Step inside Queens’ secret restaurants.
In Queens, sometimes you have to literally follow your nose. You’re walking along and minding your own business when a wisp of braised pork winds its way to your nostrils. You turn a corner and find a crowd of worshippers in their Sunday best, lined up outside a church while abuelitas spoon rice and beans and bits of stew onto paper plates. You ask politely if they’re selling food to the general public, and if so, you hand over a fiver. Suddenly, you have lunch.
In the diverse neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, such happy finds of happenstance have been codified into an underground network of secret kitchens: weekend taco operations occluded by Mexican markets, restaurants inside other restaurants and snack shops embedded in butcher shops and behind cell phone stores.
Some are above-board restaurants merely operating out of plain view. Others are built on handshake agreements, dodging the law and Yelp’s all-seeing eye. But in every case, the semi-privacy affords Queens’ immigrant communities a space to gather and slurp a taste of home.
Visitors are welcome, too, as long as you know how to find the kitchen in the first place. To begin: Follow your nose.
Between 74th Street and Junction Boulevard under the rumbling 7 train, Roosevelt Avenue is lined with bodegas. Some are strictly the chips-beer-candy variety; others are full-fledged groceries specializing in products for the Mexican, Colombian, Uruguayan and Salvadoran communities that call Jackson Heights and Elmhurst home.
Come the weekend, many of these bodegas transform into taquerias, with a couple tables set up around makeshift kitchens. The cooking is more homespun than local full-time taco operations; instead of a full menu, expect two or three pots of slow-cooked meat, such as carnitas fragrant with orange and suadero dripping with fat. Homemade salsa is the rule, and rare specialties like pork-skin tacos and nubs of fresh blood sausage are commonplace.
With no ventilation hoods and often no permits, there’s a reason these bodegas don’t advertise their weekend specials. Police harassment for minor offenses is commonplace for Roosevelt’s street vendor scene; these secret kitchens give local cooks a space to do business and flaunt their creativity away from patrol’s prying eyes. And with lower startup costs than even a street cart, a weekend taco gig is a handy way to bring in extra income.
One bodega owner, who asked to remain anonymous, has an informal agreement with his taco guy, who has another job when not chopping chunks of tender barbacoa to line tortillas toasted in lard. The cook brings his own equipment and draws customers in the door, while the bodega provides the space and takes a cut of the day’s earnings. At another market, the weekend taco and birria business is run by the market’s owners, turning the two-aisle grocery into a popular local hangout.
Head west toward 76th Street, and you reach an inflection point: Spanish signage disappears and is replaced by whorls of Hindi, Nepali and Tibetan scripts. This is Jackson Heights’ South Asian corridor, which has a secret kitchen culture all its own. At the base of the Roosevelt Avenue subway station, a halal butcher hosts a paan stall, where two dollars gets you a restorative snack of betel leaves stuffed with honey, rose, coconut, betel nut and toasted lentils.
Indians are still the dominant population here, but for the past decade or so, Tibetan and Nepali immigrants have moved in by the thousands. They’ve built a wide ring of Himalayan restaurants of their own, but some still piggyback onto more stable Indian businesses.
In the back of Merit Kebab, one of the neighborhood’s busiest Indian curry houses, is a small Nepali steam table that sub-leases space as an affordable entry into the restaurant business. Buttery dal and hearty thukpa are the things here, the latter a chile-spiced soup full of udon-like noodles.
Across the street, Namaste Tashi Delek Dumpling Palace has its own symbiotic relationship with an Indian restaurant: Delhi Heights. A server explained that the ground-floor restaurant serves predominantly Indian cooking to Bengali, Indian, Nepali and white diners, while the subterranean Namaste, with a separate entrance and minimal markings, caters more specifically to Nepali customers. The food is less expensive down here, and more intensely flavored. Cubes of fried, marinated goat are unapologetically gamey, and crisped-up momos dressed in a sweet and spicy Manchurian glaze become a kind of General Tso’s Dumplings.
Lhasa Fast Food is the neighborhood’s biggest open secret, talked up by the likes of the New York Times and Anthony Bourdain. It’s a pocket universe of a restaurant you access by snaking past a cell phone store in a mini-mall; suddenly you turn a corner and wafts of steam rise past a portrait of the Dalai Lama greeting you with a smile. In this inner sanctum, Tibetan native Sang Jien Ben tears off knobs of dough to simmer and rise for boat-sized bowls of thenthuk, a beef broth fortified with bits of noodle, beef and wood ear mushroom. He’s also the only momo-maker in the neighborhood filling the steamed dumplings with gloriously stinky garlic chives.
Recently, the same complex that houses Lhasa opened an even tinier Burmese food market. Instead of a cell phone store, you head past a sari shop to a stall barely big enough to turn around in. At Little Myanmar, three Burmese women toggle shifts to sell fermented tea leaves, dried fruits and nuts and instant soup mixes to the growing Burmese community, the latest demographic shift in Jackson Heights’ ever-changing population.
Before a Queens immigrant group gains the capital to open restaurants, it often begins with stalls just like this one, stocked with packaged goods imported in luggage and homemade snacks supplied by local cooks. From the street, Little Myanmar is marked only by a small sign that blends into half a dozen others advertising phone card retailers and restaurants. The only language on it is Burmese, a shibboleth of sorts on a thoroughfare of Indian groceries and jewelry shops that arrived a generation earlier.
Where to go
Since these bodega-backed taco operations are less-than-legal, Food & Wine is keeping specific locations a secret. But if you walk Roosevelt Avenue between 74th Street and Junction Boulevard, you’ll find several if you follow your nose.
Inside Halal Meat and Fish, 37-68 74th Street
Inside Merit Kabab Palace, 37-67 74th Street
Namaste Tashi Delek Dumpling Palace:
Underneath Delhi Heights, 37-66 74th Street, entrance on 37th Road
Lhasa Fast Food:
37-50 74th Street, right side
37-50 74th Street, left side