New York State Senator Jessica Ramos has very serious food opinions. So much so that when she left her job with City Hall as its first director of Latino media in 2017, the mayor issued her a proclamation, declaring: “If you’re going to hang with Jessica be sure to bring your arepa A-game.”
The Queens native — Ramos was born in Elmhurst, grew up in Astoria, and has since lived in Corona and East Elmhurst — has been a resident of Jackson Heights for the past dozen or so years, and lives there with her two sons, Benjamin and Tomás. Both of her parents came to New York as immigrants from Colombia. Today, she represents parts of all of those neighborhoods in her district, the 13th.
Collectively, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst saw some of the highest numbers of deaths and reported cases of coronavirus this year. This part of Queens was home to what was once considered the epicenter of New York’s coronavirus crisis. These neighborhoods also happen to be some of the city’s most culturally diverse, and where nearly 28% of the city’s restaurant workforce lives. Many have turned to launching their own food businesses closer to home because of the pandemic.
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Today, the Jackson Heights neighborhood, once silenced by the virus, is reawakening.
“Food,” Ramos adds, “is the great connector and allows us to be open to new flavors in the same way we should always be open to new people and new understandings. I can’t tell you how proud I am to come from a place where we show coexistence is possible every day. Side by side. I have the best neighbors in the world.”
Asian & South Asian Cuisine
Dosas and Lassi at Dosa Delight
Ramos loves the mysore masala dosa and chili paneer dosa. She adds: “Get the mango lassi, too.” 35-66 73rd Street.
Samosas at Jackson Diner
Jackson Diner, a neighborhood institution for more than 40 years, is where Ramos once started a food crawl with 30 of her coworkers from her days at City Hall in 2017. The Indian restaurant has an extensive menu, and Ramos started her tour with samosas and mango lassis. 37-47 74th Street.
Chicken Biryani at Dhaka Garden
“You must get the chicken biryani,” Ramos says without hesitation. “The chicken is tender and the flavors pop beautifully.” 72-23 37th Avenue.
Momos (and More) at Lali Guras and Amdo Kitchen
Jackson Heights is known for its concentration of Himalayan cuisine, often giving it the moniker Himalayan Heights. When Ramos seeks out a platter of freshly steamed beef momos (Nepalese and Tibetan dumplings), she heads straight for Lali Guras or Amdo Kitchen, a roving momo truck usually parked on 37th Road near 74th Street.
At Lali Guras, Ramos also loves ordering thukpa, comforting wheat flour noodle soups simmered with tomatoes, onions, and vegetables. The chicken choila, made with grilled and spiced meat, ordered with a side of tingmo (steamed bread), is another favorite. Lali Guras, 3763 76th Street. Amdo Kitchen, 37th Road and 74th Street.
Sushi at Okawa
Okawa’s wide variety of sushi was on heavy takeout rotation for Ramos and her sons during the shutdown earlier this year. She recommends the Queens Roll (spicy salmon and eel topped with avocado and caviar) and the Dragon Roll (eel, cucumber, and avocado). In August, when her youngest son, Tomás, celebrated his birthday, he specifically requested sushi from Okawa. 77-05 37th Avenue.
Gaeng Massaman at Kitchen 79
This Thai restaurant specializing in Southern Thai cuisine was another takeout mainstay for Ramos and her family during quarantine. Ramos raves about nearly everything on the menu, but is particularly partial to the gaeng massaman, a curry made with Indian spices, chile paste, and coconut milk. 37-70 79th Street.
Onigiri at 969 NYC Coffee
This unassuming coffee and matcha shop serves Japanese homestyle food, ranging from sushi and salads to katsu, but Ramos especially loves its variety of onigiri, or rice balls, filled with chicken or crab and even bacon edamame. 37-61 80th Street.
Lumpia, Lechon Kawali, and Halo-Halo at Papa’s Kitchen
This popular Filipino restaurant, as well known for its lechon (pork belly) as its karaoke, moved to Jackson Heights from nearby Woodside two years ago. 37-07 83rd Street.
Breakfast and Ice Cream at Jahn’s
Ramos and her children love going to this last remaining Jahn’s ice cream parlor and diner. For Ramos, her usual never wavers: “Two eggs poached and corned beef. Rye toast with butter. Hold the home fries.” 81-04 37th Avenue.
Seafood at Oceanic Boil
Much like Niou, Ramos is a big fan of Cajun-style seafood boils and Oceanic Boil is the place to go in Jackson Heights for bags of lobster, clams, mussels, crabs, and crawfish dusted with spices and doused in garlic butter. 84-20 37th Avenue.
Latin American Cuisine
Arepas at Arepa Lady
“Everyone knows about the Arepa Lady,” Ramos says, and that’s for good reason. Maria Piedad Cano’s legendary arepas can be found just a few blocks north of where she used to sell her arepas from a cart on Roosevelt Avenue, like many other street food vendors in the neighborhood. Today, Cano’s sons have taken over the family business and they’re experimenting with incorporating other influences into the menu, like serving a version of elote, Mexican grilled street corn. 77-17 37th Avenue.
