Thanks to a few Michelin-starred restaurants and high-profile food markets like Smorgasburg Queens and LIC Flea & Food, the dining scene in Queens is finally getting more well-deserved attention. But this isn’t a borough that runs on what’s hip or trendy. Here, in one of the most diverse places on Earth, eating like a local is akin to traveling the world: a cultural experience in which you’ll encounter people and dishes from countries as far-flung as Nepal, Thailand, Colombia, and Greece. It’s about neighborhood stalwarts and local legends that support those neighborhoods where the melting pot has survived and thrived, beloved eateries long content to fly under the radar of the general New York City public, and newer restaurants that seamlessly fill a culinary need without fanfare or pretension. Want to eat Queens right? Here are 10 palate-expanding spots that’ll jump-start your sense of adventure and impress any borough resident worth his or her salt. Go forth and explore.
Best known for its excellent Greek food, Astoria has no shortage of tavernas at which to get your saganaki fix. But for fresh fish prepared Mediterranean style, at dirt-cheap prices, you’ll want to head to Greek-owned market-cum-eatery Astoria Seafood. Start by choosing your meal from the displays of raw seafood on ice—whole branzino, sea bass, and red snapper; calamari and octopus; shrimp, scallops, lobster tails—then bring it to the counter for weighing, paying, and cooking: grilled in garlicky olive oil or breaded and fried. Add a Greek salad, some rice, and lemony potatoes, and you’ve got yourself a feast, simply prepared and absolutely delicious, that’ll set you back about $30 for two (the place is also BYOB). It’s a winning formula; there’s nearly always a wait for a table come dinnertime. Sure, you’ll be dining with plastic utensils under florescent lights in a well-worn space, but nobody among this convivial, diverse local crowd—which has been known to erupt in spontaneous dance—gives a damn. 3710 33rd St., Long Island City; 718-392-2680
It’s appeared on Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern and is a popular stop on neighborhood food tours, but Dhaulagiri Kitchen, in the heart of Himalayan-heavy Jackson Heights, is so much of a hole-in-the-wall that it’s remained a strictly local favorite. Perhaps this is due to its easily missable exterior—the only signage is for Tawa Food Corp., the small roti bakery that shares its already-cramped space—and the extremely limited seating inside. No matter: The tiny Nepali eatery serves up wonderful, inexpensive regional food from Kathmandu, the chef-owner’s hometown, from momos (thick-skinned dumplings with various fillings) to sukuti (air-dried and stewed beef, buffalo, or goat jerky). But it’s the generous plates of thali—traditional rice platters with dhal, mustard greens, pickled vegs, fried bitter melon, roasted soybeans, and your choice of curry (from $9)—that best show off the complex range of flavors at play here: bitter, spicy, sour, earthy. If the food’s too fiery, arm yourself with just-cooked sel roti, a subtly sweet, deep-fried doughnut-like ring made from ground rice. Don’t forget to pick up some fresh roti and paratha to bring home. 37-38 72nd St., Jackson Heights; 718-877-7682
Plant Love House
With stalwarts like Ayada and Chao Thai anchoring an ever-growing “Little Bangkok,” Elmhurst is ground zero for the city’s best Thai food. Since joining the scene last November, Plant Love House has quickly become a go-to for local Thais and the borough’s chowhounds, for good reason: The homestyle cooking, made by a Thai mom and her two daughters, specializes in spicy street food and the kind of Instagram-friendly desserts beloved by Bangkok’s youth—plus the overwhelming majority of dishes clock in under $10. The small, cheery restaurant’s eight signature dishes include the popular num tok, a fiery pork-blood noodle soup with pork balls, and yum khanom jeen, fermented rice noodles topped with crispy salmon; one of several can’t-miss desserts is the Plant Love toast, a thick, buttery square of bread topped with vanilla ice cream and bananas. This is not your run-of-the-mill Thai menu. In fact, it’s quite compact, meaning you can probably try every dish in just a few visits. (Trust us: You’ll want to.) 86-08 Whitney Ave., Elmhurst; 718-565-2010
New World Mall’s Food Court
Flushing, Queens’ large and bustling Chinatown, has no shortage of outstanding Chinese (not to mention Korean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, even Indian) restaurants, but locals know the best way to experience the neighborhood’s sheer diversity of cheap East Asian eats is to hit up a food court in one of its several malls. They are each worth visiting for a few standout stalls, and the huge, modern, fluorescent-lit court at the basement level of the New World Mall is no exception. Start with some juicy, crispy-fried pork and leek potstickers, or guo tie, from the corner stall called Li Lanzhou Stretch Noodles/Shanxi Sliced Noodles, then move on to cold-skin noodles from Beijing Cuisine and hand-pulled noodle soup from Lanzhou Handmade, or perhaps Szechuan fried chicken, Taiwanese pork buns, and Japanese-style crepes from some of the other 32-plus vendors. It’s hard to go terribly wrong here. 136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, 718-353-0551
The Queens Kickshaw
