Queens is on the rise as a dining destination. Talk of where to venture in the borough used to center on authentic Indian eats at Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights and full-throttle Thai at Sripraphai in Woodside. While both still shine, they now compete for buzz with many more options, including newer Asian spots like Mu Ramen in Long Island City and Bun-Ker Vietnamese in Ridgewood—former industrial neighborhoods that have increasingly become the domain of young artists who patronize innovative restaurants. Another such destination: Ridgewood's Houdini Kitchen Laboratory, which serves wood-fired pizza in a former brewery; the pizzeria's crazy-good toppings include rum-aged gorgonzola, Vidalia onions and raisins. Hungry for seriously delicious barbecue? John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City is the answer. LIC also has classics like Manducatis for grandma-style Italian dishes. Then there's Astoria, where Michael Psilakis creatively explores his Greek heritage at MP Taverna, putting out dishes like spicy lamb sausage dumplings and filet of sole stuffed with spinach, feta and dill. Outside of Greek fare, the neighborhood sports the Queens Kickshaw, which specializes in glorious grilled cheese and craft cider. Over the decades, waves of immigrants have fanned out across the borough, their diverse cuisines most easily explored by hopping on the 7 train. Disembark at 74th St.-Broadway for the fantastic Colombian fare by the Arepa Lady, or at the Junction Blvd. stop for bona fide Cuban at Rincon Criollo—or stay on board until 103rd St./Corona Plaza for Aztec-inspired Mexican at Tortilleria Nixtamal. To see some Michelin-star winners and other leading lights in Queens, read on.
5-48 49th Ave., 347-448-6040, Long Island City, Queens
For its impressive posole, mole and chile relleno, Casa Enrique captured a star in Michelin's 2015 guide. The Long Island City restaurant was singled out for its “haute take on Mexican cuisine” that’s a “welcome blend of creativity and tradition.” The “haute” part comes courtesy of Cosme Aguilar, a French-trained chef from Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. He and his brother Luis opened this sleek, contemporary hot spot in 2012 and got noticed almost immediately for superior tacos cradling slowly cooked brisket and complex, labor-intensive mole sauce saturating tender chicken breast. Kick things off with some fine tequila and chunky, jalapeño-laced guacamole, and finish with luscious, caramel-topped tres leche cake.
135-58 Lefferts Blvd., 718-845-7587, Ozone Park, Queens
Even though Don Peppe doesn't take reservations—or credit cards, for that matter—you should still call ahead. Some nights they close early or are shut altogether for vacation. This Italian institution, not far from JFK Airport and the Aqueduct Racetrack, has lived by its own rules for decades; legions love the place for it. The faded country-club-style decor includes a dropped ceiling, thrift shop art and a menu posted on the wall. There may or may not be lasagna—but if it's listed, you won't regret ordering it. Baked clams and linguine with clams are more of a sure thing; get them both, because you can never have too many sweet clams here. Let the blunt, seasoned waiters—who toss salads and pastas tableside—talk you into the tender broiled veal chop, too, plus more of that house red and white, both served cold in unmarked bottles.
42-35 Main St., 212-518-3265 Flushing, Queens
Flushing is bursting with great Asian spots, and the one everyone's heading to these days is Dumpling Galaxy—thanks in no small part to a rave from Pete Wells in the New York Times. Inside the Arcadia Mall, a few blocks from the last stop on the 7 train in Queens, is a modern, red-accented restaurant featuring a veritable star system of dumplings. Lamb and chives, duck and shiitakes, beef and carrots, asparagus and egg—these only begin the tell the story. Steamed or panfried, they're overstuffed, artfully sealed and very tasty. The woman behind it is Helen You, from Tianjin, China, who is a third-generation dumpling master. Other specialties she's perfected over the years include scallion pancakes, steamed whole fish and sweet and sour pork.
Mapo Korean B.B.Q.
