If you spend more than a little time in New York, you will inevitably collide with some disappointing truths about the city. There is no "good" way to get to JFK. Yes, your fellow subway passenger is touching you. And last but not least, storied Manhattan destinations like Little Italy, Chinatown, and Little Bombay are kinda overrated.
It's sad but true -- you walk down streets like Mulberry, Mott, and East 6th and begin to notice a suspicious pattern: Neighborhoods promising to be bona fide ethnic excursions actually come off with a certain Epcotized feel about them, as if you've walked into a multicultural Colonial Williamsburg. All offer any number of restaurants, with quality ranging from exceptional to exceptionally awful -- but unfortunately, these neighborhoods tend to be more broad than they are deep. And the occasional block party and tchotchke shop does not a community make.
In spite of this, one of the beauties of a city like ours is that it can support not only cultural strip malls like the above but also honest-to-God neighborhoods that, thankfully, do not build their entire economic base on the kind of short-haul tourism that defines a trip to some of 212's ethnic quarters. You'll have to do without any tic-tac-toe-playing chickens, permanent street-fair decorations, or Christmas lights when it's not Christmas, but you'll come away with a galactically more authentic and nuanced experience by just taking a short train ride. Remember -- the truth is out there.
True story: As I'm walking down Arthur Avenue in the Bronx with two friends, a man carrying a wheel of cheese that could be fitted to a monster truck starts to cross the street mid-block. The driver of a car pulling out of its parking space doesn't see our cheese-hauling friend and comes within a foot of hitting him. "Hey," screams the pedestrian, "what the hell are you doing? You almost hit all this cheese!"
Food is taken rather seriously on Arthur Avenue. So much so that the neighborhood supports a redundancy of Italian markets, butchers, and pastry shops that would render Adam Smith agog. Arthur Avenue can support this level of commerce because it serves not only its residents but also their far-flung relatives and children, who come back on the weekends to shop for tastes of home.
Nearly every shop on Arthur Avenue is already some sort of an institution, so by merely walking around and poking your head into stores that strike your fancy, you'll inevitably be rewarded. Some can't-miss locations include Biancardi's (2350 Arthur Avenue; 718-733-4058), a perpetually bustling butcher shop that, last week, was displaying fresh, unskinned lambs and goats in the window (great for the kids!). For fish, walk next door to Randazzo's (2327 Arthur Avenue; 718-367-4139), the neighborhood source for an incredibly fresh and fragrant selection of clams, baccalà, scungilli, la triglia, and countless other varieties the family-owned shop has been selling for more than 90 years. Cheese lovers should make a pilgrimage to the S. Calandra Cheese shop (2314 Arthur Avenue; 718-365-7572), which makes mozzarella and ricotta so fresh, the staff insists you eat it right away. (Buying in bulk and storing it in your fridge would be sacrilegious.)
In 1940, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, hoping to modernize (and in particular, sanitize) the pushcart trade that had dominated the neighborhood, opened the Arthur Avenue Retail Market (2344 Arthur Avenue). Inside this sprawling indoor bazaar are more than a dozen merchants who sell fresh produce, meat (one thing you realize very quickly is that Zen Palate is probably never going to open up an Arthur Avenue branch), cheeses, pastries, and dry goods. Head to the rear of the market to Arthur Avenue Baking Co. for dazzlingly rich Napoleons that have the added bonus of being roughly the size of your head. Mike's Deli will provide you with secret-recipe sausages and prime cuts of meat as well as freshly made salads and focaccia. (Incidentally, don't be surprised if Mike serenades you as you place your order; the man's got quite a set of pipes.) If all of this is a bit too much to handle standing up, take a table at Café al Mercato, most notable for its delectable, particularly crispy pizza.
In general, the restaurants of Arthur Avenue make Mulberry Street's look like stepchildren of the Olive Garden. The two restaurants that one almost has to mention in the same breath with Arthur Avenue are Mario's (2342 Arthur Avenue, 718-584-1188) and Dominick's (2335 Arthur Avenue; 718-733-2807). And while they are deserving of their reputation for outstanding Neapolitan food (the former) and we'll-cook-whatever-you-feel-like-eating service (the latter), another stellar dining option is Pasquale's Rigoletto (2311 Arthur Avenue; 718-365-6644), whose pasta dishes (particularly the linguine frutti di mare) are local gold standards. Before taking your leave of the neighborhood, stop by Madonia Brothers Bakery (2348 Arthur Avenue; 718-295-5573) and stock up on the shop's specialties: semolina, olive, rosemary, and prosciutto breads (to name just a few). I defy you not to devour them on the ride home.
