Seventh Heaven: Dining Along the 7 Train

Julie Besonen

Queens wears the crown when it comes to ethnic cuisine. People from all over—Ecuador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru, India, Thailand, China and more—have settled in enclaves throughout the borough, the City's largest and most diverse. For a culinary field trip, hop aboard the 7 Flushing Local train, an "International Express" whose stops from Sunnyside to Flushing are designated as a National Millennium Trail (right up there with the Lewis and Clark expedition) for how they reflect America's history and culture. To experience the polyglot corridor for yourself, start in Manhattan at the Times Sq./42nd St. stop for an Eastern European nosh at Cafe Edison. Rumble on to the Grand Central/42nd St. stop and seek out Sakagura, which feels thisclose to Tokyo. After tunneling under the East River, there's M. Wells Dinette, a hip new Quebecois destination inside MoMA PS1 near the 45th Rd./Court House Sq. stop. Our slideshow of eats along the 7 train journeys to Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona and Flushing, highlighting new tastes, longtime classics and where to get the best lahmacun, pupusa and llapingacho in NYC—almost all at low prices.

Service changes on the 7 train are in effect at certain times due to ongoing signal and tunnel maintenance between Times Sq./42nd St. and Queensboro Plaza. Visit mta.infofor more information before you travel.

7 Train Stop: 40th St./Lowery St.
Turkish Grill
42-03 Queens Blvd., 718-392-3838, Sunnyside, Queens
Once rural farmland, Sunnyside today is densely populated with immigrants from all over the globe. This vibrant, friendly neighborhood is conveniently served by the 7 train, the elevated tracks of which overlook the wonderful Turkish Grill, whose tasteful decor includes tables with white linen tablecloths, hanging lights with sleek black lamp shades, and red accents. Start with puffy, chewy and warm Turkish bread and a selection of spreads, such as baba ghanoush, hummus and lebni (thick homemade yogurt with walnuts, garlic and dill). Lahmacun—Turkish-style pizza—is another must, topped here with ground lamb, chopped vegetables and parsley. High-quality lamb kebabs and chicken Adana over rice with grilled peppers go beautifully with Turkish wine. There's a cinema on the same block where tickets are as low as $5 a pop, allowing for an affordable dinner-and-a-movie night.

7 Train Stop: 52nd St.
Sik Gaek
49-11 Roosevelt Ave., 718-205-4555, Woodside, Queens
You might think, Hmm, what kind of place is this, in the same shopping center as a 99-cent store and a carpet and mattress warehouse? A Korean rock-'n'-roll-style joint, that's what. Walls are plastered with newspapers, Asian posters and dollar bills, and whenever the 7 train barrels overhead, the concrete floors tremble. An offshoot of the original in Flushing, Sik Gaek's Woodside location opened in 2010. Wood tables are inlaid with grills, making it a fun, DIY-party destination. The portions are certainly big enough to share when it comes to seafood pancakes, spicy crab stir-fry, marinated beef short ribs and a sizzling hot pot full of vegetables and mushrooms. The bold can dig into live octopus, marinated snails, chicken feet and beef intestines. For extreme cuisine daredevils is stir-fry with abomasum intestine, also known as the fourth and final stomach compartment in ruminant mammals.

7 Train Stop: Woodside/61st St.
64-05 Roosevelt Ave., 718-533-8373, Woodside, Queens
Izalco—or "la casa de las pupusas"—is Queens' main venue for Salvadoran food, which is not as spicy as Mexican and tends to feature deep-fried corn tortillas, tamales, tacos and enchiladas. Irish bars dominated this area of Woodside for decades, but the growing Latin American population has led to a peaceful transition. A café quirkily embellished with thrift-shop art, a mounted deer head and toy trucks and buses, Izalco has been at this location for almost 17 years. True to its roots, it's a hospitable place that serves signature pupusas—griddled corn cakes variously stuffed with cheese, pork cracklings or beans, or a mixture of all three—along with curtido (vinegary cabbage salad) and mild salsa. There's also well-prepared seafood, horchata and deep-fried sweet plantains filled with cream.

7 Train Stop: 69th St.
64-13 39th Ave., 718-899-9599, Woodside, Queens
Contrary chowhounds link arms when it comes to naming the best Thai food in all five boroughs: Queens' own SriPraPhai (pronounced "see-pra-pie"). What started out years ago as a little bakery now has three dining rooms, a garden patio with a flowing fountain and a frequent line out the door. A pilgrimage to this off-the-beaten-path Woodside neighborhood is justified upon tasting crispy catfish with green mango salad and cashews, abundant watercress salad with squid, shrimp and chicken, spicy curries and drunken noodles with minced meat, chili and basil. The cooks don't tame the heat for Western palates, so watch out. It's cash only, but you won't need much, as most entrées cost $10 or less.

