Illustration by Anika Orrock

Love LettersNew York

Immigrant Restaurants Are the Soul of New York City — And Also a Life Spent Here

By

My childhood was kimchi, koftas, and gyros. Oxtail stew, mattar paneer, and soup dumplings. 

My Korean immigrant parents had their American dream, and it took us across the cultural enclaves of New York City. What I learned on this journey is that immigrant restaurants play an outsized part in making these neighborhoods — and our city — what they are. They represent immigrant entrepreneurialism; a sense of home and community for their national and ethnic compatriots; diversity that shapes the city into a multifaceted, world-class metropolis; and fabulous foods, unadulterated for white-people tastes or demoted over aesthetics and ambience.

For me, these immigrant-run restaurants are the soul of New York City. And if you’ve ever walked with me, you’d know that things move fast here and demographics can shift in the blink of an eye.

My Introduction: Spanish Harlem

My parents’ first entrepreneurial pursuit on New York ground was Cala Jewelers on 116th Street and Lexington Avenue. There, they spoke the language of bling: “catorce kilate,” “iced grills,” “four-finger rings” in a mashup of Spanish and English with a Korean accent. I’d help them at the store, and in exchange, they’d pay me in pernil. Crispy, browned skin that would crack loudly with each succulent bite. Juicy, tender, flavorful pork doused in extra garlic vinegar sauce for some zing to the mush. 

Yes, hallelujah, I was all in. 

I’d take a $20 bill from my mom, troop over to one of our three go-to’s (including Cuchifritos, which I’m happy to see has survived the decades), and plop on a stool at the counter, next to the migrant Puerto Rican men reading El Diario, chatting with each other and with the women behind the counter or watching Spanish newscasts. 

Through pernil, I learned that it doesn’t matter if the people inside the shop — the community that the owners were serving — looked or sounded nothing like me. Business owners want business, and they will deliver on the promise of delicious food, which if you’ve only eaten at places where the people look like you, you’ve never had so good. 

And so pernil became the gateway dish that led me into the cuisines of the world, rooted mostly in Queens, where my parents brought me on their relentless pursuit of their American dream.

Korea, China, Taiwan: Flushing

My parents, like so many other Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants in New York, rooted our family in Flushing. And downtown Flushing was our Chinatown. 

My parents’ immigrant dream mandated education for their children, and we delivered. That meant cram school at Elite Academy in the heart of downtown every Saturday for over 10 years. And my grandma, who’d been called in from Busan to help fill in the childcare gaps created by my parents’ nonstop hustle, would pick us up from cram school and spoil us with jjajangmyun (black bean noodles) and jjamppong (spicy seafood noodle soup) at the Korean-Chinese King’s on Roosevelt Avenue before taking us back home on the Q44. 

As we got older, my siblings and I would eat our way, PacMan-style, through the bustling, food-laden streets of Main Street, Prince Street, 41st Avenue while dodging careening buses and hordes of breakneck pedestrians: bubble tea at Sago and TenRen, back when non-Asians looked skeptically at the bouncy black boba; steamed buns from various street vendors; hot chicken pies at Tai Pan Bakery; silken tofu at Soy Bean Chan’s flower shop; mala dry pot at New World Mall; dim sum at Asian Jewels; and soup dumplings at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. We would see the moms and pops counting their cash. And it was never General Tso’s chicken or egg rolls, which I was shocked to find out were how most Americans defined Chinese food.

For us, it was an endless gluttony of Chinese and Taiwanese foods that we couldn’t get at home and a natural introduction to people outside of our ethnicity. For Chinese and Taiwanese people, these restaurants represent spaces to reconnect with home or their cultural heritage, as well as for family gatherings and holiday celebrations. Banquet halls like Royal Queen, New Mulan, and Jade Asian frequently accommodate huge weddings and Lunar New Year parties. Yeh’s Bakery prepares Taiwanese mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival and beyond.

Connecting with family and honoring special occasions in this way was my experience with the immigrant restaurants on the Korean side of Flushing, located further east along Northern Boulevard and in the Murray Hill and Auburndale neighborhoods. My grandma and mom regularly cooked for us, so these restaurants accommodated the extraordinary in my family: the milestones that marked the evolution of my family and the incremental execution of my parents’ American Dream. At the Korean mainstay Kum Gang San, we celebrated birthdays, get-togethers for the Korean Parents Association at Hunter College High School (I checked that huge box off my parents’ list), and much later, introductions to in-laws (which came with huge sighs of relief from my parents). 

The ceremonial bounty of food always adhered to tradition. Hunks of meat would sizzle on the barbecued beef ribs. Soybean sprouts would snake around the gochugaru-laden chunks of monkfish in our agujjim (fish casserole). Shrimp would shine off the fried haemool pajun (shellfish pancake). Soy bean paste broth would bubble in its black stoneware bowl. 

