With its 109 square miles, Queens is New York’s largest borough geographically speaking. Yet despite its vast size, the area has historically lagged behind Manhattan and Brooklyn in terms of cultural cachet.
But Queens’ after-thought status is rooted in ignorance, not reality, and food-obsessed New Yorkers in particular are well-aware of that. Queens offers an embarrassment of riches for adventurous eaters in NYC, with enough world cuisines available to fuel a lifetime of exploration. It’s also finally getting the recognition it deserves as an international travel destination, with more ink spilled than ever by the likes of The New York Times and Lonely Planet.
Even so, it still takes a card-carrying local to navigate the endless street food stalls and bounty of strip malls. For some insight, we reached out to Himanshu Suri—also known as Heems of the now disbanded Das Racist—who grew up in Flushing and now travels the world rapping and, most importantly, eating.
One of the things I want to do is open up a sandwich shop that does this Bombay street food called pav sandwiches.
“[Growing up] a lot of my days were spent playing basketball, and then my nights were spent eating great Asian food,” says Heems. “For me Queens is more about the food, whether it’s Malaysian or Chinese, and it’s all about spirituality, whether it’s a Hindu temple, a Sikh temple, or a Mosque. That’s what my time there is occupied by.”
But Heems also has dreams of entering that food world. “One of the things I want to do is open up a sandwich shop that does this Bombay street food called pav sandwiches. The sandwich bread is almost like a dinner roll, and when you order it in India you get all types of food with it. I’m about to leave for tour for a month, but the plan is maybe this autumn I’ll focus on putting together a menu and working on that. It’s all shaped by growing up in Queens and having this tendency to love home-cooked food—so I want to share that with people.”
Heems spoke with us en route to meeting a friend for Chinese dumplings, and while his final destination was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he spent the next half hour detailing how NYC’s best food is located in his own neighborhood. From Flushing’s Indian-Chinese cuisine, to the best and holiest places to eat roti in Richmond Hill, here are several Heems-endorsed food tips that will help you experience Queens at its best.
Eating soup dumplings should be a transformative experience.
Heems says: There’s one [place] I go to now that’s right near my Hindu temple, and it’s on Kissena Boulevard, and I don’t know the name because the awning is in Chinese and I’m always the only non-Chinese person in there. But it’s literally next door to the temple I’ve been going to since I was a little kid. Their soup dumplings are mad good and they’re just a little bit smaller and thinner than the ones at M. Shanghai. I just like walking in there—there’s always Chinese TV playing. I also like walking into this space because it feels like I’m in China.
There’s a museum I went to in Salem, MA, called Peabody Essex, and they have this old house from China that they brought over brick by brick and reconstructed. It was amazing to see how the architecture almost changed the quality of the air. I walked into the yard and because of the building I felt like I was in China; in that same vein, I like going to these places where there are a lot of people from the community who go in there. It feels more authentic and I also feel like I’m taken to that place. (Photo: Flickr/Poi Beltran)
Pay homage to Indian-Chinese food—a Flushing specialty.
Heems says: I like Flushing because you can find fusion Indian-Chinese food. If you know Indian cuisine, then you know that Chinese spices and [influences] can commonly be found in it. A lot of the American-Indian people follow what goes on in India, so a lot of the restaurants in Queens and Long Island do Chinese-Indian food and it’s awesome.
I guess an easy way to explain the flavoring would be something like Singapore noodles. Malaysia has a joining of Chinese and South Indian cultures, but their food is totally different. What I’m talking about is more like a blend of North Indian and Chinese cuisine. It’s not necessarily that they use the same ingredients—it’s different spices, but it’s mixing those spices together. You’ll find things like Hakka noodles and Manchurian cauliflower. Some of the best places that get it, though, are out on Long Island: Nanking (2056 Hillside Ave, North New Hyde Park; 516-352-0009) is one of them, as is Masala Wok (107 S Broadway, Hicksville; 516-932-1999). (Photo: Yelp/Tina C.)
Expand your dumpling knowledge in Jackson Heights.
Heems says: Jackson Heights has momos, which are awesome. They’re basically dumplings that are a blend of Eastern and South Asian cuisine and you can only get them in Jackson Heights. I believe the people who make them are known as Newari. Their dumplings have meat in them, and the meat is spiced [Indian-style]. I remember I’ve mostly been to this one cart that hangs right under the train. (Photo: Yelp/Chris H.)
Track down the G.O.A.T. roti in Richmond Hill.
Richmond Hill is known for both its West Indian and Punjabi food. It has Punjabi Kebab House (91-52 Lefferts Blvd, Richmond Hill; 718-846-2800), which has really good Punjabi food. But for me, Richmond Hill is more about going to the Sikh temple and having food there with prayer. They give you food—it’s tied into praying. Same with the Hindu center: They give you vegetarian food like lentils, cauliflower, and potatoes with roti. Queens is all about the roti, the round Indian and West Indian wheat bread that is cooked from Indian and Pakistan, to Guyana and Trinidad. So if you’re in Queens make sure to get some. (Photo: Flickr/Alpha)
Hit the deli for your late-night needs.
For later in the night there’s always Cherry Valley (12-29 150th St, Whitestone; 718-767-1937), which is an awesome sandwich spot that everybody in Queens goes to. They’ve treated me a couple times and played my music there, which was dope. (Photo: Yelp/Jenn L.)