Since opening in 2011, The Queens Kickshaw, with its exposed brick walls and dangling Edison bulbs, has been a breath of fresh air amid the discount shops and hole-in-the-wall eateries of southeast Astoria. But it’s what’s on the menu that makes this an undying local favorite, and the kind of place where it’s all too easy to while away half your day. The husband-and-wife owners nail just about everything a city dweller needs: specialty coffee, craft beer, cider, wine, mead, and, well, fancy grilled cheeses (from $9). Beyond those signature sandwiches, the from-scratch seasonal cooking here is thoughtful and delicious; for summer, we love the watermelon- feta salad and excellent creamy sweet-corn farro risotto—and of course, homemade ice cream. 40-17 Broadway, Astoria; 718-777-0913
Here’s a secret: You needn’t travel to Flushing proper for top-notch Chinese food in Queens. Located in Elmhurst, this unassuming eatery specializes in food from Henan, the region known as the breadbasket of China thanks to its wheat production. At Uncle Zhou, diners gorge on handmade dumplings and wheat noodles prepared every which way: thick and knife-shaved with tomato and egg; skinny and hand-drawn, swimming in soups; threadlike and baked to a crisp atop a whole fish; broad and nestled amid the chile-studded “big tray of chicken.” Pro tip: Start with some of the cold appetizers, like vinegary ribbons of cucumber and wood-ear mushrooms, selected from under the counter in back, before moving on to the to-die-for steamed lamb dumplings. 83-29 Broadway, Elmhurst; 718-393-0888
What started as a late-night, weekends-only street cart with a cultlike following is now a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Colombian Jackson Heights, where, despite a slew of press over the years, Arepa Lady remains as revered as ever. Maria Cano—the lady in question—still operates her legendary cart under the 7 train in warm months, but thanks to the cozy new space, run by her two sons, those buttery, cheese-filled griddled corn disks (from $5) are available to the masses seven days a week, at lunch and dinner. (The masses, it should be noted, lean toward a pretty local, regular crowd.) Try the arepa de queso, kneaded with mozzarella and topped with salty queso blanco, as well as the sweeter, golden-hued arepa de choclo, made with freshly ground corn and folded around more queso blanco and the grilled meat of your choice—and pair it with a blended Colombian juice, like guanabana (soursop) mixed with milk. 77-02AA Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights; 347-730-6124
The original location of this pastry and cake shop is hardly impressive: smack in the middle of a nondescript strip mall in East Elmhurst, a solid mile from the nearest subway. No matter—the place is packed every weekend with customers clued into the serious baking that goes on at Cannelle, courtesy of a Brittany native (now Queens resident) who was formerly the pastry chef at the Waldorf Astoria New York hotel and his Sri Lankan partner. This is food for the people by the people, if exquisite French pastries and tarts can be such a thing. At one end of the spectrum are the buttery almond croissants, glistening peach tarts, and fine quiches; at the other, a glass case filled with gorgeous little treats, from napoleons and choux Chantilly (cream puffs) to red velvet mini cakes. You’ll stare dumbfounded at that case deciding which to order, but at $3-$4 apiece, it’s easy to try several (the bliss-inducing rectangles of praline crunch and refreshing lemon squares are always good bets). A second branch opened last year in Long Island City. 75-59 31st Ave., East Elmhurst; 718-565-6200
In Woodside, Queens, a.k.a. Little Manila, lies the ideal opportunity to explore Filipino food, itself an underrated, endlessly interesting cuisine. Newly expanded and remodeled, Tito Rad’s is a welcoming place to start—specifically with the chicharon bulaklak (deep-fried pork intestines), lumpia sariwa (fresh spring rolls), and an avocado shake. From there you might try the satisfying crispy pata, or pork knuckle; spicy laing (taro leaves with shrimp, pork, and hot peppers in coconut milk); delicious dinuguan (pork-blood stew); or inihaw na panga, a massive grilled tuna jaw. Entrees are generous (most are $8.95) and perfect for sharing among a large group, thus inviting an epic Filipino feast. Fear not if the large menu overwhelms with its exoticism: You can always ask the advice of a neighboring table, which is sure to have some Filipinos present. 49-10 Queens Blvd., Woodside; 718-205-7299
Just steps off the 7 train in the heart of Latin American Corona, this one-room Cuban restaurant opened its doors in 1976, sharing the same name as the Acosta family’s first restaurant in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba. Here you’ll find legit, homestyle Cuban comfort food in friendly quarters: croquetas and frituras de bacalao (cod fritters) in a tasty homemade mojo (garlic sauce); well-done traditional standards (from $10.95) like vaca frita, arroz con pollo, and rabo encendido (stewed oxtail); spot-on maduros (fried sweet plantains) and flan de coco (coconut flan). But regulars will urge you to examine the daily specials, for that’s where you’ll find the more interesting dishes, like Monday’s tamal en cazuela, a soupy pork-and-cornmeal casserole of sorts. Order off that menu and you’ll be one of la familia in no time. 40-09 Junction Blvd., Corona; 718-458-0236
This article was written by Laura Siciliano-Rosen, co-founder of food-travel website Eat Your World, a guide to regional foods and drinks in destinations around the globe, and a proud Queens resident since 2008.