Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
If the four-car G train is the runt of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s litter, the 7 is its black sheep. Opened 103 years ago as a release valve for congested Manhattan, it transformed a pastoral stretch of Queens into the world’s most diverse commute. But for New Yorkers who don’t live along the 7, it might as well be the Long Island Railroad: a semiurban adjunct route to Mets games, tennis matches and Beyoncé concerts.
Nicknamed the International Express both for the diversity of neighborhoods it serves and its terminus near the 1964 World’s Fair grounds, the 7 trundles along with a culture all its own. Those who take the line only for special events like the United States Open may not be attuned to its nuances, and hungry commuters seeking snacks along the way are likely working off outdated intel.
If you want to know how to eat along the International Express in 2018, you need to understand the borough’s demographic shifts over the past 40 years.
Spanning the 74th and 82nd Street stops, the neighborhood has long been known for its South Asian and Latin American communities. But when Jane Marlowe and her partner moved there in 1981, she was more interested in a prewar apartment with an easy Manhattan commute than the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity.
“We didn’t understand the international nature of it,” she said, adding that she rarely saw visitors from Manhattan or Brooklyn. It didn’t take her long to find “the really great empanada place” down her street, or to become a regular at Maharani, a now-closed South Indian restaurant where she encountered her first dosa. “Jackson Heights was a place where everyone was welcoming to people of other cultures, so you learned to enjoy those foods.”
By the ’90s, popular restaurants like the Jackson Diner cemented the neighborhood’s reputation as the place to get Indian food cooked for Indian customers. But at that point, the area’s wealthier Indian residents had already begun decamping for Long Island and New Jersey, to be replaced by waves of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and more recently Tibet and Nepal.
These days, the neighborhood’s remaining Indian restaurants mostly stick to a standardized tikka masala script; those in search of more daring Indian dining should head to New Hyde Park or Edison, N.J.
As Indian businesses departed, Pakistani ones filled in the gap. In 1996, Shoukat Ali opened Kabab King Diner, a kebab house and catering hall for the growing Pakistani population. Mumtaz Hussain, a journalist from Karachi and a server at Kabab King for nearly a decade, said that the most popular dishes hew to Pakistani and Bengali tastes: charcoal-grilled fish, goat biryani, and fiery seekh kebabs made from minced chicken or beef.
“Pakistani people love spicy goat and lamb dishes,” he said, “and you can’t get those anywhere else in New York. Even the Tibetan and Nepali people come here. They have their own restaurants, but they like these dishes too.”
South Asian food in Jackson Heights today is as diverse as the diaspora itself: 73rd Street has become a Bengali restaurant row, and the neighborhood now boasts two dozen Tibetan and Nepali kitchens and carts — exponential growth from a mere handful a decade earlier. As Fatima Kamil, the third-generation manager of Jackson Heights’ Kababish puts it, “The food is a lot more specific nowadays. Before there might be an Indian place or a Thai place, but now it’s Bangkok Thai or Esan Thai, which makes the food way better.”
This is especially true in Elmhurst, the neighborhood just south of Jackson Heights across Roosevelt Avenue. While Thai immigrants have lived in the area for decades, once-sleepy streets like Woodside Avenue have recently transformed into edible exhibits on the range and depth of Thai cooking.
“There was almost nothing here when I opened six years ago,” says Boyd Vich, the owner of Tea Cup Cafe, an unassuming pastel-painted shop popular with young people from Thailand, Tibet and the Philippines. Now he shares the street with half a dozen regional Thai restaurants and groceries, each with its own niche. “A lot more people in Queens have been to Thailand, so I want my food to be original and authentic.”
Tea Cup’s niche includes of-the-moment sweets and creative drinks like sakura- and rose-flavored iced coffee. But the duck noodle soup is deliriously good too, as is chicken “biryani” made from marinated thighs that fall off the bone served with turmeric-scented rice.
Like Jackson Heights and Indian cuisine, Flushing’s renown as New York’s not-for-tourists Chinatown has been gradual. When the Open came to Flushing Meadows in 1978, English was still the dominant language on the street. Today that experience ends as you leave the Main Street 7 station and enter downtown Flushing, where Chinese is the new lingua franca.
Dora Cheng’s family was among the first wave of Chinese immigrants to settle in Queens, moving to Fresh Meadows from Hong Kong in 1984. Ms. Cheng, who spent her teen years after school working at a Chinese video store in downtown Flushing, has fond memories of the Taiwanese hot soy milk and sticky rice rolls she’d find near Main Street.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, Flushing was mostly Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, not people from the mainland,” she said. “It was also quieter and more diverse back then. Now it’s like Times Square.”
Those seeking the taste of old Flushing can still find it at Taipan Bakery, which dates back to 1990 and also has a location in Chinatown. The crackle-crusted pineapple buns, milky bubble tea and roast pork buns are essential Asian-American nostalgia, and the bakery has successfully stood its ground against countless competitors.
The neighborhood’s newer arrivals hail from all over China: fiery Sichuan and Hunan restaurants, Fujianese hand-pulled noodle shops, Dongbei-style kitchens from the north, and most recently, food stalls specializing in western Chinese and Uyghur cooking. Each of these cuisines is well represented at the basement food court of the New World Mall, where English signage is inconsistent, so your best bet for a good meal is to follow your nose.
New World is far from Flushing’s only mall food court, but it is the most glamorous, and particularly popular with young Asian-Americans in search of the next great dish.
To Jason Wang, the president and chief executive of Xi’an Famous Foods — once a humble Flushing food stall that’s grown into a handpulled noodle empire spanning 13 locations across three boroughs — the real story of Flushing’s culinary evolution isn’t greater regional diversity. It’s the exponential growth in wealth that makes high-end malls like New World possible.
“When we started in 2005, restaurants were owned by local people just starting out. Now there’s foreign money and chains moving in; some rents are higher than parts of Midtown.”
More money and development mean a dining scene driven by social networks like Instagram and WeChat instead of $4 plates of dumplings.
“Flushing is moving out of the cheap food category,” Mr. Wang said, pointing to a new wave of high-end restaurants and imports as signs of what’s to come. “The neighborhood is its own world, and now its restaurants are becoming more like China. The New World Mall is like a small village place compared to the big ones in cities like Chengdu.”