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With its eclectic mishmash of brunch spots, family-run favourites and late-night dives, Queens has become one of most dynamic corners of New York. Ramen parlours rub shoulders with Turkish bakeries while a highway underpass is the unlikely site of one of the city’s best speakeasies, proving that the top places are often hidden off the main drag.
Behind cell-phone shops, down winding narrow stairways and beyond unmarked doors, you’ll stumble upon hyper-regional dishes and a local crowd. Ride the iconic 7 train and venture on a culinary hopscotch through the neighbourhoods as you dip into Tibetan, Cantonese, Greek and Hawaiian fare.
From characterful hole-in-the-walls to Michelin-starred offerings, the Queens food scene is gaining momentum by the mouthful. Here’s where to eat and drink in New York’s most spirited borough.
Once a thriving industrial hub and now Queens’ most cosmopolitan neighbourhood, Long Island City is home to a vivacious art scene and attracts a young, in-the-know demographic. Queens Boulevard and Vernon Boulevard are the epicentre of the food and drink scene, with elevated train tracks weaving through high-rise tower blocks and the streets abuzz with heady nightlife happenings below.
Located right off the main street of Vernon Boulevard, Casa Enrique is an urban haven. With seating packed in around the busy bar and a long table for communal dining, the front space is a sociable affair, while the back offers a more intimate hideout. Chef Cosme Aguilar’s menu is one of real Mexican food with no-holds-barred platefuls of spiced-laced tacos and enchiladas oozing melted cheese. House margaritas are sharp and strong. Despite Casa Enrique’s Michelin-star status, it remains relatively undiscovered.
What began life as a clandestine pop up behind a bagel store is now a sleek, seductive affair on Jackson Avenue. Owned and operated by Per-Se trained Joshua Smookler, Mu Ramen holds the title of “best ramen in New York City” luring crowds across the water from Manhattan. On the menu you’ll find the tonkotsu that’s earned Mu its reputation, alongside inventive treats such as sautéed spicy clams and deep-fried chicken wings stuffed with foie gras. Hands down the oxtail and bone-marrow ramen with brisket, sour pickle and menma is the star of the show. Wash down with cold sake.
If Long Island City is for nightlife, Astoria is the place for laid-back lunches and happy-hour brunches. Humming with activity along the lively stretch of Broadway, the 7 train rattles overhead as groups mill in and out of open-fronted cafés. On Broadway, cars roll by with music blaring and street vendors call out their wares. Over on Ditmar Boulevard it’s a calmer affair. Dotted with restaurants and coffee shops, the street is renowned for its bakeries with a relaxed charm perfect for Sunday strolling.
Astoria is full of brunch spots and pizza joints which get absolutely packed as the week draws to a close. One of many up-to-the-minute hangouts is The High Water, a tiki bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Nolita. Tropical touches and flamboyant drinks – such as the “pink flamingo” served in a rose-gold pineapple – make it kitsch and gloriously Instagrammable, while lively music will have you shimmying in no time. If you’re in need of sustenance, the menu covers “tropical island food” in a an Asian-Hawaiian-American fusion. Head down for a slice of summer year round.
Away from the hip hotspots and social-media hype, this Turkish outpost (the original branch dates back to 1871) stands quiet and proud with a soothingly dated canteen-meets-counter interior. Steal inside on a grey day when the warmth from the bakery provides refuge from the frenetic streets. Rows of sticky, golden baklava glisten with the promise of sweet, saccharine joy, layers of crumbly almond pastry densely filled with syrup – the perfect accompaniment to a cup of strong tea. We recommend the “black tea, extra fancy” which you’ll spot on behind the counter.
Butcher Bar is the ultimate neighbourhood joint for an upbeat atmosphere and dangerously more-ish food. Decked out with all things USA – stars and stripes, tributes to Budweiser, neon “BBQ” signs – the vibe is welcoming and the service is cheerful; a true Americana affair. Like any diner worth its red, white and blue, the focus is on meat, cooked low and slow. Specialist cuts are sourced from top farmers, with an on-site shop so you can DIY at home. But eating in is where the fun’s at, with the signature “meat candy’” (brisket ends smoked for 12 hours, rolled in sugar and smoked for another couple of hours) the main attraction. Half-baked mac and cheese topped with beef chilli, bacon and more cheese does what it says on the tin, and the daily happy hour means it can all be washed down with $5 cocktails.
Further into the heart of Queens, you’ll find the same vibrant buzz but more of local feel. Rustic family-owned restaurants have been standing for years and are ingrained in the community. The style here is fuss-free and honest – and all the more charming for it. Predictably most places are cash only; come prepared and ready to explore.
A hole-in-the-wall gem on a residential street, Papa’s Kitchen (which appeared to be closed on arrival) turned out to be one of our very favourite food experiences ever. The antithesis to contemporary restaurant homogeneity, brightly coloured banquettes, plastic tablecloths and evergreen Christmas decorations fill the small space. Domineering purple graffiti emblazons the wall with the words “Devine Tradition Papa’s Creation”. There’s also karaoke. Yet the family and food are unrivalled by anywhere else in town. Warm smiles and easy conversation flow from Miguel (the Second) as he rustles up delicious servings using the recipes of his father, Papa Miguel (the First). Try the famous chicken adobo – tender meat and garlic braised in a sumptuous broth of soy sauce and vinegar until it falls off the bone. To finish, don’t miss the purple yam ice cream.
Stroll past gadget shops and chintzy gold jewellery stores on 37th Avenue before arriving at Phayul, a Tibetan canteen. Once you’ve found the appropriate entrance, climb the vertiginous stairs to a humble, no-frills dining room, where the sizzle of freshly made momos (a type of dumpling) greets you. From a concise menu, plump for the beef tongue and fiery shogo khatsa – these are the dishes that have drawn crowds from all over New York, giving Lhasa Fast Foods (see below) stiff competition for the title of best Tibetan in town.
Dubbed “the momo speakeasy”, Lhasa is deftly hidden behind a phone shop in a rundown arcade. It takes some detective work to locate the doorway, but if you spot a neon “open” sign, you’re onto a winner. A second door opens onto a glass corridor where, at the end of the fluorescent strip lighting, you’ll find an opening – ta da. Above the counter, a portrait of the Dalai Lama watches over diners as they slurp aromatic bowls of hand-pulled noodles and soup. The mung-bean noodles, spicy beef soup and beef momo dumplings are the dishes to tick off your list. Help yourself with a of yak-butter tea from the counter. Salty and warm, it’s Tibetan tradition to drink a cup each morning as armour against the unforgiving Himalayan climate – and a surefire way to keep you warm in a New York winter.
Khao Nom offers a slice of modern dining in central Queens. A menu of Thai curries and noodles is both accessible and affordable, but the real speciality is dessert. Brightly coloured gelatinous treats line the counter; go for traditional homemade ice cream with palm seed and purple yam. Thai tea and coffee mixed with condensed milk is a must for sweeter-than-sweet flavours that transport your tastebuds straight to a Thai island escape.
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
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