Travel the whole world via your belly on the International Express in Queens, NYC
Queens is the most ethnically diverse neighbourhood in the world, representing more than 100 nations. Here, legendary food blogger and tour guide Joe DiStefano shows High Life how to celebrate the Borough’s vibrant food culture – without straying from the 7 train’s subway stops
The 7 train made me who I am today.
It’s dubbed the International Express because it cuts a through dozens of immigrant communities inhabited by people from Bhutan, China, India, Ecuador, Mexico, the Philippines, Lebanon and Colombia, to name a few. When I moved to Queens in the late 1990s, I lived a block away from the 52nd Street stop in the Irish enclave of Woodside. I wasn’t yet a food writer, but I was definitely a curious and adventurous eater.
Every evening after work in Manhattan, I would take the 7 further into Queens and explore a different culture and cuisine. One night it might be Indian in Jackson Heights, another Chinese in Flushing, or Filipino in Woodside. All these years later, I’m just as excited and awestruck by how it’s possible to travel the world along the rails of the International Express as it thunders above Roosevelt Avenue. Here’s how to take a global tour on just one subway line.
First stop: M. Wells
Alight at: Queensboro Plaza
Cuisine: Eclectic French-Canadian bistro
French-Canadian chef Hugue Dufour cooked for a decade at Au Pied de Cochon in Montréal, before opening M. Wells in a former Long Island City auto body shop in 2014. Although it began life as a steakhouse, he never envisioned it as a traditional New York eatery.
“I didn’t want to be flipping steaks the rest of my life,” says Dufour, whose menu now features dishes such as sumptuous venison chops with Saskatoon berries and chestnut, harking back to his boyhood on a farm north of Montréal. These days, the restaurant, which Dufour runs with his wife, Sarah Obraitis, is best described as a ‘haute bizarre bistro’.
“I’ve been going to M. Wells for years and it’s always a treat dining there,” says Jonathan Forgash, executive director of the Queens Together restaurant association – a nonprofit that connects the borough’s food scene. “As a chef, I admire the attention to detail, from the gilded bird wallpaper on the ceiling to the ostrich-foot tables, but what I really love is Hugue’s no-holds barred, excessive approach to bistro cuisine.”
Dufour may no longer be flipping steaks, but he is flipping a magnificently glorious mess of a cheeseburger. Le burger des rêves consists of two beef patties, foie gras poached in soy and maple, and Gruyère, all topped with porcini cooked down with shallots and wine. There’s also a disk of potato, but it’s there mostly for “structural integrity”.
Second stop: Souk El Shater
Alight at: 46th Street
Cuisine: Meaty Lebanese
Beirut may be 9,000km away, but it takes a mere six minutes to get to this next stop on the International Express, via the Sunnyside neighbourhood.
Souk El Shater is one of the best Lebanese spots in all of New York City. It’s part restaurant and part market – hence the ‘souk’ in the name. Two spinning shawarma cylinders, one beef and one chicken, beckon in the window, displaying luscious and craggily browned meat. Both are excellent in a sandwich, but my favourite way to eat them is in a combo platter piled high with both meats, crunchy fuchsia-coloured pickled turnips, and a blob of toum, a pungent and lemony Lebanese garlic sauce.
Ahmad Osman opened the shop in 2011 and runs it with his sons, Mohammed and Hussein. “Souk El Shater has been a part of Sunnyside for more than a decade,” says Hussein. “My dad has seen children walk in with their parents to eat, and then seen them come in years later holding their own kids in their arms to eat the same yummy food.”
Third stop: The Weekender
Alight at: 52nd Street
Cuisine: Traditional Bhutanese
One stop away, the 7 train enters Woodside, a community known for Irish pubs. But it’s also home to a watering hole of a decidedly different sort: The Weekender, a Bhutanese bar and restaurant. Lhendup Zangmo opened it in 2014 as a snooker hall and pub for her fellow Bhutanese immigrants.
The menu boasts more than a dozen kinds of datshi – a Bhutanese speciality of fiery green and red peppers cooked with white American cheese. It includes the classic ema datshi made with little more than peppers, cheese, garlic and onion, all served with nutty Bhutanese style red rice. My favourite is sikam dathsi, which features savoury chunks of sundried pork jerky. The bumthang puta – nutty, cold buckwheat noodles seasoned with garlicky chili oil and just enough Sichuan peppercorn to make your mouth tingle – is also excellent.“The Weekender goes beyond fiery and fortifying Bhutanese dishes and butter tea,” says Harley J Spiller, author of an essay called Chow Fun City: Three Centuries of Chinese Cuisine in New York City, who is fortunate enough to live next door.
“It serves as a community hub where members of the Bhutanese community and guests gather to meet, party, play snooker and every so often rent industrial shipping containers and ferry locally unavailable goods to and from the homeland,” says Spiller. “If you seek further confirmation of the Weekender’s outstanding status, know that when the King of Bhutan visited New York City, it was here that he chose to cook a banquet for more than 1,000 guests.”
Fourth stop: Peking BBQ
Alight at: 61st Street
Cuisine: Peruvian-Chinese fusion
Half a lifetime ago, my first apartment in Queens was just around the corner from Peking BBQ, which at the at the time looked like a Chinese takeout. A closer glance revealed rotisserie racks lined with gloriously burnished Peruvian-style roast chicken. It was opened in 1976 by Panchito Tan, who was born in China but lived for many years in Lima, Peru, before coming to the US with his son Ricardo – who now runs the restaurant with his daughter, Sandra.
