Take a deep dive into the culinary side of now-hot Queens
Jan. 04, 2016
NEW YORK (AP) — When eating in New York City, breaking out of the Manhattan mindset is tough, at least for visitors.
Because when you mostly are here on business — no matter how frequently — the glut of great eats in Manhattan makes it easy to ignore the wealth of awesome restaurants and bars in what locals call "the outer boroughs." Shortsighted, I know. But when you are on the ground for just a few days, places like Brooklyn and Queens can feel forever away.
Which is why a native New Yorker friend recently helped me push my boundaries — and my appetite. It was painless, fun and easy, mostly thanks to the No. 7 subway line.
The 7 line — and its beautiful, spanking-new Hudson Yards station at 34th Street and 11th Avenue — is an easy way for visitors to explore funky and authentic Queens neighborhoods on the rise. Brooklyn is better-known as the city's hipster destination, but Queens is catching up. It already has multiple Michelin-starred restaurants, including Casa Enrique, M. Wells Steakhouse and Zabb Elee.
So on a Tuesday afternoon, for $2.75, we caught a 7 express train and in 35 minutes we were in Flushing, Queens. It felt nothing like Manhattan, but it was the start of what would feel like a culinary United Nations.
Emerging on Flushing's Main Street, we found ourselves in a swirl of Chinatown: a woman making fresh tofu on the street here, a window of barbecue-bronzed poultry and ribs there. You could spend a day on Main Street alone, poking through the warrens of shops and eateries. But we headed across the street to the New World Mall, a place with enough hard-core foodie cred to have once earned Anthony Bourdain's attention.
The mall basement is where you'll find a food court like nothing you've seen in the suburbs. A couple dozen stalls offer everything from freshly pulled ramen to delicate filled dumplings to — and here's the money shot — freshly filled rice rolls (balls). Start at Lan Zhou Hand Made Noodle for ramen that will be pulled and shaped and tossed as you watch. You can get the noodles with nearly anything; we went with lamb.
Just don't eat too much. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Now head across the hall to Tao Rice Rolls, where you select your fillings, then watch as the chef masterfully encases them in a ball of lightly seasoned sticky rice. We chose mushrooms, sausage, nori seaweed and dried pork. The result — for a mere $3.50 — was crunchy, sweet, warm and meaty.
For a delicious visual overload, head upstairs to the JMart, a sprawling Asian supermarket that transports you to lands where duck feet and live turtles are common fare. There are tamer options too, but resist the urge to load up: You have multiple bites and subway stops to go as you eat your way back to Manhattan. (Note: A $31 MetroCard covers unlimited subway rides, good for seven days.)
Jump back on a Manhattan-bound 7, and get off at 69th Street. At 71-28 Roosevelt Ave., in the working-class, multi-ethnic Jackson Heights neighborhood, you'll find one of the Michelin stars — Zabb Elee, which specializes in northern Thai cuisine and also has a Manhattan outpost. The decor is simple, the food is not. Get the beef larb, minced meat salad potent with scallions, chilies and lime. This is what they are known for. But you might also get som tum, a green papaya and crab salad that gets oomph from fermented fish sauce. Wash it down with a lychee martini.
It's a few blocks to Papa's Kitchen, 65-40 Woodside Ave., considered one of New York's best Filipino restaurants. It's small, intimate and you will be asked — repeatedly — to partake in karaoke. We passed. But we didn't pass on the Shanghai dynamite (crisply fried spring rolls stuffed with pork and vegetables), nor the pork loin slowly simmered in coconut milk and serrano chilies.
Hop back on the 7 train at the Woodside-61st Street station. Head to the Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue stop for another star-worthy meal, this time at Casa Enrique, 5-48 49th Ave. Up to now, everything has been deliciously down market. Casa Enrique, in the gentrifying Hunters Point-Long Island City area, scales up. Beautifully rustic, it has a relaxed but happening vibe. In good weather, sit on the back covered patio. It feels like another, better, world.
My friend got a mango caipirinha, I went with a chili-spiked margarita. Both were delicious and a great complement to our ceviche and skirt steak tacos. We wanted to order more, but we were stuffed. Stuffed, that is, until I foolishly Googled other eateries and noticed Burnside Biscuits, a new-ish place specializing in biscuits and fried chicken at 32-07 30th Ave. in Astoria. We couldn't resist.
To get there, we could have taken the 7 from Vernon Boulevard to Queensboro Plaza, then changed for the N to Astoria-Ditmars. Forgive us for succumbing instead to a passing taxi. We were feeling a bit bloated.
Burnside Biscuits shone like a beacon from its spot on a bustling commercial strip. This is no hole in the wall. This is a place to linger with friends. The decor — gleaming open kitchen, deco tiles, brick oven — is classy and casual all at once. And the biscuits? Killer.
By now it was dark. Our stomachs ached. We'd sampled a world of food in six hours. Total cost for two people (with several drinks along the way): $170.23.
Alas, the 7 train was not nearby, but the elevated N train platform was, so we took that into Manhattan (where you can switch from the N to the 7 at Times Square).
It was enough to make me think maybe there is a food world beyond Manhattan, and it really does deserve a visit. Or 10.
For a video of a visit to Chinatown in Queens, go to: https://youtu.be/Kc1REDNnrrw
AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch is on Twitter and Instagram as @JM_Hirsch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org