Must-See Jackson Heights

Jessica Allen

Just about every language on Earth is spoken somewhere in Queens, and a stroll around the neighborhood of Jackson Heights might make you think that almost every type of food in the world is served here, too. An influx of immigrants, especially from South Asia and Latin America, arrived in the area in recent years, bringing recipes and distinctive preparations with them. Stuffed Tibetan dumplings, fruity Colombian beverages, spicy Indian chaat and other delicious edibles and drinkables may be had from street carts and established restaurants—even out of the back of a cell phone store. But Jackson Heights offers more than palate-pleasing, belly-bursting food. Every summer it hosts the Queens Pride Parade and Multicultural Festival, and serves as the borough's center of gay culture year-round. Much of the neighborhood is a designated historic district, in recognition of its characteristic garden apartments and urban design. The inventor of Scrabble lived in Jackson Heights; he is memorialized via a Scrabble-esque street sign. Only a few stops on the subway from Midtown Manhattan, this largely residential neighborhood welcomes visitors, priding itself on being the kind of place where people from elsewhere can feel at home, much like New York City itself.

Jackson Diner. Photo: Alex Lopez

Little India
Jackson Diner
37-47 74th St., 718-672-1232
Delhi Heights
37-66 74th St., 718-507-1111
Dosa Delight
35-66 73rd St., 718-397-1000
Rajbhog Foods
72-27 37th Ave., 718-458-8512
Maharaja Quality Sweets & Snacks
73-10 37th Ave., 718-505-2680
Ask a New Yorker to recommend a good neighborhood for Indian food, and you'll most likely be steered toward Jackson Heights. Ask for a specific recommendation, and you'll be told to visit Jackson Diner. The heart of Queens' Little India is 74th Street between Roosevelt and 37th Avenues, and Jackson Diner is almost smack in the middle. This neighborhood institution has been serving food from North and South India since 1980. The abundant lunch buffet is particularly packed. Delhi Heights also features a beloved buffet, as well as entrées from the tandoor, a clay oven. The all-vegetarian Dosa Delight lives up to its name and does do delightful dosas. A specialty of the southern subcontinent, these pancakes are made from lentils and rice flour, then wrapped around fiery potatoes, spinach, cheese and even chocolate and cashews. Speaking of sweet stuff, Little India has several snack shops selling savory fare like chaat, as well as colorful mithai (sweets). Rajbhog and Maharaja both boast ginormous selections, from hot pink cham cham (made from milk and sugar) to coconut-covered gulab jamun (like a syrup-drenched donut hole) to fudge-like burfi sprinkled with chopped pistachios.

Shak trak at Phayul. Photo: Garrett Ziegler

Himalayan Heights
Phayul Restaurant
37-65 74th St., 718-424-1869
Himalayan Yak
72–20 Roosevelt Ave., 718-779-1119
Mustang Thakali Kitchen
74-14 37th Ave., 718-898-5088
Lhasa Fast Food
37-50 74th St.
The number of restaurants specializing in Tibetan and Nepalese food in Jackson Heights now almost exceeds those specializing in Indian food—hence the neighborhood's newest nickname: "Himalayan Heights." Phayul, which means "fatherland" in Tibetan, serves specialties from Central Asia in a nondescript second-floor space. Thanks to liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns known as emma, dishes like shoko sil sil ngoe ma (shredded potatoes and green chiles) and laphing (noodles made from mung bean jelly doused with chile sauce) are shockingly spicy. Two other sit-down standbys are Himalayan Yak and Mustang Thakali Kitchen, both known for thalis, small portions of various dishes on a metal tray. To find Lhasa Fast Food, you have to walk through a cell phone store (locally known as Tibetan Mobile), past rows of DVDs in Tibetan and Hindi, and beneath portraits of the Dalai Lama and prayer flags. Keep going until you smell butter tea brewing in the far back. Your perseverance will be rewarded with, among a handful of other things, made-to-order momos, dumplings that are plump as a coin purse and crimped on top. Traditionally stuffed with yak meat, versions in Queens tend to swap in beef, vegetables or chicken, along with garlic, soy sauce, scallions and ginger.

