Out in Queens’ Richmond Hill, not far from John F. Kennedy International Airport, a branch of the A train comes to its eastern conclusion along Liberty Avenue. Below and beyond its last stretch of tracks is Little Guyana, the name given to a 30-block stretch along the thoroughfare. Home to a large portion of New York City’s sizable Guyanese population—the second-largest foreign-born group in Queens, behind those from China—as well as many immigrants from India and Trinidad and Tobago, it’s one of the international districts that bolsters the borough’s reputation as the City’s most diverse.
Much of Liberty Avenue is taken up by roti joints, Chinese-Guyanese restaurants, sari (spelled “saree” here) emporia, bakeries and other storefronts. Off the main commercial strip, quiet residential streets hold tidy row houses set back behind front gardens.
To travel to Little Guyana by subway, make sure you’re on a Lefferts-bound A rather than the branch that goes to Far Rockaway and get off the train at 104th Street (the western edge), 111th Street or Lefferts Boulevard. There’s no set itinerary; look for what grabs your attention—but do try to stop in for as many snacks as you can while taking in the area’s refreshing, low-lying openness.
Maybe start by poking around the open-air fruit and vegetable stands to see what kind of less-familiar produce they have. You might spot breadfruit, karela (bitter melon), long squash and black spice mangoes. Grocers, meanwhile, like the Little Guyana Bake Shop, offer Guyanese seafood such as buck crabs, all manner of hot sauce varieties and spices such as halwa masala (a gingery blend used for pudding).
Also worth ducking into are the many fabric stores, whose frontages catch the eye with brilliant reds and golds, embroideries and pastels hanging in windows or on outside racks. Well over 50 percent of the residents of South Ozone Park and Richmond Hill are foreign born, and many of the immigrants from Guyana are Indo-Caribbean. One friendly proprietor, of the tidy Indian clothing store Tina’s, explains that while some area businesses are run by West Indians and others by Indians, the products—mainly traditional Indian draped dresses and accessories—frequently don’t vary that much. There is a difference between places that maintain everyday items and those, like hers, that have more wedding-related wear or, as she puts it, more “bling.”
The farther east of Lefferts Boulevard you get, the less like New York City it feels. The train tracks overhead are gone, and there are a few more chain stores sprinkled in. Still, it’s not until you arrive around 130th Street, more or less the eastern limit of the neighborhood, that some of its cornerstones appear. Busy Singh’s Roti Shop specializes in doubles (a deep-fried, curry-filled snack) and roti (the pumpkin and tomato stand out among the vegetarian fillings). The interior is tiled and brightly lit, like a brash diner. A bar, its top shelf lined with amber liquors, is over to one side—already populated by a few denizens before noon. Live entertainment takes place on Saturday nights.
Close by, Sybil’s has shambolic lines five or 10 deep in front of the counter at lunchtime. One customer, who no longer lives in Queens, says that everyone comes back here when they’re in the area—and this wedge-shaped restaurant has been in business for 30 years. Folks grab a ticket and wait their turn to order sweet breads, savory pastries—cheese tarts, chicken patties and spiced potato balls—and Guyanese standards like pepper pot and chicken cook-up rice (a one-pot dish made with rice, peas, chicken and coconut milk). Drinks also skew traditional Caribbean, with peanut punch and Sybil’s own sorrel drink among the bottled beverages lined up in the refrigerator. What little seating there is tends to be on the patio.
Next door, Veggie Castle is run by the same friendly owner as Sybil’s, Viburt Bernard, and does meatless versions of comfort food with a Guyanese spin. Why the name? Bernard tells us that he opened the first (and now shuttered) Veggie Castle back in Brooklyn in a former White Castle. It’s a marriage of cultures that typifies this great big melting pot of a city.