A world of food — interesting, vibrant, with new ingredients and flavors — can be found just over the Nassau County line in Queens. This borough, which New York State likes to boast is the “most ethnically diverse in the world,” is made up of dozens of neighborhoods, many of which have strong food cultures.
But don’t try to pigeonhole any area to just one type of food — cuisines shift as populations move in and out. Luckily for adventurous eaters, even when neighborhoods change, the best restaurants often survive. Here’s a list of some must-visit choices across the borough.
Arepa Lady (77-17 37th Ave., Jackson Heights): This is yet another new location for the Arepa Lady, the incredibly popular Colombian food truck that morphed into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2014. These digs are bigger — but, fortunately, the arepas haven’t changed. Arepa de queso, a sweet, thick corncake oozing with mozzarella and sprinkled with briny queso blanco, is a carb- and cheese-lover’s dream, while carnivores might choose the arepa de choclo, a thinner pancake folded over chewy, flavorful meat, chorizo or chicken and topped with queso blanco. The menu also includes gluten-free arepas and assorted fried plantain chips, or patacones, but our loyalties remain with the arepa de queso and the arepa choclo. More info: 917-745-1111
LI's Lanzhou Hand Stretched Noodles (136-20 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing): The New World Mall Food Court in Flushing is what all food courts should aspire to be: a cacophony of enticing aromas coming from stall after stall. Wander around a bit to take it all in, and when you are downstairs, head to the back corner for a fascinating show as the noodle maker stretches and divides a ball of dough over and over until it is transformed into impossibly even, long thin strands. But this isn’t just a feast for the eyes: Try the noodles in a broth with chunks of fatty, rich roast duck (Number 29). More info: 646-270-5167 and 718-888-9393
Phayul (37-65 74th St., 2nd floor, Jackson Heights): Adventurous, heat-seeking diners won’t mind hiking up the narrow, steep stairway to get to this tiny, humble Tibetan restaurant. The fare makes ample use of emma, aka Sichuan peppers. Not every dish is fiery, however, and many people make their way to Phayul strictly for its momos, the thick, doughy, steamed dumplings filled with broth and bright seasoning. Try the tsak sha momo filled with meat or the alu momo with starchy potato. For the main event, chele khatsa, thin slices of stir-fried beef tongue with bell peppers and onions, is fiery and smoky and not for the fainthearted; tsak sha la kor hot, is a more soothing, milky-looking broth with sweet daikon radish, chewy, rich beef and Tibetian mountain herbs. More info: 718-424-1869
Elias Corners (24-02 31st St., Astoria): Changes are afoot in this legendary Greek fish restaurant—but none of them affect the perfectly grilled fish and seafood. After owner Elias Sidiroglou died in March, his widow and children changed the long-standing cash-only and no-menu policies. When you walk in the front, look above the sparkling clean fish case for a list of the day’s fresh fish — if they have it, you know it will be good. Whether you go for branzino, sea bass or sardines, this is a fish lover’s happy place — but don’t miss the stellar lemon potatoes, either. And now you can rest easy as you tuck into the incredibly tender and flavorful octopus, knowing you can pay the very fairly priced bill by credit card. More info: 718-932-1510
Seva Indian Cuisine (30-07 34th St., Astoria): With a focus on dishes from northern India, this cozy, under-the-radar restaurant offers robust, beautifully balanced dishes — for a song. As tempting as it is, don’t fill up on the classic crisp papadum brought to the table with mint and tamarind chutneys. You’ll want to leave plenty of room for rich aloo gobi matar (curried cauliflower with peas, potatoes and plenty of ginger) or any of the classic lamb, chicken and shrimp dishes — all of which you can order spicy or mild. The service is lovely, the vibe relaxing and pleasant, and the portions generous — but those are all bonuses to the lush, fragrant fare. More info: 718-626-4440, sevaindianrestaurant.com
Chao Thai (85-03 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst): Chao Thai is one of those humble little hole-in-the-wall eateries that stands the test of time. Som tum Thai, the crisp, refreshing green papaya salad, may be ordered mild or spicy, and the larb beef is a perfect balance of heat, bright lime, sweet fried shallots and savory meat. Choose the hearty and satisfying pad see eiw — chewy, wide rice noodles, Chinese broccoli and a meat or vegetable of your choice — rather than the usual pad thai, and be sure someone at the table orders the green curry in coconut milk with tender eggplant and crisp bamboo shoots. Keep your expectations low when it comes to ambiance and service, and revel in the great food. More info: 718-424-4999