La Porteña Restaurant. Photo: Will Steacy

Tastes of Latin America
La Cabaña Argentina
86-07 Northern Blvd., 718-426-5977
El Pequeño Coffee Shop
86-10 Roosevelt Ave., 718-205-7128
86-20 37th Ave., 718-672-2224
Tierras Salvadoreñas Restaurant
94-16 37th Ave., 718-672-0853
Cositas Ricas
79-19 Roosevelt Ave., 718-478-1500
La Boina Roja Steak House
80-22 37th Ave., 718-424-6711
Mama's Empanadas
85-05 Northern Blvd., 718-505-9937
La Gran Uruguaya
85-06 37th Ave., 718-505-0404
Almost every country in Central and South America has a representative eatery in Jackson Heights: the steaks and wine of Argentina can be found at La Cabaña Argentina; the juices and soups of Ecuador at El Pequeño Coffee Shop; the ceviche and other seafood preparations of Peru at Urubamba; and the pupusas of El Salvador at Tierras Salvadoreñas Restaurant. You can get your fill of Colombian food like caldo de costillo (short rib soup) and chicharrónes (deep-fried pork rind), with lulo juice to drink, any time the craving hits at the always open, neon-lit Cositas Ricas. La Boina Roja has a following equally devoted to its restaurant and its butcher shop. Local chain Mama's Empanadas makes a variety of these stuffed, fried pastries, including chorizo, rice and beans, and for dessert, fig, caramel and cheese. La Gran Uruguaya displays row after row of delicacies like cakes, flan and macarons. Can't decide what you want to try? Long lines at this bakery and café will give you plenty of time to consider your options—and keep in mind that everything goes well with café con leche.

Espresso 77. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Thirst Quenchers
El Palacio de los Cholados
83-18 Northern Blvd., 917-436-5649
81-04 37th Ave., 718-651-0700
Espresso 77
35-57 77th St., 718-424-1077
The menu at El Palacio de Los Cholados is as limited as its flavors are big. Several of the items on offer come with a straw, a spoon and a dozen or so napkins. You'll need them all to thoroughly enjoy the "super combinación" cholado: crushed ice, fruit syrup and condensed milk poured over strata of banana, mangos, strawberries, coconut and pineapple. The concoctions at Jahn's also blur the line between drinks, desserts and mind-blowing mixes. Depending on your appetite (and the size of your party), you might go in for the famous Kitchen Sink Sundae, which purports to feed eight. It comes in a bucket with a ladle. Or you can order a milkshake, an egg cream or a malted from this family-owned diner, whose decor harks back to a time when there were Jahn's throughout the New York City area. (The very first one opened in 1897.) Another important community fixture is Espresso 77, which serves coffee drinks and teas, and uses its walls as a gallery, playing host to rotating displays of work by local artists.

Patel Brothers. Photo: Alex Lopez

Butala Emporium
37-46 74th St., 718-899-5590
India Sari Palace
37-07 74th St., 718-426-2700
37-08 74th St., 718-565-5404
Sona Jewels of London
37-10 74th St., 718-478-7401
Patel Brothers
37-27 74th St., 718-898-3445
Once upon a time, Jackson Heights boasted not one, but two theaters showing Bollywood hits. Those days might be gone, but you can still get your fill of style, romance and song along 74th Street. Sidewalk stands sell prayer rugs, clocks, prayer beads, toys and DVDs and CDs from South Asia. Butala Emporium has your icon and incense needs covered, as well as a large selection of Hindi magazines, literature and dictionaries. Among the street's most eye-catching windows are those at India Sari Palace and Lavanya: the jewel-tone saris, shalwar kameez and other authentic pieces of apparel sparkle with glittering trim in silver and gold. If it's actual gold you're after, browse the wares at Sona Jewels of London. And on weekends, cars will double- or triple-park to pop into Patel Brothers for the perfect ingredient. Walking the store's aisles of pastes, prepared foods and powders, or looking at the bins of okra, onions, honeydew, jackfruit, pumpkin, spinach, taro and other produce, provides a powerful reminder of the commonalities among so many regional cuisines.

The Arepa Lady. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Roosevelt Avenue Street Food
The Arepa Lady
Roosevelt Avenue and 79th Street
Jeff Orlick, Queens Food Tours
You can eat cheaply and well simply by walking along Roosevelt Avenue, especially at night. As the sun goes down, vendors appear on their customary corners or spots along the blocks beneath the elevated 7 train. Music from their carts competes with the thump-thump-thump spilling out of the area's bars. It's a two-plus-mile-long party, catered by cooks from El Salvador, Mexico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the scene is simply to follow the crowds. Try tortas and gorditas (types of sandwiches), tacos, chuzos (meat skewers), quesadillas, roast pork, raspados (flavored shave ice), esquites (corn mixed with mayonnaise, lime juice, chili powder and salt), tamales, salsas and halal lamb with rice. The most famous vendor on this strip, the so-called Arepa Lady (aka Maria Piedad Cano), sells—you guessed it—arepas, a compact snack from her native Colombia that she packs with cheese. Cano is usually at 79th Street and Roosevelt on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 pm to 4 am; check her Twitter feed for details. If you're looking for guidance, Queens resident and street food connoisseur Jeff Orlick leads several types of tours, such as a midnight food crawl. Going at midnight gives you all day and most of the evening to work up an appetite.

