Tibetan momos, sari shops, and small town South America
Step out of the 74th street subway tunnel on a Saturday in this corner of Queens and you're met with the inviting aromas of Indian curries and Himalayan dumplings, your first sensory overload before you realize you've just joined the fast-moving stream of Saturday commerce that whisks you down the sidewalk. Bustling crowds of families and friends are all on the move, shopping for Indian groceries at Patel Bros, buying Tibetan housewares and religious icons for a special occasion, or even purchasing a rainbow of raw textiles soon to become Saris.
It won't take but 5 minutes on the sidewalk to realize that Jackson Heights is a vibrant metropolis of incredible diversity, counting over 100,000 residents who claim over 100 different nationalities.
Walk down 74th and you've taken a day trip to Mumbai, India or Lhasa, Tibet. Head over 8 blocks to 82nd and you've joined the world of Colombianos, Puruvians, and all sorts of other Latin American histories.Then head back an avenue and you've entered a planned garden city, a 1915 dream for modern suburbia complete with garden-style apartments and brick mansions that (gasp!) have actual backyards. Talk about some serious diversity, and a fantastic expression of it at that.
You could spend days eating and shopping your way through Jackson Heights, but below are a few favorites as of yet. Be sure to bring a hearty appetite and get ready to find some of the best eats in New York in less than obvious corners -- behind a beauty parlor or even in the back of a cell phone shop. Enjoy!!
Delicious Tibetan eats, where else but in the back of a cell phone shop or behind a beauty salon?
This part of Jackson heights off the 74th street 7 station has traditionally been known as "Little India", but these days its even being called "Himalayan Heights" and "Little Tibet". Thanks to the size of the Tibetan community here, you'll find at least 10-15 great options for Tibetan Momos (a cousin of the Chinese soup dumplings we all know and love), blood sausage, marinated yak, and an end-of-meal delicacy that is exactly what it sounds like: butter tea.
Phayul (look for it up a winding staircase off 37th, tucked between an eyebrow threading salon and a jewelry store), cooks up eats traditional to Kham and Amdo, regions that boarder Eastern Tibet and Western Szechuan. Combine that tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorn spice with mountain herbs believed to have healing powers and you've got yourself quite a unique (and delicious) meal.
Tibetan Mobile / Lhasa Fast Food is one of my favorite discoveries yet. Like most of these local gems, its so wonderfully hidden that you could walk by it for years and not even know its there. So, we turned to the expert on all Jackson Heights food matters for advice (and directions): Jeff Orlick, Jackson Heights food tour guide extraordinaire and author of iwantmorefood.com.
Walk into the Tibetan Mobile cell phone shop (37-50 74th St - the door on the right) and head all the way to the back past the cases of plastic phones and chargers. Little Tibetan flags and the smell of spicy beef momos will guide the way; you'll know you're there when you're standing under a giant painting of the Dalai Llama and suddenly surrounded by traditional Tibetan music filling the room from the small wall-mounted TV.
The owner of this little shop makes all the dumplings by hand and from scratch. Watch him fold and pinch the dough at lighting speeds behind the counter and snag a spot at the bar as soon as one frees up. Grab your woven basket of hot soupy dumplings, chat with your neighbor (who is fascinating I'm sure), add plenty of peppercorn chili and soy sauce, and you've got yourself a memorable afternoon snack. And, just in case you can't get enough of these steaming pockets of broth and beef, Serious Eats also did a fantastic roundup of the best Momo spots in Jackson heights - so you can try them all!
I didn't know what to expect here - would it be something like an Indian curry? A Chinese vegetable dish? In truth, this branch of Himalayan cuisine embraces both in its diverse Thali platters which include rich buttery goat curry alongside some sort of spicy pickled vegetables, white rice, and what is most certainly a Chinese-inspired vegetable dish heavily spiced with cumin -- so many delicious flavors on one (large) platter. And of course, the Thakali Kitchen variety of our favorite Momos are well worth an order - if only to get a sense of the diversity in even the preparation of this simple dish around the region.
