This was a tough year for the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. They were among the areas hardest hit by COVID-19, with a disproportionate number of cases and deaths, many of them taking place at the epicenter of the city’s coronavirus outbreak: Elmhurst Hospital. Along with neighboring Corona, both neighborhoods are home to a large population of New York City’s restaurant industry workers, nearly all of whom lost their jobs because of the pandemic this spring.
But after months of eerily empty streets that stayed silent — save for the wailing sirens of ambulance trucks — these two Queens neighborhoods, long known as the borough’s culinary heart and, arguably, the most representative of its incredible diversity of cultures, are alive and beating once more.
In Elmhurst, locals have returned to the Thai cafes, restaurants, and groceries that line Woodside Avenue, and fan out southward along Broadway, stocking up on staples like shrimp paste, curry puffs, and lemongrass. They’re filling their bellies with pandan-scented desserts and, even in this midsummer heat, cooling off with bowls of simmering boat noodle soup.
In Jackson Heights, as you walk down Roosevelt Avenue, you can feel the drum beats of Colombian cumbia, always seemingly syncopated with the rumbling sounds of the 7 train. Further down Roosevelt are the incredibly long queues for Birria-Landia, the two-starred, New York Times-reviewed truck that serves some of the city’s best Tijuana-style tacos. On Broadway, the sizzle of lamb over rice from the halal food vendors is yet more music to ears (and stomachs). On 37th Avenue, the fragrance of tamarind water from a duo of dueling Bengali fuchka carts perfumes the air. On 74th Street, you can take in the glittering displays of jewelry and sari shops that have reopened for business. And just around the corner, where 74th Street meets 37th Road, you will find some of the juiciest Nepalese momos (dumplings) and steamy, satisfying bowls of thukpa (noodle soup) to be found in all of New York.
This is also where you’ll find DineOut NYC’s latest dining installation, encompassing a small stretch of 37th Road, known fondly to locals as Himalayan Heights, and not far from Diversity Plaza, one of Jackson Heights’ few open public spaces.
DineOut NYC got its start as a pro bono effort from New York-based design and architectural firm Rockwell Group, the same group behind the look and feel of some top New York restaurants, like Wayan and Union Square Café. Rockwell and the New York City Hospitality Alliance — under guidance from the city’s Department of Transportation — are using the initiative to help local restaurants and neighborhoods throughout the city transition to outdoor dining by providing them with free, adaptable dining modules.
Last month, DineOut NYC built an entire block of open-air, socially distanced dining setups in part of Manhattan Chinatown’s Mott Street. This month, it turned its attention to Queens. The first, in Jackson Heights opened Wednesday. The second, in Elmhurst, opened Friday on Woodside Avenue between 76th and 78th Streets.
The Department of Transportation initially identified these two neighborhoods as candidates for the DineOut NYC program, introducing DineOut NYC to local community groups like Queens Pride and Thai Community USA to bring the installations to life. Moet Hennessy, Resy, and American Express also provided financial support.
In both neighborhoods, you will find dining landmarks and under-the-radar gems. It’s up to the restaurants on the block to decide how they’ll want to service the outdoor seating areas, either with takeout-style service or to provide table service, a Rockwell spokesperson said, but the intention is for the installations to serve as public seating. In accordance with the city’s Open Streets initiative, both of these outdoor areas will be car-free from Fridays to Sundays through October 31.
“I’m really excited about this becoming more of a pedestrian-centric space,” said Nitin Mukul, a local Jackson Heights-based artist and a leading member of the non-profit community organization, Friends of Diversity Plaza. He said that he and other members of the local community wanted to encourage people to dine in Jackson Heights, and to help the local restaurants, many of whom saw their business drop dramatically because of COVID-19.
“It’s been a very hard time,” said chef-owner Amrit Pal Singh of Angel Indian Restaurant in Jackson Heights. “Our business is down by 70%.” Still, he noted how hopeful he is for the future and while he’s already built his own outdoor dining area for Angel, he’s happy to see more outdoor dining provided by DineOut NYC.
Two doors down from Angel, at Hamro Bhim’s Cafe, chef-owner Prem P. Paudel is similarly optimistic about the added outdoor seating, and that it will encourage more people to dine on 37th Road. The cafe just reopened last week with its own outdoor dining patio, and his business is down 95%.
Over in Elmhurst, at Upi Jaya, Harris Nurrachman said he’s also looking forward to being able to offer outdoor dining to the local community. His mother, the owner, just reopened the restaurant two weeks ago, and hasn’t yet built an outdoor dining setup for the restaurant.
Both DineOut NYC installations also feature art that reflects the cultural traditions of their respective communities: South Asian in Jackson Heights and Thai in Elmhurst. In Jackson Heights, Mukul organized a series of murals, “Khaana Aur Peena,” painted by students from the neighborhood youth development organization, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA). In Elmhurst, DineOut NYC partnered with artist Puwana Prathuangsuk on a mural called, “The Culinary Ambassadors,” painted by children and students from the surrounding Thai community and the Thai Cultural Center of New York.
While the DineOut NYC installations were being constructed in Jackson Heights on Wednesday, both of the owners from Angel and Hamro Bhim’s served complimentary chai and snacks to the builders, and to the students from SAYA painting the murals. It was the least they could do, they told them, a small gesture to show them how much they appreciated their efforts.
It summed up everything you’d ever need to know about the generosity and hospitality you can expect here in Queens, not to mention the incredible meals.
Here is your restaurant guide to DineOut NYC’s Jackson Heights location.
