The Queens Top 20

Map by Remie Geoffroi

1. M. Wells
21-17 49th Ave., Long Island City; 718-425-6917
You’ve heard by now about this phantasmagoric joint across the river, where the hamburger feeds four and the French Canadian chef, Hugue Dufour, scatters foie gras around like pixie dust. You might have even already written off the meaty, large-format enterprise as all shtick and gimmicks. But that would mean you have yet to visit Queens’s most exceptional restaurant or experience firsthand the pure food joy and rare bonhomie that animate the cozy rehabbed diner. Like the setting—is it a truck stop? A culinary mecca? A performance-art project?—Dufour’s menu defies easy categorization. If moving to America, with its voracious assimilation of cuisines and cultures, proved liberating, then winding up in the most diverse borough of its most diverse city was culinary kismet. Where else could Korean bibimbab enriched with duck liver coexist with Indian-­inspired butter chicken? This is cooking with gusto, and eating too: Ungainly sandwiches arrive stabbed with a somewhat menacing steak knife, the new Queens toothpick. Dufour’s inventiveness expresses itself in cunning little things, like the smoked-herring Caesar-salad dressing, and in showstopping big ones, like the family-style $150 reservations-required Peking-duck feast that unfolds over three dramatic courses, not the least of which is fried rice that’s mingled on occasion with wakame and ramps, and tastes as if each individual grain has been massaged with duck schmaltz.

2. Fu Run
40-09 Prince St., Flushing; 718-321-1363
This is Chinese cooking from the northeast hinterlands of Dongbei, formerly known as Manchuria, and if you were reared on sesame noodles and kung-pao chicken, it might as well be from another planet. The spectacular “Muslim lamb chop” is like nothing you’ve ever seen—a braised, battered, and deep-fried slab of chewy, fatty, muttony ribs encrusted with a spice rack’s worth of cumin seeds, dried chiles, and black and white sesame seeds: the everything bagel of meats. The cabbage-y “mixed vegetable with green bean sheet jelly” bathed in chile oil is coleslaw reimagined by a pyromaniac. There’s sauerkraut in the pork dumplings and what seems like spaetzle in the “homemade-style blotch soup.” (Or are they blotches?) As the meal progresses, the number of culinary influences only increases: Russian, Korean … is that what they eat in Inner Mongolia? And just when you think you’ve seen it all, out comes the combination sweet ­potato-taro-and-apple plate—a leaning tower of cubed fruit and tuber spackled together by molten caramel. You extract the cubes, dip them into a bowl of water to cool and crystallize, then you swear the closest relation to this absurdly delicious Seussian concoction has got to be the French croquembouche.

3. Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd., College Point; 718-939-7788
It’s hard to describe the Sichuan flavor sensation known as ma la. You might say that it’s like going to the dentist’s and having your mouth shot full of novocaine and then rinsing with Tabasco. On second thought, no, it’s nothing like that. That would be terrible. Whatever it is, it’s delicious and it’s addictive. To Chinese-food aficionados, it’s what truffles are to truffle hogs. And nowhere else do the numbing, Sichuan-peppercorn-induced ma and the la, or hot-chile heat, frolic in such exquisite harmony as they do at Little Pepper, recently relocated from a gritty Flushing basement to a spick-and-span College Point storefront. For the full-on ma-la experience, order anything on the menu designated with a red-chile icon. But it’s not all about the four-alarm spicing here; there’s serious, careful cooking on display. Steamed chicken with “special chili sauce” is as preternaturally tender as if Wylie Dufresne were in the basement on sous-vide duty. Spicy cold noodles are as springy as a brand-new Posturepedic. And the Sichuan pickled cowpeas with minced pork achieve that perfect texture, between soft and crunchy, that one hopes for—nay, demands—in a cowpea. The plating is lovely, too—­except for the “lamb with hot and spicy sauce with cumin,” which is oddly served on a bed of aluminum foil.