Flushing's Chinatown is certainly more modern and spread out than its Manhattan counterpart, but more than anything, it's simply bigger. Humongously bigger. Everything that in Manhattan would be a narrow storefront has been inflated to Trumpian proportions. Walking around is enough to make you completely lose your bearings, for not only do you feel like you've left the city -- you feel like you've left the country.
It's worth noting, too, that the entire neighborhood seems to be populated by nobody older than 23. Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, but Chinese youth culture is particularly vibrant here, and as a result, you see far more record stores and video shops, and (for some reason) a staggering number of cell-phone retailers, compared with Manhattan's Chinese enclave.
You're in Queens, so start at the mall. Actually, Hong Kong Plaza (37-11 Main Street) is a mini-mall at best, but one packed with worthy shops, such as the Tai Pan Bakery; sample the improbably good fried curry buns (who knew?), best washed down with a cold glass of milk mixed with Horlicks malt powder (Horlicks, which you may remember from soda-fountain days, is still going strong as one of the beverage additives of choice in Asia -- though nobody seems to know quite why). Also in the Plaza, on the lower level, is the mammoth Hong Kong Supermarket, with its overwhelming array of geoducks, sea cucumbers, sea slugs, crabs, bok choy, various kinds of noodles (including dry, rice, sheet, and instant), and -- you guessed it -- the entire family of Horlicks products.
To find Flushing's most notable Chinese restaurants, head to 40th Road, or go to Prince Street behind St. George's Church. There you'll find places like Yao Han (135-21 40th Road; 718-359-2828), where Chinese and Vietnamese food share the stage; the Taiwanese-and-Shanghai-styled Do I Tru (41-28 Main Street; 718-445-1770); and Jade Palace (136-14 38th Avenue; 718-353-3366), which serves dim sum that goes beyond the standard fare (shrimp dumplings are one thing, but have you ever eaten New Zealand clams with egg custard?). When I'm in the neighborhood, I inevitably gravitate to Tianjin Gou-Bu-Li Bun Restaurant (135-28 40th Road; 718-886-2121). This American branch of the Chinese chain specializes not only in G.B.L. soup dumplings (which come with pork, shrimp, vegetable, or shrimp-and-pork fillings), but also in wonderful hand-cut-noodle dishes (these aren't your usual wimpy, slippery noodles; they have texture).
If the Advil (or Prozac, or Preparation H) just isn't cutting it anymore, you may want to drop in at New York Tung Ren Tang, an emporium of traditional Chinese remedies. Dried roots and abalone sit on shelves beside endless cases of tea. I recently went in complaining of a headache and was given a natural medication in pill form designed to "cleanse the blood" and "remove bad wind." (Okay. Sure. Look, don't ask me, but my headache did go away.) More potentially potent cures come from such exotic materials as dried abalone, which retails for $350 a pound. Tung Ren Tang also carries an assortment of balms and liniments that, while also quite effective for sore muscles, are worth their low, low prices for the classic Chinese package designs alone.
Forget Hollywood; India is actually the world's leading film center. More movies come out of the Indian motion picture industry (known as "Bollywood") than anywhere else. To catch up on current Indian cinema, visit the Eagle Theater (73-07 37th Road; 718-205-2800), which is also one of the few remaining old movie houses not yet demolished or converted into a multiplex. In addition to the movie (which will not likely be in English or have subtitles), you can also munch on yummy samosas that are sold in the lobby.
Two temples to Indian cuisine sit side by side on 74th Street -- Jackson Diner (at 37-47; 718-672-1232) and Delhi Palace (at 37-33; 718-507-0666). Jackson Diner has long been the Indian Restaurant You Always Plan on Going to but Never Find the Time. Find it. While the menu will be familiar to any fan of Indian food, the individual flavors will astonish you with their freshness and complexity, from the succulent kheema matar (lamb mince and peas cooked, according to the menu, "in a special way"), to the vibrantly spiced fish tikka with yellow chili peppers. Delhi Palace also has its Jackson Heights devotees; the tandoori shrimp here is a neighborhood favorite, and the chicken jalfrazi is the best you'll find this side of the subcontinent. Delhi Palace also has the added bonus of an adjoining sweets shop where you can procure the mandatory after-dinner treats: delicious gulaab jamun (fried cheese balls soaked in a honey syrup) as well as, a bit unexpectedly, preternaturally creamy fudge (which is called kalakand).
If you want to take some of Jackson Heights home with you, pay a visit to Patel Brothers (37-27 74th Street; 718-898-3445), ground zero for all Indian-food supplies. Particularly worthy of your attention is the dizzying selection of spices, which occupy two full walls of the grocery store. Between that and the 40-pound bags of basmati rice, the health and beauty section that has Indian soaps, henna treatments, and (it's still around?) snuff, a person could go positively vindalooney.