Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jackson Heights, NY: Noshing in the Nation’s Most Diverse Zip Code

The great food connoisseurs say, “Go abroad. You will only truly understand cuisine when you cook and eat among the major cultures of the world.”

Have you checked the price of an airline ticket recently?

Enter my colleague, Hal2001, a creative thinker and an epicurean who never hesitates to embrace the bold, big idea. He has recently relocated to Jackson Heights, and has been exploring the eclectic food options. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of international food you can find in one square mile,” he tells me one day during a side conversation at a management meeting.

I’ve been trying hard for years now to shake my white bread culinary roots, having grown up in the “Casserole Corridor” of Long Island. Hal2001’s suggestion is as much encouragement as I need and I arrive on his doorstep on a blistering summer morning, my backpack filled with “Little Shiver Freeze Paks” in case we decide to pick up some perishables on our journey.

Jackson Heights was a planned development just outside Manhattan that was begun in 1916. Some of the area architecture is part of the National Historic Register. Today, Jackson Heights is home to numerous ethnic populations and the food that makes them famous. It is often referred to as the most diverse zip code in the nation.

Hal2001 could quickly add a couple of inches to Eugene Fodor’s waistline. He has planned a rigorous series of gourmet stopovers, all before lunchtime. The breeze dancing across Northern Boulevard feels like warm velvet as we set out on our tour. Our first stop is Cannelle, a classic French Patisserie at 75-59 31st Avenue. Jean-Claude Perennou is the Pastry Chef, and was formerly the pastry chef at the Waldorf-Astoria for a decade.

We order up a billowy and flaky traditional croissant, an almond croissant, pain aux chocolat, and two rich caramel cream puffs with a sweet, brittle crème brulee topping.

Turning our attention to Spain, we pass a distressing bus stop poster that is perhaps a harbinger of things to come:

At Despana Gourmet Foods at 86-17 Northern Boulevard, they promise “The finest from Spain.”

Inside, we are warmly greeted by Marco Santaella, who hands us each a glass of red wine and invites us to sample a spread of cheeses and chorizo like we are part of the family. It is 10:30 in the morning. Ah, well. It’s probably time for tapas in Spain at this very moment. I manage to stock up on Serrano ham, anchovies from Cantabria, Spain and Manchego cheese.

We make a quick side trip to check out the former home of film director Alfred Hitchcock, known in the neighborhood as “The Tower.” I feel like I’ve got a touch of vertigo. Perhaps it’s the wine.

On to nearby “Little India” where the clothing of the local residents has now shifted dramatically, and we encounter women dressed in saris and stores selling DVDs of Bollywood films.

We visit a neighborhood grocery store called Subzi Mandi that is bursting with fresh vegetables, exotic produce like Indian Karela, and staples like ghee, rice and spices at prices that seem like a distant memory in my local grocery store.

At the Patelle Brothers, colorful grains and legumes are stacked from the floor to the ceiling.

And, outside, enormous prickly green orbs line the store front.

There’s no way I’m taking these home, as my backpack is now filled with Jasmine Rice, Toor Dal, pearl-like orange Masoor Malka from Turkey and red whole chilli.

Walking along Roosevelt Avenue, and beneath the elevated train tracks, we are now lured by the sights and smells of Central America. Restaurants offering the cuisine of Peru, Columbia and Ecuador line the street. I can smell charred meat, and I notice that Hal2001 seems distracted, almost possessed.

“We have to visit the cerviche truck,” he says.

“You can buy cerviche from a truck?” I ask, with just a hint of skepticism in my voice. I once tried cerviche, at a fine restaurant on Costa Rica. Cerviche is an ancient food from South America. Raw fish is “cooked” when it is immersed in citrus juice and seasonings. But I’m a little hesitant when it comes to cerviche as street food.

“You’re either in or you’re out,” says Hal2001 and sprints towards a brightly-colored lavender truck parked at Roosevelt and 80th.

Inevitably, I am “in” and we split an order of Cerviche de Camaron, or shimp to those of us who don’t speak the language.

A dozen delicate, inebriated shrimp are playfully doing the back stroke amidst red onions in a cold, crisp, citrus broth. It is tart, delicious and even a little intoxicating in the afternoon heat.

For lunch, (yes, the culinary road warriors still have room for lunch!) we dine at Meson Asturias Restaurant at 40-12 83rd Street, one of the oldest Spanish restaurants in the five boroughs.

Our meal – which comes with sangria (liberally spiked with brandy) and dessert, all for $8.95 – includes a traditional soup of white beans, collard greens and smoky sausage:

And a classic preparation of chicken with rice and chorizos:

Our final stop along Roosevelt Avenue is at a traditional Mexican bakery or panaderia for Pan Dulce, a colorful Mexican sweet bread.

