New York City is known for being a big and beautiful mishmash of cultures, but there’s one borough in particular that lets you taste the whole world within just a few blocks. Erik Trinidad heads off in search of deliciousness.
Standing in the food court of the New World Mall in Flushing—a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens—and first glance, it appeared like the mall hangouts of my teen years in suburban New Jersey. However, upon closer look, the culinary selections were a tad different.
In a spot where there might have been an Auntie Anne’s, women at Joong Han Bon Sik were not hand-making pretzels; instead, Korean-Chinese dumplings with different fillings from fish to lamb. In lieu of a Cinnabon, a man was garnishing bonito flakes over takoyaki, balls of Japanese batter filled with diced octopus. And across the way, I saw big wooden bowls of Sichuan malatang, a spicy stir-fry containing some familiar ingredients like chicken and beef, and some not so common, like lotus root, tripe, woodear mushrooms, fish cake, and frogs’ legs. Panda Express, this was not.
This food court in Flushing, albeit in a mall basement, is something of a destination for urban foodie adventurers, be they visitors to the Big Apple or locals. Many New York foodies consider Flushing—as well as the rest of Queens—as a destination to get lost in the culinary traditions of the dozens of countries who have made this borough their home. With the tremendous immigrant community making the borough uber-international, it’s fitting that Queens was the stage of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fair, an international exhibition celebrating the achievements of nations.
Flushing has one of the biggest Chinatowns in the country, and as I strolled through its streets, it felt more like a scene out of modern Beijing—especially compared to its counterpart in lower Manhattan, which still retains a vintage early 20th century vibe. Here, the food isn’t just Chinese; it’s Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Sichuan, Hunan, Henan, Yunnan, Lanzhou, and western Chinese—influenced by the Arab traders of the Silk Road. And the regions of China represented in Flushing are joined by other Southeast Asian cuisines, from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. My stomach wasn’t big enough to sample it all in one visit, and I’ve had to make several trips to even scratch the surface of what’s on offer, from xiao long bao (Shanghainese soup dumplings) to Lanzhou hand-pulled lamian (noodles) with beef tendons.
Flushing lies at the end of NYC’s 7 subway line, linking Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center and Grand Central to the rest of the world—culinarily speaking, of course. The 7 train traverses many of the immigrant communities of Queens, and almost every stop is a chance to try a different ethnic cuisine. Between 40th and 46th St stations in Sunnyside is a small slice of Paraguay in an aptly named spot called I Love Paraguay, where I’ve sampled their chipas guazu, a tasty corn and cheese soufflé, among other delicacies. At the 69th St-Fisk Ave stop in Woodside, there’s a vibrant Filipino community, where restaurants like Krystal’s Cafe & Pastry Shop serve Pinoy (Filipino) staples ranging from a simple chicken adobo, a salty and sour stew, to more peculiar dishes like dinuguan—pork offal stewed in a savory, pork, blood-based gravy—a dish which has grown to become one of my favorites.
A huge community from the Indian subcontinent resides in Jackson Heights at the Roosevelt Ave-Jackson Heights station, where the likes of Hillary Clinton and Harrison Ford have dined at the humble Jackson Diner, a popular pan-Indian restaurant serving curries from the north, and dosas from the south. I’d had my fill of tandoori there, but for spices hailing from specific regions, I’ve made my way to Himalayan Yak to try the Nepalese/Tibetan fare, where dishes like tender yak shapta and raayo saag (a mustard green stew) go down well with a cup of Tibetan butter tea.
A couple more stops down from Roosevelt Ave transports you from the subcontinent to Latin America. Carnivorous foodies come for the Colombian restaurants, such as the popular La Pequeña Colombia for their fill of shrimp, steak, or lengua en salsa (beef tongue in sauce). Other restaurants in the neighborhood offer different Latin fare, from Salvadorean pupusas (thick, stuffed tortillas) at Mi Piqueño, to Ecuadorian seafood and goat dishes at Barzola. Having grown up with a Uruguayan friend, I’m also partial to a chivito, the traditional greasy sandwich filled with steak, cheese, and egg, and served up at El Chivito d’Oro.
Riding the elevated subway train is a great way to sample it all, but gastronomic adventures in Queens go beyond the 7 line. The northwestern Astoria neighborhood is home to a huge Greek population, and I’ve ‘gone Greek’ by way of saganaki (pan-fried cheese) and grilled mullets and sardines at Taverna Kyclades. The neighborhoods of Murray Hill and Bayside have a huge Korean community, where bulgogi and kalbi (beef short rib) sizzle at Korean barbecue restaurants like Mapo Korean BBQ. Over in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, the mile-long stretch of Little Guyana transports you to the Anglo-Caribbean for cuisine that mixes African, Creole, and Indian culinary styles. I’ve mixed them myself with my own hands, making roti from scratch at a Trinidadian cooking class with The League of Kitchens, a group that invites people to make home-cooked meals in immigrants’ homes. Experiencing international food adventures by way of eating is one thing… but preparing dishes is a whole other level, as I found out when my instructor Dolly taught me to make curry goat, dhal (Trini split pea soup), and chana and aloo, a chickpea and potato stew.
Critics have wondered why Lonely Planet once declared Queens their number one US travel destination, but with all my experiences in the borough, it’s clear why. It’s a place where you can eat your way around the world—without ever having to get on a plane. Queens may have been the stage of the World’s Fair in 1964, and today, it’s still a world’s fair—at every meal.