4. Wafa’s
100-05 Metropolitan Ave., Forest Hills; 718-880-2055.
A good stuffed grape leaf is hard to find. Not at Wafa’s, though, where the deftly wrapped little packages taste as conspicuously fresh as the rest of the Middle Eastern menu, and where chef-owner Wafa Chami patrols her cozy dining room like a Levantine Elaine Kaufman, greeting devoted regulars and engendering new ones. Chami is a somewhat reluctant restaurateur, having been cajoled by her children and friends into opening a spot serving the home cooking she learned from her mother in Lebanon. (It’s a talented family: Her brother Mouhamad Shami keeps Wall Streeters flush in falafel at Alfanoose downtown.) Chami soon outgrew the takeout joint she opened on a Forest Hills side street and recently expanded into this 40-seat storefront. It’s an upgrade worthy of her silken hummus, her smoky babaganoush, and her moist chicken shawarma, rolled up in thin pita with pink pickled turnips and an Altoid-defying dose of garlic sauce. There is no wine or beer—yet—but there is a liquor store next door. Not to mention crisp, flaky baklava and rice pudding kissed with orange-blossom water.

Han JooPhoto: Jake Chessum

5. Ayada
77-08 Woodside Ave., Elmhurst; 718-424-0844
Not to take anything away from the great Sripraphai, but Ayada is everything that once-homey mom-and-pop shop is not: small and comfortable, shockingly unhurried, ecstatically mellow. Factor in the ­superfriendly service, the cheerful décor, and maybe a tableside visit from chef Duangjai “Kitty” Thammasat, and you have the city’s best Thai restaurant. Which is not to say that food comes second to atmosphere here. On the contrary, the green papaya with dried shrimp is spot-on, the duck salad beautifully composed and compulsively edible, the larb extra larby. Best of all is the panang curry, which Kitty recommends you order with the most delicious duck we’ve ever had in a Thai restaurant. Like just about every dish here, it’s a master class in the Thai art of getting a bunch of headstrong flavors—sweet, hot, pungent, sour—to play nice. As everyone knows, you order dessert in an Asian restaurant at your own peril, but if there’s anything more perfectly ripe and sweet than ­Ayada’s mango sticky rice, we have yet to try it.

6. Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan
42-47 Main St., Flushing; 718-888-0553
If the name of this Chinese yearling is geographically disorienting, so’s the menu. Only denizens of the regions in question—and maybe ­Chinese-food brainiac Fuchsia Dunlop—could discern which dishes are Hunanese and which are Sichuan (or, in the case of the orange beef and the broccoli with chicken, in the “Chinese dishes” section, something else entirely). Many of the choices, regardless, will be familiar to habitués of the very loosely affiliated (but independently owned) pack of Chinese restaurants called Grand Sichuan, which stretches from the Upper West Side to Bay Ridge, and now, with this outpost, to Flushing. (The Grand Sichuan addict will recognize not only signatures like spicy double-cooked pork, but some front-of-the-house faces, too.) To the long and venerable history of culinary trash-talking between the provinces, about whose food is spicier and more delicious, we haven’t much to add. We can say unequivocally, though, that the chile-dappled ­Hunan-style pickled cabbage is as piquant and crunchy as the Hunan eggplant is smooth and deliquescent; that not only is the skin of the sautéed crispy duck crispy, but the meat tender and chewy and full of flavor; and that the white-pepper smoked beef tastes like a soft, succulent jerky, blanketed with the wispy skins of white and red chiles—a trademark of the Hunan kitchen, Grand Sichuan’s and otherwise.

7. Han Joo
41-06 149th Pl., Murray Hill; 718-359-6888
Although Han Joo bills itself as a naeng-myun (or Korean cold-­noodle) specialist, our Korean-­barbecue consultant begs to differ. “Skip the naeng-myun; get the pork belly,” he says, as if quoting from some Korean version of The God­father. Almost everyone at Han Joo, you see, orders the pork belly. And understandably so. That the meat gets cooked on quartz-crystal tabletop grills that look like New Age backgammon boards does not deter them. Once you’ve filled your nostrils with the intoxicating scent of pork belly sizzling away on your neighbor’s table, that’s it. Resistance is futile. All that’s left for you to do is choose “thick” (steaklike slabs) or “thin” (ribbon-candy curls) and your marinade (garlic, green tea, bean paste). Order the do ya ji combination and get all of the above, a nonstop parade of pig, plus a salad bar’s worth of panchan, pristine lettuce wrappers, and zingy condiments. The whole shebang could feed a small Korean army and costs $69.95, which isn’t bad for a ­veritable pork-belly-palooza.