If you’re in the mood for momos and need them quickly, head to this food truck, usually parked at the northeast corner of 74th Street and 37th Road. They sell beef, chicken, and vegetable varieties, as well as massive bags of frozen momos to take home.
Last year, this Jackson Heights stalwart for momos, laphing (spicy cold mung-bean noodles), and thukpa opened up a new location across the street from its original 2nd floor perch on 37th Road into more spacious surroundings, and the food is just as good. Not to be missed are Phyaul’s fried tsak sha (beef) momo, steamed alu (potato) momo (give the kitchen extra time to make these), and the gyuma ngoe ma (fried blood sausage with onions and green chilli). 37-59 74th Street.
It’s still unclear whether this momo specialist (not to be confused with the Potala Fresh Momo truck) will be open for business once more, but if it is, don’t miss out on the chili-slicked laphing or the momos infused with chives. 37-65 74th Street.
New Nepali Kitchen
This newcomer to 37th Road — it opened only two weeks ago, taking over the old space occupied by jhol momo specialist Nepali Bhancha Ghar — touts its sel roti, a deep-fried rice bread shaped like a doughnut, as well as its dhedo, a pudding made from millet. 74-06 37th Road.
Hamro Bhim’s Cafe
When Prem P. Paudel took over this cafe in 2010 from his friend, Bhim, he said there were only three Nepali restaurants in the neighborhood; today, it’s much, much more. But one item in particular that makes his cafe stand out from the rest is his newest off-menu creation: a momo filled with sweet, flaky tilapia and a proprietary blend of spices. 74-10 37th Road.
Angel Indian Restaurant
Chef-owner Amrit Pal Singh originally opened Angel, named for his seven-year-old daughter, as a purely vegetarian restaurant but recently changed the menu to include non-vegetarian items at the request of his customers. Singh previously worked in the kitchen at Adda in Long Island City, but he says the food at Angel most resembles what his mom would cook for him growing up in Northern India, near Punjab. His favorite dishes to recommend include the dum biryani, the housemade paneer, and the lotus root kofta. 74-14 37th Road.
Here is your restaurant guide to DineOut NYC’s Elmhurst location.
Since 2004, this mainstay of New York City’s Indonesian community has served everyone, from the President of Indonesia to expats seeking a taste of home. One taste of the gado gado, rendang padang (coconut beef stew), or ayam pangang (barbecue chicken), and you’ll understand why. 76-04 Woodside Avenue.
This is your quintessential New York City Chinese takeout spot, with a menu specializing in American Chinese classics like egg foo young, General Tso’s chicken, and Singapore mei fun, served alongside fried plantains, and even cheese sticks. 76-10 Woodside Avenue.
This restaurant serves both Tibetan and Japanese cuisines so, if you can’t decide between sushi and katsu, or momos and chilli chicken, it’s the ideal dining destination. 76-18 Woodside Avenue.
For a taste that emulates Thai home cooking from the Chanthaburi province, head directly to this steam-table spot. The menu changes daily, but the way to go is a combo with any of the curries on display that day, the fried garlic pork, and steamed white rice topped with a fried egg. 76-20 Woodside Avenue.
What was once only reserved for weekends and Mondays is now available every day of the week at this Thai bar and restaurant: some of the absolute best Thai noodle soups to be found in the entire city. The tom yum is bright and light, with lime and succulent fish balls, but the nam tok, enriched with pork’s blood and liver, is a personal favorite. Cocktails tend to be on the sweeter side, and highlight Thai herbs and fruits. 76-21 Woodside Avenue.
Tea Cup Cafe
The menu at this corner cafe is extensive, ranging from Thai noodle soups and rice dishes, to bubble tea and smoothies, but I’ve always been drawn to its desserts, like the toasted bread with pandan or Thai tea custard. 76-23 Woodside Avenue.
This Thai dessert specialist is just around the corner from Khao Kang. Favorites include the Tokyo crepes with pandan custard and the creamy coconut puddings, equally savory as they are sweet. Khao Nom also sells full meals, like khao mun gai and crispy hot pork with basil with rice, all neatly boxed and ready for feasting upon outside their storefront on 77th Street. 42-06 77th Street.
Since 2005, Spicy Shallot has been a beloved neighborhood restaurant, known for both its Thai specialties and sushi, now helmed by chef Setalat “George” Prasert. Standouts include dishes featuring soft shell crabs, like the pu pad pong karee (curry) and the soft shell crab mango salad. 77-01 Woodside Avenue.
For the past 12 years, this beloved Elmhurst mainstay from chef-owner Duangja “Kitty” Thammasat has been consistently ranked among the top Thai restaurants in the city. Most recently, Ayada even expanded to a location inside Chelsea Market. Don’t sleep on the raw shrimp salad, or the crispy ground catfish salad. 77-08 Woodside Avenue.
This Isan cuisine specialist is known for its pla pao (grilled whole tilapia), pork crepes, and its nam khao tod (crispy rice salad with sour pork sausage). They also have more than a dozen different varieties of papaya salad. 77-16 Woodside Avenue.
Bonus: Thai Thai Grocery
If a visit to Woodside Avenue leaves you feeling inspired to cook Thai food at home, or yearning for some Thai snacks and drinks, head here, where owner P.Noi will guide you through her treasure trove of treats, from palm juice, curry paste, and fresh vegetables to ice cream and Thai-style mortars and pestles, ideal for making papaya salad. 76-13 Woodside Avenue.