9. Mumbai Xpress
256-05 Hillside Ave., Floral Park; 718-470-0059
There is something about the neat green lawns of this almost-Nassau corner of Queens that brings to mind simple suburban snack-shop pleasures like grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes. There is nothing simple, though, about this three-year-old vegetarian Indian hangout dedicated to the brashly spiced street foods of Mumbai, the rice-flour crêpes and pancakes of South India, and the home cooking of Gujarat, the region where husband-and-wife owners Mahendra and Hina Shah originally come from. Here, the grilled cheese sandwich might be studded with sliced green chile and slicked with cilantro chutney, and the milkshake flavored with rose or litchi. Try both, along with some kind of chaat, the riotously accessorized Indian street snack that combines beans and legumes, potato and crisps, chutneys and chiles, in a symphonic convergence of flavor and texture. After a fried-potato-basket tokri chaat or a ring of yogurt-drenched dahi batata puri, the rice-flour porridge called khichu might seem almost too subtle, but there’s great pleasure to be had in its soft cumin-seeded folds. And what better way to end your snack-shop meal than with a comforting bowl of vanilla ice cream, topped with rich, buttery halwa?
10. Ploy Thai
81-40 Broadway, Elmhurst; 718-205-2128
How to identify the must-order at this no-frills corner spot? Just glance over at the wall, where you’ll see a glossy photo of miang kana, the street-food snack that has become a Ploy signature, so compelling and memorable you’ll likely refer to the restaurant henceforth as That Miang Kana Place. Miang, which originated as a fermented wild tea leaf in northern Thailand, is interpreted here as a stack of teardrop-shaped Thai broccoli leaves served beside a crunchy, chewy, and altogether invigorating dice of raw ginger, red and green chiles, roasted peanuts, red onion, and unpeeled lime, riddled with shreds of savory pork. It’s a terrific appetizer, and something of a health food, apparently. The same might not be said of deep-fried, stubby chive “pancakes” that are crispier than a Balthazar French fry. We also recommend the pad kee mao noodles, and a bracing chicken larb that doesn’t stint on chile heat or fish-sauce funk. You will be informed, should you order the nam kao tod salad special, that it’s for Thai people, but don’t let that stop you. The appeal of fermented pork sausage mingled with deep-fried rice nuggets infused with chile paste is, it turns out, universal.
11. Tortilleria Nixtamal
104-05 47th Ave., Corona; 718-699-2434
Fernando Ruiz had a dream, and a corny one at that: to make tortillas completely from scratch, from Illinois corn kernel to finished taco-ready product. Sounds simple, but it’s rarely done nowadays, when commercial producers both here and in Mexico use industrially produced corn-flour mix. Biting into one for the first time is a revelation—what one imagines it might be like to chomp a loaf of Sullivan St Bakery Pugliese after subsisting on a lifelong diet of Wonder Bread. But at this homey Corona microfactory, house-ground masa and fragrant, supple corn tortillas have become much more than the basis of a cottage industry supplying some of the city’s best taquerías; they’re the backbone of a terrific menu that draws locals and culinary pilgrims alike. One recent Sunday, a toddler trio of Mexicana bridesmaids in crinoline and lace tucked into a post-wedding plate of carnitas, a $10-a-pound pile of pork morsels, served with a stack of warm tortillas (fifteen for $2.25). Minimally garnished tacos and earthy tamales make superb snacks, but the sleeper of the ever-evolving menu just might be the $10 Milanesa, a succulent beef cutlet judiciously coated with moist, seasoned bread crumbs and garnished with onions, peppers, and crema-drizzled plantains.
64-13 39th Ave., Woodside; 718-899-9599
You cannot talk about Thai food in this town without invoking the hallowed name of Sripraphai, the twenty-year-old Siamese success story by which all other Thai restaurants are measured. “Is it better than Sripraphai?” is a refrain heard constantly in curry-crazed circles. But then again, so is “When Sripraphai was good …,” a jaded reference to the golden age before the joint expanded, renovated, and started serving cosmos. Truth be told, the place is something of a juggernaut, 200-odd seats spread out over two dining rooms and a garden in summer. Orders arrive fast and furious. Anxious hordes pace outside, perceptibly coveting your table. And that’s on a Monday. It might not make for the most relaxing dining experience, but the kitchen’s still got it: Drunken noodles are slick and luscious; the curried-egg-noodle kao soi rich and creamy, with a soothing heat. You might not be able to taste the green in the crispy Chinese watercress salad, but the battered crunch is sublime. Texture comes into play, too, in the exquisite salad of ground catfish, the flaked and deep-fried flesh loofahlike and moistened by a tantalizingly tart-sour dressing. It may take a little doing to convince the chef that you want Thai spicy, but the effort pays off in a larb gai that assertively, unapologetically, brings the heat.