy olive oil, sherry vinegar, and fancy Spanish ham and seafood.

Pre-Dinner Snack

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Your market crawling should have gotten your appetite in gear again, and Jackson Heights has plenty to offer in the snack department. Chances are someone's going to ask you where you got Indian food in the neighborhood, and this should be your answer: Samudra, a south Indian vegetarian restaurant that stands in stark contrast to the primarily northern curry and kebab kitchens nearby. Samudra's great for chaat in all its forms; theirs is especially fresh and bright so as not to weigh you down.

Jackson Heights' vast preponderance of taco carts may have you craving tacos, and it's worth getting some Mexican food while you're here. But we've made the case before that Mexican sandwiches tend to outshine tacos in New York, for the simple reason that our sandwich bread bakeries are far more skilled than our local tortilla suppliers. Hit up those taco carts for a cemita, the piled-high Mexican Dagwood that drove my neighbor and colleague to pay a visit to their Pueblan birthplace so he could learn how to make them.

[Photograph: Daniel Gritzer]

The carts along 75th Street and Roosevelt make solid ones if you stick to bulletproof meats like carnitas, chorizo, and tongue, but my current go-to for a more moderately portioned sandwich is Guadalajara de Noche a little farther up the avenue. There the sesame seed bun is routinely fresh and toasted well on the griddle, the al pastor is reliably juicy and rich, and toppings of earthy beans, springy Oaxacan cheese, and mayo and avocado hit a balanced sweet spot without overwhelming the meat.

Or: consider pizza. Louie's, the super-classic slice joint on Baxter, doesn't do plain pies especially well, but their grandma is one of the best pizzas in the borough, and a nice change-up from the Latin American and Asian cuisines that dominate the neighborhood. It sings a simple tune: fresh mozzarella that's creamy where so many others are rubbery, and a basic sauce of little more than crushed, seasoned tomatoes, because good pizza needs little else. Ask for it well done so the fried-in-the-pan crust is at its burnished best, then wait a minute before digging in. This juicy number needs a minute to set up and cool down.

Dinner: Thai Homestyle

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Elmhurst, just to the south of Jackson Heights, is home to New York's densest Thai community, and there are plenty of quality restaurants where you'll hear more Thai than English and the food is legit spicy by default. They all have something to offer, but if you can only hit one and want to sample a lot all at once, there's no better place than Khao Kang.

Though styled as a steam table restaurant, Khao Kang's food feels more like home cooking than anywhere else. High turnover keeps the rotation of ten or so dishes fresh—green curry crackles with heat and are loaded with aromatic spices. Pickled bamboo soup is eyepoppingly sour, mellowed by a hint of funk. Homok, a weekend special of mashed, seasoned fish wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, is the best gefilte fish you've ever had. And you can sample all these things by ordering a combo plate of rice and three curries for under $10. Order from the friendly counter people, take a seat by one of the floor to ceiling windows, and stock up on water, because this stuff can get seriously hot in an addictive hallucinatory way.

Something Sweet: Toast and Then Some

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You're in the home stretch, and you may be stuffed beyond capacity, but if you're looking for a sweet way to end your crawl, a trip to Sugar Club is in order. This Elmhurst Thai grocery (hit it up on the way back to the subway from Khao Kang) recently expanded to a much larger space, which means more shelves for imported Thai snacks and specialties like fermented sausage and candy-sweet dried bananas. Pick up some ready-made homestyle Thai dishes to nibble on tomorrow in your post-gorging stupor, but also visit the dessert counter for a massive tower of toast.

This is Asian-style dessert toast, made from thick, thick slabs of light-as-air rectilinear white bread that's slathered with butter and condensed milk and baked until its edges turn to caramel. On top of all that, the "honey toast" adds a drizzle of honey, ripe bananas, whipped cream, and a scoop of dark, grassy green tea ice cream on the side. It's light and fragrant where so many toasts are just heavy and sweet, and it's as delightfully freewheeling with cultural boundaries as the neighborhood it calls home.