7 Train Stop: 74th St./Broadway
Jackson Diner
37-47 74th St., 718-672-1232, Jackson Heights, Queens
Open since 1980, Jackson Diner is a perennial favorite when it comes to superb Indian cuisine. The vast, high-ceilinged space looks like a bygone cafeteria and, as its name reveals, was once a diner. Delicacies from both North India (samosas, pakoras, tandoori) and South India (lentil cakes, dosas) are represented. Vegetarians will have no trouble finding a number of tempting choices. For buffet lovers, this is the jackpot. Bounteous, steaming bins of chicken, lamb, Goan fish curry, goat curry, vegetable dishes and heavenly Indian breads are frequently replenished. Keep in mind that the buffet is only set out at lunch, costing $9.95 on weekdays and $10.95 on weekends. At night, it's à la carte, with tandoori prawns, lamb vindaloo and chicken cooked in cashews and curry (murg korma). There's also a full bar.

7 Train Stop: 90th St./Elmhurst Ave.
92-12 37th Ave., 718-205-6900, Jackson Heights, Queens
What is Ecuadoran food, anyway? Find out at Barzola, stationed in the center of Jackson Heights' sizable Ecuadoran community. The family-friendly, barnlike restaurant has flat-screen TVs tuned to sports and repurposed miner lanterns hanging over the wood bar, where bartenders shake up rum-based cocktails. Ceviche and cooked seafood are major players, as are appetizers of humitas (corn cakes) and ayacas (leaf-wrapped sweet cornmeal with chicken). Typical, peasant-style dishes will seem oddball to tenderfoots. Llapingacho is a combo platter of potato patties and fried eggs bordered by frankfurters, braised pork chunks and sweet plantains, all of it soaking up peanut sauce. Another curious specialty is the bandera platter: tripe stew, goat stew, shrimp cocktail, ceviche, cassava and rice.

7 Train Stop: Junction Blvd.
Rincón Criollo
40-09 Junction Blvd., 718-458-0236, Corona, Queens
Multicultural Corona served as a haven for Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's regime in the 1960s and 1970s. Some expats have since moved on, but Rincón Criollo, a home-style Cuban restaurant founded by the Acosta brothers in 1976, continues to carry the flag. Pre-Castro, the brothers had a flourishing restaurant outside of Havana, and many of those recipes are duplicated here—including ropa vieja (shredded beef in tomato sauce), rabo encendido (slow-cooked oxtail) and classic rice and beans. It's hard to find a better Cubano sandwich, a toasty treat of ham, pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. The steak sandwich—layered with shoestring potatoes, tomatoes, grilled onions and shredded lettuce—is a close runner-up. Dignified career waiters in white shirts and red bow ties are generous with advice. Listen closely as they mention the daily specials.

7 Train Stop: 103rd St./Corona Plaza
Tortilleria Nixtamal
104-05 47th Ave., 718-699-2434, Corona, Queens
In the past few years, Mexican food in the City has enjoyed laudatory improvement, but since December 2008, Tortilleria Nixtamal has been a magnet for true aficionados. Here's why: authentic tortillas are made the ancient Aztec way. A process called nixtamalization involves letting partially cooked corn that has been treated with calcium hydroxide soak until it's ready to grind into tortilla dough. The resulting tamales, tortillas and pozole are more intensely flavored than anything made with processed corn flour. At this cheerful, laid-back outpost, owners Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page don't cut corners, sourcing non-GMO corn from Illinois, making salsa and chunky, jalapeño-laced guacamole from scratch. The skate for the excellent fish tacos is from a sustainable source, and the meat comes from Franco's, a local Italian butcher. Take the 7 train here and taste the real deal.

7 Train Stop: Flushing/Main St.
Spicy & Tasty
39-07 Prince St., 718-359-1601, Flushing, Queens
Along the jam-packed, lively streets of Flushing's Chinatown are an overwhelming number of restaurants representing different regions and styles—from Anthony Bourdain–approved eats to fancy banquet halls to dim-sum specialists. Where to begin? Spicy & Tasty is a virtuoso introduction, featuring Szechuan delights in a spick-and-span dining room that's sophisticated without being dressy. Frank Bruni awarded it two stars in his New York Times review in 2006, and its high standards for vividly flavored dishes are still apparent. Dan dan noodles with minced pork, cold sesame noodles, double-cooked spicy pork and shrimp with green hot peppers in black bean sauce are all enthralling enough to cause a chopstick war at the table. If you're seeking more exotic culinary thrills, you'll also find beef tendon in red chili sauce, duck feet with wasabi and frog in fresh hot pepper.