I choose a pretty-in-pink slice that deliciously smells of yeast and sugar in the bag.

With our cook’s tour of the world’s top cuisines concluded, I hop a train back to Long Island’s “casserole corridor,” without the typical hassle of airport delays or customs agents, and indulge in a well-deserved siesta.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Tiffany said...

It sounds like you had a great time! I love the bus stop poster...that was pretty funny!

Manchego cheese is my favorite. What a wonderful culinary adventure!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

JH is my favorite neighborhood, too. I'm fortunate to have both friends and family there, and plenty of excuses to shop at that very same Indian grocery. On the same block,the Jackson Diner has been our source of super-spicy lamb vindaloo for close to 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an enjoyable read! I have made countless trips to Patel brothers, often stopping at the little snack shop next door for a samosa, or at the dosa place a couple of blocks away for a dosa lunch. I miss the F train from Manhattan!! I miss NYC :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this nice little tour of Jackson Heights. I lived there many years ago but it has changed a lot since. I was surprised to see a fancy French Patisserie there. The croissants and pain au chocolat look fantastic!

And Despana is great as well, i went to their shop in Soho. I love it!

Nice to 'meet' a fellow NY bloggers. I'll be back! :)

Shreya said...

What a wonderful post, a very nice read...

Anonymous said...

I have lived in JH since 1976. although it has gotten VERY cluttered it still is a great place to live. Love the ambiance. Restuarants are wonderful, especially places like Armondo's on 75th Street and 37th Avenue & Legends on 35th Avenue for Texas style BBQ!!

~~louise~~ said...

Oh T.W. How wonderful to have your own culinary guide through Jackson Heights. As a fellow “Casserole Corridor” gal (yes the South Shore also had a casserole frenzy time zone) I love those neighborhood jaunts. Thank you so much for sharing. P.S. I too would have sampled the cerviche. In New York, you can get some of the best treasures "off the back of a truck:)

Cakespy said...

Ohhh how I wish I could have walked around Queens with you. I love Jackson heights, and that pan dulce--wow! It looks like you had a delicious tour. That's one of my favorite things about Queens--it's so eclectic. *sigh*

Rochelle R. said...

What a great tour. I feel like I gained weight just reading it. What were those green fruits? They looked rather like durians. If so be glad you didn't by one. They smell really bad I think.

Jewels said...

I also recently had a culinary tour with favorite part was an amazing indian lunch buffet. The best part: a soupy rice pudding dessert to settle your tandoried-tummy. La viva Jackson Heights!

Kalyn Denny said...

I would just love to go exploring in this neighborhood. I'm sure I could fill an entire suitcase with goodies. I am really laughing at this: "having grown up in the “Casserole Corridor” of Long Island." I don't believe there is a "casserole corridor" in Utah. The whole state is casserole country.

Veron said...

sounds like a fantastic neighborhood with a great eclectic mix. I'm sure I would have fun exploring it.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Tiffany - we did laugh at the site of the bus poster! I, too, like that crumbly, tart feel of manchego.

Lydia - I thought you might enjoy this post! We walked past the Jackson Diner, and I'm due for a return visit to try it out!

Napur - I have now discovered that there is even a Patel Bros. very close to where I live, too, so I expect to be a regular customer.

Zen - thanks for visiting and welcome! I probably could have stayed there eating pastry all day. I've been enjoying your blog and look forward to more conversation!

Shreya - Thanks so much! It is really amazing how many options there are in JH.

Anon - sounds like you work for the chamber of commerce! :-) I'm going to put your suggestions on my list for a return trip.

Louise - the cerviche was incredibly good - one of the key reasons to go back!

Cakespy - next time, you're coming with us!!!

Rochelle - I never managed to note the name of the green fruits - but they did look "formidable."

Hi Jewels! I've heard several stories about that rice pudding, and all agree it's awesome.

Hi Kalyn - we should start a casserole blog, don't you think?

Veron - We still have several other neighborhoods in the area to explore and are planning another excursion!

Kathy said...

A cerviche truck? Yum! Thanks for the tour.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Seriously, I wonder if those food connoisseurs are paying $4.69 for a gallon of gas! It looks like you made the perfect choice with JH. I've never been, but after reading this post, I sure would like to.

Unknown said...

Sorry to bother but its officially Seviche (with S and v). Its Peru´s national cultural patrimony dish by a law that dictates also how to spell it.Discussion on spelling, believe it or not, took months! On more general matters, it means a way to cook, e.g. its raw (usually white fish but also any kind of octopus, shrimp and even vegetables) cooked by lemon (or any acid that may even be mixed with pisco) and onion. Even though lemon maybe very good against infectons, be careful where you eat it. Definitively not on the road in the original Peru!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Gustavo - indeed, you are correct. I was clearly too overcome by the taste to check my spelling! It's always good to hear from an expert in international cuisine!