Tacos and Consomé at Birria-Landia Tacos
Birria-Landia’s skyrocketing success — it nabbed a glowing two-star review from the New York Times’ Pete Wells last fall — has equated into long lines for the taco truck this year. Ramos, however, has been going to Birria-Landia long before the lines, and for those willing to wait, she recommends the Tijuana-style beef tacos, of course, but also the rich consomé, perfect for dipping and sipping. Corner of 78th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
Tostones, Crab, and Seafood Soup at Mister Cangrejo
While there are a number of Colombian restaurants in Jackson Heights, this one stands out because it focuses on the Afro-Caribbean cuisine of Buenaventura, not far from where Ramos’ own father grew up. Mister Cangrejo also happens to be one of her father’s favorite spots.
If you go, be sure to ask if there are jaiba (spelled “haiba” on the menu), freshwater crabs that Ramos says “taste like butter.” If those aren’t available, definitely order muelas cangrejo, a huge platter of crab legs with yucca and potatoes. And to start, some tostones ahogao, a dish of fried plantains served with ahogao, a sauce made from simmered tomatoes, white onions, scallions, and garlic. “I make it myself all the time,” Ramos says of the ahogao, a staple in any Colombian kitchen. And if you’re still hungry, don’t leave without having some cazuela mariscos, or seafood soup. 79-05 Roosevelt Avenue.
Soups at J&C Delicias
Ramos loves all of the soups served at this Colombian restaurant, but especially the cazuela de frijoles. And for something meatier, the picada, a platter of different meats. Eating both of these, she says, transports her to Colombia instantly. 37-61 79th Street.
Colombian Breakfast at Cositas Ricas
This is Ramos’ go-to spot for “a good, hearty Colombian breakfast.” 79-19 Roosevelt Ave.
Anything and Everything at La Boina Roja Steak House
Growing up and still to this day, La Boina is where Ramos’ family has celebrated every major occasion, from first communions and birthdays to graduations. Ramos says the secret to La Boina’s meat, which is the “freshest and juiciest,” is the fact that the restaurant’s owner also owns the butcher shop next door. “You’re guaranteed to go home with a doggy bag.” 8022 37th Avenue.
Tacos at Juquila Restaurant and Bar
For Oaxacan-style tacos, there’s no better place than Juquila, Ramos says. 40-12 83rd Street.
Mojitos and More at Mojitos
Ramos admits she’s a bit biased in recommending Mojitos (the owner has been her best friend since she was 16) but she says the modern Latino fusion food and the drinks are well worth a visit. She especially recommends the blueberry mojito and the lychee mojito, both made with fresh fruit. For food, her favorites are the pechuga hawaiana, grilled chicken breast in a pineapple sauce, and the seafood pineapple, a mixed seafood rice served inside of an actual pineapple. “It’s like eating art.” 81-01 Northern Boulevard.
Huancaina at Urubamba
Ramos’ go-to order at this Peruvian restaurant is the huancaina, made of slices of boiled potatoes smothered with an incredibly creamy aji amarillo sauce, topped with boiled eggs. 86-20 37th Avenue.
A Night Out at Terraza 7
Ramos is a regular at this live music venue where you can listen to jazz and folk music. These days, Wednesday nights are reserved for outdoor music sessions where you can grab a cocktail with friends. If you’re hungry, Ramos suggests getting some tacos from the street vendor on the corner right by Terraza 7, on Roosevelt Avenue and Gleane Street. “It’s a tradition.” 40-19 Gleane Street.
Guatita at Sabor Latino (Corona)
The must-order dish at Sabor Latino is its guatita, an Ecuadorian beef tripe stew that comes with fried sweet plantains, slices of avocado, yellow rice, and a boiled egg. “I seriously think it’s love because the place just beams in that way,” she says of Sabor Latino’s version. “But I just love the way Ecuadorians make their cow tripe with peanuts. It’s real comfort food.” 95-35 40th Road.
Pastas at Armondo’s (Jackson Heights) and Park Side (Corona)
When Ramos wants Italian food, she’ll look to Armondo’s in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood stalwart since 1972. “The food is so fresh,” she says. “Armondo’s eggplant rollatini is the best I’ve ever had.”
And if she happens to be further east in Corona, she’ll check out Park Side, which has been around for more than 40 years. “Park Side has a wild mushroom ravioli that you’ll never forget.” Armondo’s, 73-16 Northern Boulevard. Park Side, 107-01 Corona Avenue.
Pizza at Mama Rosa’s (Jackson Heights), Louie’s (Elmhurst), Amore Pizzeria (Flushing) and New Park Pizza (Howard Beach)
Queens may not be as well known or critically acclaimed for its pizza, but Ramos says there are still a few spots in the borough worth checking out for a slice. In Jackson Heights, it’s Mama Rosa’s for whole pies and in Elmhurst, it’s Louie’s for grab and go.
But the best pizza in all of Queens, hands down, she says, is in Flushing at Amore. And if you make it out to Howard Beach, don’t miss out on New Park, which is a close second. “It’s a great destination to visit via the Q53.” Mama Rosa’s, 77-09 37th Avenue. Louie’s, 81-34 Baxter Avenue. Amore Pizzeria, 30-27 Stratton Street. New Park Pizza, 156-71 Cross Bay Boulevard.