149-24 41st Ave., 718-886-8292, Murray Hill, Queens
Queens' Murray Hill, whose name comes from the same family as the Murray Hill in Manhattan, hosts a thriving Korean population and feels like a village on the outskirts of Seoul. Mapo Korean B.B.Q. is among the neighborhood's best steakhouses, although it's so unadorned it looks more like a barbecue joint. Prime meats are marinated and cooked over charcoals embedded in the center of each table, the duty handled by assiduous waitresses who control the flames and flip and snip bites small enough to be wrapped in lettuce leaves. Kalbi—beef short ribs—are the most essential dish here, and their price includes a whirlwind of accompaniments like tofu soup, spicy kimchi, marinated vegetables, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, potato salad and steamed, custard-like eggs.
M. Wells Steakhouse
43-15 Crescent St., 718-786-9060, Long Island City, Queens
Gutsy Quebecois chef Hugue Dufour and his dynamic wife, Sarah Obraitis, keep inventing new reasons to come to this red-hued former auto body shop. On Monday nights the corkage fee is waived, so feel free to bring a choice bottle to have with your T-bone, foie gras gnocchi or fried chicken and chicken-fried oysters. Now that the weather has improved, an open-sky patio with a wood-burning oven turns out an ever-changing menu of roasted fish, meats and savory tarts. Sundays offer a brunch menu like no other—with such choices as hot smoked salmon pie with mushy peas, and a potato waffle with smoked sturgeon, trout roe, paddlefish caviar and hard-boiled eggs. The rest of the week it's only open at night, so if you're looking for a lunchtime experience, hit the couple's quirky M. Wells Dinette at MoMA PS1.
Salt & Fat
41-16 Queens Blvd., 718-433-3702, Sunnyside, Queens
With a name like Salt & Fat, you can't say you weren't forewarned. For those who think there's nothing tastier than those two components liberally applied, in various guises (frequently bacon or ham, sometimes spicy mayo or a duck fat crouton), to the likes of grilled asparagus, Prince Edward Island mussel broth, arctic char and the occasional dessert, make a plan to meet in Sunnyside. Chef and owner Daniel Yi frequently alters his globally influenced New American menu and keeps portions small, tapas style, so courses are rich but not heavy. Three to four dishes are enough for two to share. The comfortable, candlelit space offers attentive service, complimentary bacon-fat popcorn to start and free yogurt drinks at the end.
33-07 Ditmars Blvd., 718-545-8666, Astoria, Queens
Astoria has grown more multicultural in recent years but retains a strong Greek contingent. It also continues to attract multitudes of Greek food lovers, judging from the lines out the door at Taverna Kyclades. Even on weekdays, people wait for sidewalk tables—especially when it's sunny. The boisterous, Mediterranean-themed dining room is appointed with a trophy swordfish, signifying that seafood is a strong point. Charred, meaty octopus, lightly battered calamari and whole sea bass all taste freshly caught. Pan-fried cheese, giant salads and assorted dips of skordalia, tzatziki and taramosalata spread on pita are also wonderful. The staff adds to the good cheer by handing out complimentary wine if the wait is long—and carafes are such a good deal there's no reason to not keep it flowing. They take credit cards, but not for tips—so bring cash.
21-76 31st St., 718-721-3532, Astoria, Queens
People longing to return to another time will be soothed by this old-school Italian trattoria, where “Bésame Mucho” plays in the background and the menu offers familiar fare like spaghetti with meatballs, lasagna and chicken parmigiana. You can feel love rising from the white-linen-covered tables, so devoted are the patrons to the professional staff—who know how to pamper. Italian cuisine runs through chef Rocco Sacramone's blood; he came to New York City from Italy's Abruzzo region and learned to cook with passion from his mother. His pastas are homemade, his meats fork-tender and his eggplant parmigiana mountainous over a bed of spaghetti. At lunch the cavernous restaurant is quiet, but at dinner it's best to make a reservation; there is no bar at which to pass the wait time.