This was our soul food. 

Restaurants like Kum Gang San facilitated a space to teach our culture to non-Koreans joining our family, and brought the Korean community together in a warm, familiar place of shared values and customs. As my grandma aged and lost her faculties for cooking, I would take her out to SGD Tofu House, Tang, and Hahm Ji Bach. Upon entry, we would all greet each other with a bow, and the restaurant staff would show their respect for our elders, arranging for a spacious table for my grandma or halting foot traffic while I escorted her to the restroom. These restaurants became spaces of reinvigoration for her, breaking up the ennui of her assisted living home in Corona. We came to rely on them as a way to remind Granny of the foods she once so masterfully prepared and always enjoyed. 

Today, the popularity of downtown Flushing has ushered in a glossier and trendier set of restaurants, coupled with an influx of more non-Asians. Whereas 10 years ago, you would cram shoulder to shoulder with strangers in a hole-in-the-wall, more recently (pre-pandemic), you could get a relaxing massage while waiting for hot pot at Hai Di Lao, order truffle dumplings at the new leafy, spacious Nan Xiang, or photograph Instagram-ready rainbow ramen noodles with fire-red lobster at 1392, and leave with a lighter wallet. 

The city never stops changing, whether it’s from gentrification or a pandemic. Mom-and-pop shops are competing with the newer immigrant-owned restaurants and the pandemic has put the nail on the coffin for many older, struggling businesses. Since February 2020, 50 restaurants have closed down in downtown Flushing, according to Dyan Yu, the executive director of the Downtown Flushing Business Improvement District, while many sleeker eateries abound. 

Changes aside, Flushing remains a haven where we find home in restaurants’ foods and community in their spaces. And because of the sheer diversity of Asian people, there are hundreds of food offerings that can be broken down not just by country — Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese — but also region and sub-culture (Xi’an, Sichuan, Uyghur) and even specialty (Korean barbecue, kalguksu, ginseng chicken soup). The people and our foods bring layers of richness to the city’s identity.

The Americas and Southern Asia: Jackson Heights

Jackson Diner, Queens. Photo: Molly Tavoletti

My parents’ second entrepreneurial foothold was in Jackson Heights after they’d saved enough earnings from Cala Jewelers to buy property, and they’d take me there for various business dealings. These trips introduced me to the robust Indian community whose eyebrow threading salons and restaurants I’d fall for hard. As I got older — and as fast as my eyebrows would grow out — I’d take the 7 train by myself, a straight shot from Chinatown to Little India. 

I’d walk past the old Eagle Bollywood movie theater, which has since become the Ittadi Bazaar; the vibrant sari shops twinkling with magenta silks; and grocery stores flaunting prickly jackfruit and knobby bittermelon that moms and aunties would pick through.

And at Jackson Diner, I’d find escape from my parents’ unrelenting pressure to get straight A-pluses. There, the owner offered a dangerous lunchtime buffet: steaming trays of all-you-can-eat saag paneer with cubes of cheese bobbing out from a thick green stew; aloo gobi with cauliflower dyed golden from turmeric; chicken masala with tender chunks of meat swimming in a thick sauce that would make my mouth water and get me to fill my plate at super-speed so I could scarf everything down at its hottest point. 

As the years passed, the sound of Jackson Heights has become richer, more complicated with Nepali, Nyeshang, and Tibetan layered onto the Hindi, Urdu, Bangla and Kannada. Jackson Heights has developed into the most diverse neighborhood in New York, if not the world, where at least 150 languages are reportedly spoken. And for me, this new immigration dynamic meant thick, craggy, hand-pulled noodles out of a steaming bowl of thenthuk at Phayul during a cold, snowy winter date with my first literary agent; chicken and goat thalis at Laliguras where a girlfriend and I would flag down the waitstaff for refills of dal and vegetables; and oodles of momos at Himalayan Yak, Amdo and Potala with my siblings. 

Jagdish Shetti, whose dream was to open an Indian restaurant in the footsteps of his family business back in Bangalore, opened Samudra in 2013, and he has witnessed how the city’s shifting immigrant demographics have affected his business.

“Before, we had more Indians here, but they left,” Shetti says. “The Nepalese and Tibetans used to come to my restaurant. But now they opened up their own places, and they don’t come to me anymore.” 

Now hit hard by the pandemic — 90% less revenue — Shetti is not sure how much longer he can hold out, but he hopes to be able to keep providing for the New Yorkers like myself who find joy in his green beans topped with toasted coconut. 

