While Manhattan may have the most refined— and pricey—Indian restaurants in New York, some of the best, down-home cooking from the subcontinent can be found in an eight-block area across the Queensborough Bridge in Jackson Heights. They don’t call it “Little India” for nothing.
Easily reached by taxi or subway, you’ll find more regional cuisine and at more affordable prices in this Queens neighbourhood teeming with immigrants from Mumbai, Goa, New Delhi as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan. The streets are lined with kebab joints, fast-food eateries, sweet shops and casual restaurants whose specialities reflect their owners’ provenance.
Stores display saris on old mannequins that look more like Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake than contemporary Indian movie stars, though local theatres show the new Bollywood films, and music video stores sell CDs and DVDs imported from the old country. I’ve never seen more gold and silver shops outside Manhattan’s jewellery district.
Stepping out of a taxi, or up from the F-train station at Roosevelt Avenue, you’re immediately hit with the aromas of cardamom, coriander, ginger, saffron and cinnamon wafting from restaurant doorways and apartment windows.
In the restaurants, young Indians engrossed in their iPods scarf up rice dishes and curries. Customers line up outside shops that specialize in stuffed, deep-fried samosa pastries and, in the sweet shops, wide-eyed children point to jalebi candies, carrot halwa and pistachio-flecked cheese dumplings.
One of the long-running, standout restaurants in Little India is the curiously named Jackson Diner, which took more than an old flapjacks-and- burger joint here in 1980 and has been a destination for north Indian food aficionados ever since. It’s a huge place with high ceilings, tables with placemats and paper napkins, and a full bar. Service is perfunctory at best, and they take only cash.
I suspect that if Al Pacino or Jay-Z walked in, the owners wouldn’t notice; but if a Bollywood star, such as Arjun Rampal or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dropped by, the place would erupt in pandemonium.
So you sit down, order a Kingfisher beer, India’s best- selling brew, and open a menu in which the most expensive item is the Tandoori Deluxe— a large platter of kebabs, lamb chops, prawn and fish for $23.95 (about Rs1,032).
Start off with the wonderful samosas stuffed with spiced peas and potatoes ($3.95) or the paneer pakora ($6.95), cheese fritters stuffed with mint. By all means get a dosa ($9)—the fragile, crisp, foot-long rice-and-bean flour crepes stuffed with coconut and potato. This is food to be shared and taken home, and at these prices, you might as well over-order.
The malai kofta ($11.50) are cheese-and-vegetable croquettes simmered in a very rich, creamy curry sauce, while sag paneer ($11.50) is a savoury, complex stew of spinach, potatoes and cheese. With these you pull off pieces of tandoor-cooked onion kulcha that is sweet, yeasty and seared with a little char.
Around the corner and up a couple of blocks is a busy storefront eatery that derives its name from its best dish—Deshi Biryani. This Bengali restaurant credits the owners’ grandmother for its recipes. The biryani dishes have built an enviable reputation in the neighbourhood.
Deshi Biryani doesn’t look like much—a narrow room with bamboo screens and hats, tiled floors and, up front, a couple of sofas where you can wait for a table. Service here is not exactly a model of efficiency, and the food takes a while to come out of the kitchen.
When it does, you will be very happy if you’ve ordered the house speciality, a lavish portion of kachi biryani ($10.99), made with extremely tender goat’s meat that has absorbed all the flavours, saffron and myriad spices of the broth that suffuses the fragrant basmati rice.
The samosa ($3.99) and the dim aloo chop ($4.99), filled with potato, chillies, hard-boiled egg and spices, are substantial and delicious. And the Boti skewered dishes ($12.99) are equally generous—a platter of vegetables and salad topped with plump kebabs of beef marinated in yogurt and papaya, then cooked for hours.
You’re not likely to want dessert in either of these restaurants, and if you bring food home on the subway, be prepared to have people stare at you with longing as the perfume from those Indian spices pervades the air.
37-47, 74th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens; +1-718-672-1232; ‘www.jacksondiner.com’
Cost: Appetizers, $3.95-9.95; main courses, $11.50-23.95
Sound level: It’s a big place, though not very loud
Date place:If you can get him or her to trek out to Queens
Inside tip: Get a window table if possible, so you can watch the people of “Little India” pass by
Special feature: Excellent food at very low prices
Private room: A banquet hall
Will I be back? When I’m dying for Indian food on a dime, yes, yes, yes
75-18, 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens; +1-718-803-6232; ‘www.deshibiryani.com’
Cost: Appetizers, $3.99-9.99;
main courses, $8.50-14.99
Sound level: Moderate
Date place: For a very casual date
Inside tip: As the name suggests, don’t miss the biryani dishes
Special feature: You’ll definitely hobnob with the neighbours here
Private room: No
Will I be back? For that biryani alone, it’s worth a trip
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