Tibetan icons, incense, and all sort of other treasures
Walk along 74th street and you'll see shop after shop, filled to the brim with incense, tea, religious icons, ceremonial masks, jewelry, Tibetan childrens magazines, and all sorts of other curious finds. Spend a few minutes perusing and be sure to check out the basement floors where they exist - that's where you're likely to find the larger, more valuable sculptures like this huge bronze elephant.
Patel Bros, a mecca for Indian groceries
Its hard to imagine that a grocery store can be a destination in a community, but Patel Bros seriously fits the bill. This place is mobbed with shoppers stocking up on unique Indian vegetables, lentil varieties, pastes, and sweets. Stop by and expect to be pulled into the crowd of overflowing shopping carts and a flurry of dialects.
If you're looking for even more specialty grocery adventures in this corner of Queens, Serious Eats did a great piece on shopping with Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker in Jackson Heights. As it turns out, there are some pretty phenomenal Thai spots where you can get anything from Tamarind paste to frozen durian.
Textile shops galore
These little shops are fun to wander, whether or not you're in the market for a Sari or prepping for that next Indian wedding you've got coming up. Hundreds of spools of vibrant hues and patterns are crammed into shelves and stacked on tables, perfect for a bit of design inspiration any day.
The famous Arepa Lady and other South American delights
From her humble beginnings as a Colombian immigrant with no formal food experience, Maria Cano (now called "the sainted Arepa Lady") has built a serious name for herself and those buttery cornmeal cakes she fries up at her cart on Roosevelt Ave and 79th.
Come out on a late Friday or Saturday night in the warmer months of the year and join the eager crowds waiting to snag one of those fresh-off-the-grill arepas. Look forward also to her new brick and mortar spot, opening later this year near the food cart. And, just in case you're not hungry enough, check out this beautiful little 60 second profile of Cano by the wonderful James Boo.
La Nueva Bakery is the sort of place where families come on the weekend to dip pan de queso in steaming cups of coffee while they catch up over the constant hum of South American soccer teams dueling it out on the TV. This buzzing Uruguayan spot serves up authentic Antojitos Colombianos, snacks and sweets traditionally hailing from Argentina and Colombia. Try the flaky beef empanadas and the alfajores, buttery cookies that sandwich a layer of sticky sweet dulce de leche. And if you've got an extra sweet tooth, order the churros, also stuffed with dulce de leche.
82nd Street and the Garden City
That this part of the neighborhood exists is sort of a shock, especially after you've wandered the surrounding terrain of sari shops, bodegas, and dumpling carts. In fact, this area of tranquil Garden City apartment complexes and buzzing Tudor-style retail districts is a remnant of Jackson Heights' original founding as a highly planned community.
Back in 1909, the Queensboro Corporation opened the Queensboro bridge, linking 59th street in Manhattan and beginning development of the area that is now Jackson Heights. Inspired by the popular Garden City movement and Harvard's Georgian-style dorms, the company's president dreamed of building a modern suburban utopia which would take on the challenge of planning entire city blocks and not just individual buildings.
The centerpiece of this suburban vision and architectural experiment would be the garden apartment complex, a group of architecturally similar coop apartments build around a central, shared garden. The idea was to let lots of light and air in, creating an enticing living experience that would lure future residents out of the crowding and stench of Manhattan and into former farmland. Though the garden city movement later fizzled as a planning concept, the Jackson heights version is still very much alive today and is certainly worth a visit if planning / architecture / houses in nyc with yards is your thing!
Mapping your trip
Given the incredible amount of diversity in this neighborhood, you'd think think things would be very spread out. The opposite is true - most of the activity is centered around a few streets, especially around the 74th and 82nd street 7 line stations starting with Southeast Asian and then transitioning rapidly to South American. Go hungry and enjoy!