“Oh, I Iove Little India,” many people say when I tell them I lead food tours of Jackson Heights. “These days it’s more of a Little Tibet,” I typically respond and go on to talk about the neighborhood’s wonderful cafes that specialize in soups and dumplings from the rooftop of the world. Truth be told though the environs between 72nd and 74th streets bounded by Roosevelt and 37th Avenues are really a melting pot of South Asian foodways. And there’s no better way to dive into that melting pot than “chaatting around.”
Raja Sweets & Fast Foods
72-31 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, 718-424-1850
Start your exploration of South Indian street food culture at Raja Sweets & Fast Foods, a lovely Punjabi-run establishment that specializes in North Indian vegetarian fare, including several chaats. (The sweet and savory Indian street foods — collectively known as chaat — got their start in Northern Indian and are now popular throughout South Asia.) Go for an order of dahi puri, six crispy orbs filled with potato and chickpeas drizzled with coriander and tamarind chutneys and topped with yogurt and sev, crunchy bits of chickpea flour noodles. Served cold, the puri explode with all manner of textures and flavors crunchy, cool, tart and sweet. If you’re a chili head be sure to ask for it spicy. The dahi, or yogurt, provides a nice counterpoint to the heat.
Baul Dada Jaal Muri Shop
73rd Street near 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights
Cross the street and head toward Roosevelt Avenue on 72nd Street and you’ll encounter the Baul Dada Jaal Muri Shop. As the name of this streetside snack specialist implies there’s only one specialty here, jaal muri, a Bangladeshi chaat so popular that there’s phone card named after it. Three bucks gets you an order of Baul Daada’s spicy puffed rice. It’s a sensory overload of a snack consisting of puffed rice, kala chana (black chickpeas) chopped tomatoes, cilantro, green chili paste, red onions, crunchy dried soybeans, cilantro, spicy fried noodles, and squirts and shakes from the various and sundry bottles, including some sinus-clearing mustard oil. Find Daada on 73rd Street near 37th Avenue from late afternoon to around 10 p.m., weather permitting.
37-38 72nd St., Jackson Heights
Head down 72nd Street and make a right on Broadway. At 73rd and Broadway find Dhaulaghiri Kitchen, where you’ll end your chaat-about Nepalese style. Named for the third-highest peak in the Himalayas, this shoebox of a restaurant serves up sandheko wai wai—a chaat made from a popular brand of Nepalese instant noodles. It’s one of the tastiest and fieriest forms of chaat in New York City. Crumbled, uncooked noodles are mixed with red onions, tomatoes, raw garlic, garlic scapes, plenty of green chilies and a heaping spoonful of red chili powder. It’s a cross-cultural flavor bomb that draws on the foodways of four countries: China, Japan, India and Nepal. Make it five, if you take into account that wai wai translates to “fast fast” in Thai.
Joe DiStefano is a Queens-based food writer, culinary tour guide, and publisher of the Queens-centric food blog CHOPSTICKS+MARROW. He’s still waiting for downtown Flushing to get a night market.