Jackson Heights, along with neighboring Corona and Elmhurst, is home to 28% of the city’s restaurant workforce. Photo: Molly Tavoletti

It’s funny how in New York City, you can traverse continents in just a few blocks. Around 82nd Street, Spanish takes over, and merengue plays from the cars and restaurants down Roosevelt Avenue. “We’re a hub not only for our neighborhood, but for the tri-state area for people who are both of Latino and Indian descent,” explains Leslie Ramos, executive director of the 82nd Street Partnership. “We know, if you’re doing a quinceañera and you live somewhere in south Queens, you’re most likely going to come over here.”

This part of Jackson Heights is my oasis for tacos de lengua topped with homemade hot sauces at Taqueria Coatzingo and Juquila. Home to Colombians, Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Peruvians, the community can find a slice of home in huge platters of steak, rice and beans and fries at Pollos a la Brasa Mario; and carne asada and sancocho at Los Toldos; encebollado de pescado at Barzola; rotisserie chicken with aji verde, that inimitable green sauce, at Pio Pio; and ceviche and chicha morada at Urubamba. 

Over the past summer, outdoor dining resonated with many Latin Americans who grew up eating outside, especially in coastal areas. Music was blaring; diners embraced outdoor areas. But now that the days are short and the nights are cold, the tables are empty.

Greece, South Asia, the Middle East: Astoria

My parents’ American dream, as far as my life was concerned, culminated with the birth of my daughter, their first grandchild. My husband and I decided to raise her in Queens where her life can be enriched by the multiculturalism here. 

We chose Astoria, after our years-long love affair with its specific breed of diversity and community. The neighborhood, once known for its predominantly Greek and Italian immigrants, has newer cultural pockets from Bangladesh, Bosnia, Brazil and the Middle East, each opening their doors to hungry outsiders, each vying for a foothold in America. 

After an acute two-month recovery from a difficult delivery, my husband and I went out to a restaurant for the first time, and it was glorious. At Boishakhi, my eyes could feast on trays steaming and brimming with stewed okra, goat curry, and tandoori chicken — all of which landed so perfectly on my eager taste buds. As my rehabilitation progressed, I rediscovered my joy of eating out: saganaki, fried small whole fish and swordfish kababs at Telly’s Taverna which would fill with Greek families in their church-best every Sunday; herring roe mousse black with squid ink at Akrotiri; grilled squid at Bahari Estiatorio; oxtail stew Brazilian- and Jamaican-style at Point Brazil and Melting Pot, respectively; and any of the whole, raw fish that I’d choose through the glass case to get baked Sengari-style at the Egyptian Hamido Seafood.

My husband and I learned to navigate parenthood, literally, with a stroller and an impatient baby down bumpy streets, narrow aisles, and often-rushed meals. There were the rare “freedom” dates with a new mom friend after our babies had fallen asleep and our husbands could keep watch. We relished the parade of delicious things that would surprise and delight: deep-fried crispy shrimp, head and all, at the Japanese Kondo’s. Another time, the woman at Ćevabdžinica Sarajevo showed such empathy and kindness for us and our imperious babies — all over homemade cevapi sausages and roasted red pepper avjar.

Conclusion

From dates with my grandma to dinners with my husband and baby, I grew up in the restaurants in Queens. They’re sanctuaries for immigrant communities and beacons of culture whose richness knows no bounds.  

For many of these immigrant restaurant owners, their pursuit of the American dream is heavy with challenges concerning language, access to capital, navigating bureaucracy, immigration status and racism — both interpersonal and systemic — especially during the pandemic when new government regulations have been coming rapid-fire and anti-Asian racism has been sadly ascendant.

“It’s so unfair because the people in Flushing, many of whom are immigrants both from Taiwan and from mainland [China] have come to the United States, and they’ve changed the face of Flushing,” Senator Toby Stavisky explains. “It’s prospering because of immigrants.” 

Without these restaurants — which are constantly at risk of disappearing — the owners would lose their livelihoods. Their communities would lose precious spaces to feel at home and commune with compatriots with shared experiences, customs, and values. Beyond that, those of us outside the community would be deprived of what makes our city so unique and so spectacular. These spaces are what give New York City its vivid, unparalleled diversity.

And when I, no, we are sitting down in front of a steaming serving of tallarines verdes, birria tacos, kimchi chigae, callaloo, butter chicken, egg tarts, or phingsha, we’re sure to find home, comfort or culture. They’re New York City’s soul food, brought to us by our bold immigrant entrepreneurs.

Caroline Shin is a food journalist and founder of the Cooking with Granny video and workshop series spotlighting immigrant grandmothers. Watch her award-winning show on YouTube, and follow her on Instagram @CookingWGranny and @CarolineStoriesNYC. Feel free to DM her tips.

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