The contemporary residents of Jackson Heights completely rejected the intended identity of its 1909 founders as an exclusive quasi-suburbia—and thank goodness for that. Instead, this vibrant neighborhood highlights the best parts of city living: immense diversity and incredible food.
A Brief History
Back in 1898, British philosopher Ebenez Howard began the Garden City movement, an architectural utopian dream of bringing people (the not-so-subtle subtext: white nonimmigrants) back to nature and away from the crowds and smells of urban life. With the construction of the Queensboro Bridge, real-estate developer Edward MacDougall recognized Jackson Heights, then referred to as “the cornfields of Queens,” as an ideal space to test out Howard’s utopia in New York City.
Initially, Jackson Heights was marketed as a “garden city within a city.” The Queensboro Corporation, founded by MacDougall, built elaborate “courts” (co-op apartments) along 37th Avenue that each surrounded a private bucolic green space. The urban designers also created a nine-hole golf course (now built over by more co-ops), adding to the air of exclusivity of the Heights. In an attempt to curate a homogenous population, Jews and blacks were initially banned from renting in this new development under restrictive covenants. With the first whispers of “white flight” in the ’20s, these apartments became immensely popular.
But dreams of a homogenous haven in Queens were squashed during the Great Depression, when potential buyers could no longer afford the exclusive properties. Combined with changing immigration laws, the arrival of the 7 train in the Heights, and the outlawing of discriminatory covenants, diversity quickly roared to life in Jackson Heights. Today, Indian buffets, momo shacks, taco outposts, and arepa trucks line the streets, and Jackson Heights is a dining destination for authentic cuisine from dozens of ethnicities.
And did we mention that Jackson Heights also happens to be the birthplace of Scrabble? Challenge your pals to a game over momos and beer.
Taste Treats From India, Nepal, Mexico, and Colombia (for Starters!)
Jackson Heights’s diversity can best be experienced through its food. There are 167 languages spoken here and almost just as many types of cuisines. Start with a taste of Little India at the 35-year-old Jackson Diner on 74th Street. Its unbeatable all-day, unlimited buffet includes solid classics like chicken tikka masala and biryani, but the standout dish is one I’d never had: curry pakora. This entrée, typical of northern India, consists of chickpea fritters in a creamy turmeric-and-yogurt–based sauce. I suggest throwing heaps of it on your plate.
Chase your lunch with desserts like the gulab jamun, basically a sweet Indian doughnut hole, from the nearby Rajbhog. Work off your food coma while perusing the traditional handmade saris at Karshima and the stunning gold jewelry at Alankar Jewlers. Once you can stomach the sight of food again, stock up at Patel Brothers, an Indian grocery store with hard-to-find specialty ingredients galore, where you can grab aromatic masala spices on the cheap.
Next, travel over the Himalayas to Nepal and Tibet. Momos (Tibetan dumplings) can be found on every corner in Jackson Heights, but newcomer Momo Crave takes the cake (momo?). Its sleek interior is a bit simpler than at other momo spots, but the taste of its fusion momos is anything but. The beef chaat version, served in a light yogurt base and topped with fried large plantain chips, is rich, juicy, and surprisingly complex. For a more traditional setting, walk through the heavy dark brass doors—adorned with images of the Buddha and the Himalayas—of Himalayan Yak on Roosevelt Avenue. Unlike the bright, crisp look of Momo Crave, the brick walls here are lined with ornate wood figures and the lighting is kept low. Order traditional momos, served steamed in a wood box alongside thali, a traditional sampling of Nepali offerings including daal, rayo saag (mustard greens), a veggie curry of the day, and achars (pickles).
Afterward, head down Roosevelt toward 80th Street and into Little Mexico. Here you’ll find bakeries teeming with over-the-top cakes, taco shops, bodegas, and mercados (very similar to Sunset Park’s Fifth Avenue). Focus your attention on Crus-z Family Corp, whose name came about thanks to a misspelling by a printer, which the owners ended up loving. Bring your crew to this understated but festive hybrid grocery-restaurant and indulge in the barbacoa enchilada: a heaping plate of stewed goat rolled in fresh-made tortillas with rice, beans, charred onions, and guacamole. To bring a taste of Mexico City home with you, go wild at 5 De Mayo Food Market. It’s similar to the mercados in Mexico’s capital, and you’ll find delicacies like red cacao powder, chile de arbol, guajillo peppers, and passion fruit. A weekend visit is ideal; that’s when owner Juan Morales transforms the mercado into a popular taco shop serving stewed-for-hours barbacoa and borrego in Brooklyn-local tortillas.
Uruguayan, Dominican, Peruvian…South American food is represented in full array in the easternmost end of Jackson Heights. If we could pick only one spot, though, we’d choose the Colombian fare at Arepa Lady, a truck–turned–sit-down eatery on 37th Avenue. Try a range of arepas, from open-faced chocolos to arepas rellenas stuffed to the brim with carne asada. The cornmeal-based arepas are unlike any in the city—especially fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside, while bursting with the sweet corn flavor throughout. Pile the sweet red and spicy green sauces on top for the full messy experience.
If you’re looking for Dominican food, look no further than Chivoto d’Oro, an all-time favorite spot of my colleague (and Jackson Heights resident), experience planner Joshua Hernandez.
Find the “Secret” (and Delicious) Spots
Jackson Heights takes the notion of hidden gems quite literally. All types of eateries can be found in the back of bodegas, in the basements of other restaurants, or behind cell phone shops. It’s a mazelike experience trying to track down the best momo or taco, so stay patient and trust your instincts—or your nose.
On the corner of 80th and Roosevelt is La Esquina del Camaron, a Mexican seafood counter in the back of a nondescript bodega. Its existence is such a well-kept secret that even the workers at the neighboring bodega didn’t know it existed when we asked for assistance locating it. Take a seat at the worn-out blue and green picnic table and order the ceviche with shrimp, scallops, and octopus in a sweet tomato-based sauce. Its octopus tacos with grilled onions rival those at the more well-known spots in the area like Coatzingo.
Sandwiched between sari shops and behind a cell phone store is Lhasa Fast Food, a place only known by nonlocals because of Anthony Bourdain’s high praise on his Queens episode of Parts Unknown and where juicy beef-and-chive momos are served with nose-clearing hot sauce. On a cold day, order up the ThenThuk, a traditional Tibetan soup with hand-pulled noodles. Who knew food tasted better when it’s secret food? (Well, I guess we did.)