Terraza 7. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Terraza 7
40-19 Gleane St., 718-803-9602
La Gloria
86-13 Northern Blvd., 718-806-1270
Amaru Pisco Bar
84-13 Northern Blvd., 718-205-5577
Open daily from 4 pm to 4 am, Terraza 7 provides a dizzying array of entertainment. Freddy Castiblanco, the owner, wanted his place to be a bar, club and performance venue, so he regularly books poetry slams, DJs, film screenings, musicians who jam and musicians who play standard sets, and vocalists in Afro, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and other traditions. The performers do their diverse things on an elevated stage above the ground-floor bar area, which has tables, couches, hammocks and statues of saints. You can eat, drink, canoodle or some combination thereof at La Gloria, a dimly lit, maroon-hued lounge and popular restaurant serving primarily Cuban food. Down the street is Amaru Pisco Bar, offering roughly 20 types of this potent Peruvian spirit. You can drink the stuff straight or get it mixed into a house-made cocktail, such as the Alturas (puree of prickly pear, aloe vera, lemon juice, gum syrup and Pisco 100) or the Ichicgo Pisco (cava, simple syrup, strawberries cured in Ty Ku soju, lime juice and Pisco 100).

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Gay Culture
Queens Pride House
76-11 37th Ave., 718-429-5309
Friends Tavern
78-11 Roosevelt Ave., 718-397-7256
Club Evolution
76-19 Roosevelt Ave., 718-457-3939
Bum Bum Bar
63-14 Roosevelt Ave., 718-651-4145
Jackson Heights is the epicenter of gay culture in Queens. The annual Queens Pride Parade & Multicultural Festival takes place in the streets around 37th Avenue and 37th Road in early June; everyone is invited to participate in this celebration of diversity and tolerance. As the area's primary LGBT community center, Queens Pride House has hosted discussions and events related to social and political issues, as well as many kinds of free, drop-in referrals and counseling sessions, since its founding in 1997. "Where strangers become friends" could be the motto of many bars, but, as the oldest gay bar in the borough, Friends Tavern has probably earned more of a right to use it than most. With drink specials and events most nights of the week, this bar is consistently crowded. Its younger sibling, Club Evolution, calls itself a "gay Latino nightclub" and attracts a high-energy crowd. A bit further afield, Bum Bum Bar caters to lesbians, though all are welcome. The music tends toward merengue and salsa, and the small dance floor fills up fast.

Travers Park. Photo: Daniel Avila/NYC Parks and Recreation

Green Spaces
Travers Park
34th Avenue (bet. 77th and 78th Streets), 212-NEW–YORK
Manuel de Dios Unanue Triangle
Roosevelt and Baxter Avenues, 212-NEW-YORK
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
33-50 82nd St., 718-639-8893
Travers Park, the neighborhood's largest outdoor recreational space, features basketball courts, handball courts, tennis courts, playgrounds, spray showers, benches, trees and many, many happy children. A few years ago, 78th Street adjacent to Travers Park was designated as a permanent car-free zone. Pick-up games of soccer and kickball take place around the planters and picnic tables. And this expansion will continue: the City plans to create even more green space on 79th Street. While Travers Park was named for prominent community and political leader Thomas J. Travers, the tiny Manuel De Dios Unanue Triangle honors a Queens journalist assassinated for his investigations into, and outspoken critique of, the drug trade. Located where Roosevelt meets Baxter Avenue and 83rd Street, this park has several shady spots at which to enjoy whatever you buy from the avenue's food carts and trucks. One of the loveliest resting spots in Jackson Heights is the garden surrounding St. Mark's Episcopal Church, particularly when the cherry blossoms are in full flower.

Photo: Garrett Ziegler

Architectural Gems
The Chateau
34-05 to 34-47 80th St. and 34-06 to 34-48 81st St.
The Towers
33-15 to 33-51 80th St. and 33-16 to 33-52 81st St.
Scrabble Street Sign
35th Avenue and 81st Street
Community United Methodist Church
81-10 35th Ave., 718-446-0690
In the early 1900s, the Queensboro Corporation acquired about 350 acres of land for development. Renaming the area Jackson Heights, the corporation began constructing low-rise garden apartments, which would overlook a lush courtyard, include ornate details like fireplaces, and be sold, rather than rented. Two of the best-known—and best-looking—garden apartment buildings were designed by Andrew Thomas across the street from each other in 1924. The Chateau was built in the French Renaissance style, with mansard roofs and decorated chimneys; while The Towers, done in Italian Romanesque and Renaissance styles, has red-tile roofs and belvederes. But many streets are worth a leisurely walk, since much of the neighborhood was designated a historic district in the early 1990s. You might notice something strange about the sign at the corner of 35th Avenue and 81st Street: it's worth 14 points. Unable to find work as an architect during the Depression, Alfred Butts invented a game he called Criss Cross Words in his fifth-floor Jackson Heights walk-up. He and his wife, Nina, introduced the game we now know as Scrabble to fellow members of the Community United Methodist Church, and there's a small plaque in his honor on one of its walls.