Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and this week, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. The week will culminate with a Secret Supper in New York City, and Eatocracy invites you to participate online starting Monday July 11th at 6:30 p.m. E.T.
On maps, New York’s 7 train links Midtown Manhattan with Flushing in Queens, but it really connects New Yorkers from all over the world: so much so that the city has dubbed it the “International Express.” In 2000, it was named a National Millennium Trail, in recognition of its serving as “a metaphor for the migration of all the world’s people to America’s shores.”
Most of its stops are in Queens, which is one of the most diverse counties in the United States. 47 percent of the population was born outside the United States. This migration has brought with it a huge number of excellent restaurants, and the 7 train is a passport to eating all the way around the world.
Just a few blocks down Queens Boulevard at Mangal, a busy place with a steady takeout business, a Turkish waiter named Ismail Karci makes a similar point. “Maybe 50 percent of the people coming in here are Turks from Sunnyside. We like to live here because it is easier to be around people you can talk with and ask for help. People who are not Turks come here also. In Astoria there are Greeks, in Flushing Chinese – many of them come here to eat, and we like to go there too.”
Several stops further, past the Bum Bum Bar and the Filthy Rich Unisex Barber Shop & Flawless Skin Clinic, is Woodside, another neighborhood full of interesting food. One of the city’s best Thai restaurants, SriPraPhai, is here, Donovan’s Irish pub does one of the very best burgers in New York, and the V&V Italian Bakery (with a mostly Latino staff) sells a fine éclair.
But much of the population is Filipino. As Emma Bizon at Renee’s Kitchenette down the block explains, Woodside is “Little Manila.”
“More and more city people are coming in here from Manhattan," she says, “Especially Filipinos married to Americans – a lot of them are coming to eat food from home. On the weekends, we get a lot of tourists.” They come for the restaurant's specialties of garlicky adobo and kare-kare: oxtail with peanut sauce and tropical vegetables.
East Asia turns into South Asia along Roosevelt Avenue. Jackson Heights is next along the International Express, and it’s dominated by Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants, though there’s also Korean fried-chicken, several Tibetan restaurants, an excellent taqueria with unusual daily specials, and food carts galore.
At Rajbhog, the oldest Indian vegetarian place in Jackson Heights, third generation owner Nirav Shah has overseen some menu expansions. “We have so many Americans coming in, and they all want to try our food, and so many are vegetarian. We had many requests for vegan food too.”
Non-Indians drove some menu additions, such as the samosa sandwich – a delectable flattened samosa on bread with mint chutney. The restaurant is even kosher-certified, which was an easy credential to get for a vegetarian restaurant, and Shah says that it’s enhanced their sales.
Jackson Heights is "a hub for all of the surrounding areas to do their shopping.” Shah explains, and the changing demographics of the neighborhood show that. While the area is becoming more Bangladeshi, with Korans and halal food for sale on the street, the neighborhood still supports the Indian shops that it’s known for.
While there are Latino restaurants all along the way, they’re especially noticeable a little farther east. The red, yellow, and blue of the Ecuadorian, Colombian, and Venezuelan flags flutter everywhere. Pandebono Almojabana, a Colombian bakery on 82nd Street, sells their namesake piping-hot cheese bread, near a Uruguayan diner serving grilled meats, filled crepes, and pastas, and carts hawking charcoal-grilled corn on the cob.
Not long past the Unisphere, the symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair, the 7 train dives under the ground from its elevated trestle and heads to Chinatown. Not Manhattan‘s, but the larger and arguably more diverse Chinatown in Flushing at the 7 train’s terminus.
Head south on Main Street, and stop at Corner 28 for a steamed bun stuffed with Peking duck and scallions for just a dollar before venturing to the Golden Mall. Flushing has many “malls.” Some are warrens of tiny stalls, and some have big stores, but they all have food courts bursting with utterly authentic cooking designed to soothe homesick immigrants and fill the bellies of cultural tourists.
The Golden Mall’s basement is especially choice, as Chen Du Tian Fu boasts great Sichuan dishes, while Xi'an Famous Foods just around the corner sells lamb-face salad to the truly adventurous - or spicy cumin-laced pork burgers to those a little less so.
It's a long way from Times Square by now, but a single subway line offers an endless bounty of the world’s cooking. Queens is a place where people come to make better lives for themselves and their families, and share a taste of their homeland with hungry travelers.
Read more about the inextricable bond between food and cultural identity.
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