All manner of people – Peruvians, Mexicans, Chinese and Irish – come here to order takeout or eat in the long, narrow dining room decorated with Andean wall hangings. Twenty-three years after I first tasted the Tans’ gloriously juicy chicken, the awning now reads: ‘Chinese Peruvian Fusion Restaurant’. But my order remains the same: Combo No. 1, a half chicken with pork fried rice, plenty of the Peruvian hot sauce aji verde and an Inca Kola.
Fifth stop: Dollar Hits
Alight at: 69th Street
Cuisine: Filipino street food
While this next station is still considered Woodside, it’s half a world away from the Irish pubs that lie eight blocks away. This is the heart of Little Manila: a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue that runs from 62nd Street to 70th Street and is lined with more than a dozen Filipino restaurants. One of the newest is street-food skewer sensation Dollar Hits, which was started in Los Angeles by Elvira Chan and her sisters, Josephine Estoesta and Nelita Deguia, in 2013. Back then, each of the sticks cost just a buck: kwek-kwek, orangey tempura-battered quail eggs, satisfyingly chewy kikiam fish cakes, pork isaw (pleasantly fatty pork intestines), the cheekily nicknamed Walkman (reddish and meaty pork ears) and Adidas, aka chicken feet.
At the Woodside outpost, which opened in August 2022, skewers are now $1.50. My favourites are the pig ears, best eaten with chilli vinegar, and the kwek-kwek, which goes great with the sweet sauce. There’s also a turo turo or Filipino-style steam table, with excellent pork sisig – pig face that’s been chopped and cooked on a flattop. Those looking to go the whole hog can order a whole pig’s head, which is roasted and deep fried to perfection for a mere $40.
“This type of street food is very big in The Philippines,” says manager John Gambe. “It tastes like home.”
Sixth stop: Raja Sweets & Fast Food
Alight at: 74th Street
Cuisine: North Indian vegetarian
One stop away from Woodside’s Little Manila is Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse places in all of New York City. There are so many cultures here that the city dubbed the pedestrian plaza on 37th Road, ‘Diversity Plaza’. When I started coming here in the late 1990s, though, 74th street and the surrounding blocks were mainly Indian.
One of my favourite haunts is the bustling Raja, a North Indian restaurant run by Sikhs. Apart from the golden-brown samosas packed with peas and potatoes and flavoured with fresh and toasted coriander seeds, much of the food, especially the roster of 16 types of paratha and roti, takes a bit of time to make. My favourite is saag and makki di roti. It consists of two griddled disks of roti made not from flour but corn, served with a spinach and mustard green saag that the staff behind the counter add a pat of butter to when your order is up.
Gurpreet ‘Vick’ Tamber opened the shop in 2001 as an Indian music store. Shortly thereafter he started serving food with his father Singh and, in 2005, he converted the venue to a full restaurant. These days all sorts of people – Punjabis, Tibetans, Nepalese and outer borough food explorers – come together to eat in the busy, bare-bones dining room.
Among the regulars is Jeff Orlick, who lives down the block. “I love it because it’s so comfortable,” he says. “Everything is made right in front of you. It’s a great spot to meet up with a friend for a chai.”
In addition to chai tea, there are Indian carbonated drinks like Limca (sort of an Indian Sprite) and Thums Up, an Indian cola. For dessert, there’s an array of multihued Indian methi, but my favourite is gajar ka halwa, made from grated carrots, milk, ghee and almonds, all scented with cardamom. I love it so much that I feature it on every one of my Jackson Heights food tours.
Seventh stop: Jiang Nan
Alight at: Main Street Flushing
Cuisine: Pan-regional Chinese
Manhattanites like to think of this as the last stop on the train, but here in Queens we know it as the first stop. This is what I like to call America’s Greatest Chinatown, a bustling community with half a dozen food courts and countless restaurants offering food from all over China. I’ve been leading tours of the neighbourhood since 2009.
In the past few years, a new breed of glitzier fine-dining restaurants has emerged. My favourite is Jiang Nan, which opened in 2018. It serves dishes from many regions of China, including Shanghai, Sichuan and Beijing, in an elegantly appointed dining room. My go-to dish is the juicy Peking duck, which has crisp crackly skin, and is served with gossamer-thin pancakes, hoisin sauce and julienned cucumbers, so you can roll your own.
Among the Sichuan dishes, deep-fried sliced eel with dried pepper is a study in the signature Sichuan flavour ma la, which combines chili heat with palate tingling Sichuan peppercorns. My favourite of Jiang Nan’s new dishes is surely the smoked pork neck, which comes served in a smouldering box containing wood chips that are set ablaze when the dish lands on the table. The server then closes the lid so the meat can absorb the smoke for a few minutes. To drink there’s sweet and tart house-made pineapple beer that comes to the table in a clear-glass mini keg.
“Jiang Nan’s array of dishes, from pork belly and mashed garlic to Peking duck, exemplifies what many experience in Flushing: an eye-opening sensation of discovery for the uninitiated,” says John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a taste of home for locals and a comfortable space for friends and colleagues to share a meal.”
Gordon’s gastro guide to America
The chef takes us on a tantalising taste tour, from Mexican moles to Hawaiian banana bread
The endless allure of New York
It’s one of the most iconic cities in the world, and one we keep going back to. Author Lara Thompson explains why she loves it
Quiz: Just been to New York?
So you loved the Big Apple – but what now? Find out where to go next with our holiday quiz