8. Mapo BBQ
149-24 41st Ave., Murray Hill; 718-886-8292
Like its neighbor Han Joo up the block, Mapo BBQ serves pork belly, but according to our aforementioned Korean-barbecue-pork-belly adviser, who also moonlights as our Korean-barbecue-beef guru, you go here for kalbi (grilled short ribs of beef). To do otherwise is to risk being looked askance at, like the poor bumbler who goes to Peter Luger and orders the chicken. Not that you have much of a choice. Before you’ve even taken a seat, it seems, a cheerful scissors-and-tongs-wielding waitress pops up as if from a trap door with the well-­marbled specialty of the house. What distinguishes Mapo from most other Korean barbecues around town is that the meat gets cooked at your table over hardwood charcoal. That and some delicious curveballs in the panchan department, like a sizzling platter of charred and creamy corn that eats like a kooky Korean version of Mexican esquites. Still, corn—however well-charred and creamy—is corn. It’s the primordial joy of beef cooking over smoldering chunks of wood that sets off the wild rumpus in your brain’s pleasure center.

Tortilleria NixtamalPhoto: Jake Chessum

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.

12. Sripraphai
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.

Mumbai XpressPhoto: Jake Chessum

13. Golden Palace
140-09 Cherry Ave., Flushing 718-886-4383
Like Fu Run across town, this off-the-beaten-path restaurant traffics in boldly flavored Dongbei cooking at its gut-busting, lip-smacking, mind-blowing best. The crispy flounder with chili pepper is battered and fried and thoroughly festooned in the Dongbei everything-bagel style: cumin seeds, chiles, black and white sesame seeds, and whatnot—in short, the works. The signature sauteed potato, green pepper, and eggplant is one of those ho-hum-sounding side dishes you have your doubts about ordering but will never neglect on subsequent visits. If you like dumplings, the leek-and-pork-stuffed ones are rich and satisfying, and at $6.99 for a pile of twenty, almost as cheap as what you’d pay per dumpling on ­Eldridge Street. Best of all are the pork and Chinese cabbage cakes, stuffed and griddled rounds of dough (a.k.a. bings) with a terrific chewy-flaky texture—like a cross between an Indian paratha and a Hot Pocket. They come four to an order for $4.99, and one imagines that two alone would make an excellent snack for a Dongbei lumberjack.

14. Spicy & Tasty
39-07 Prince St., Flushing; 718-359-1601
Even a Duane Reade assistant manager would say that it’s a little bright in here. But no one comes to this ­Sichuan smorgasbord for mood lighting. Rather they go for a friendly, family-run vibe; lickety-split service; and a crackerjack kitchen that doesn’t dumb it down for the nonnatives. You can’t go wrong with anything from the excellent cold-­appetizer display case at the front of the house. (The beef tendon in red chile sauce—a gateway variety meat if there ever was one—and the sea-breezy sliced conch in same are particularly toothsome.) Nor will you be less than ecstatic with any of the classics: dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, tea-smoked duck, and dry-cooked string beans among them. The shrimp with hot green peppers in black-bean sauce is a worthy detour, and so is anything that falls under the heading of “pork.” Along with Sripraphai in Woodside, Spicy & Tasty has been perking up taste buds for a long time—fourteen years in one Flushing location or another which, in restaurant years, as in those associated with dachshunds and labradoodles, must be multiplied by seven. Does the name still say it all? You bet.

15. Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Blvd., Corona; 718-458-0236
For some outlandish reason, your waiter—as nice a fellow who’s ever worn a plaid necktie with a floppy tuxedo vest—will try to steer you away from the “arroz con pollo por 2 personas.” “Oh, no, señor,” he’ll say. “It takes 45 minutes.” Stand firm. Do not dither. Because while everything from the house sangría to the guava with cream cheese at this 35-year-old Cuban restaurant is terrific, the arroz con pollo for two is the last word on the subject of chicken and rice. Not to be confused with the regular arroz con pollo on the menu that’s offered as a daily special, this made-to-order version arrives in an old pot the size of a washtub. It’s super-moist and creamy, more akin to an Italian risotto than a Spanish paella, its succulent short-grain rice imbued with the heady fragrance of sofrito and chicken stock. Your waiter, with whom by now you have settled your differences and become old pals, dishes it out with a flourish. One bite and it’s over. You’re done with all other arroz con pollos for life.

16. Mustang Thakali Kitchen
74-14 37th Ave., Jackson Heights; 718-898-5088
Himalayan cuisine used to be a novelty in Queens. Now, thanks to an immigration boom, it’s a bona fide attraction, especially in Jackson Heights, where one could make a satisfying (if bloaty) momo crawl among at least half a dozen spots. Those indigenous dumplings are on offer at Mustang Thakali Kitchen, an elegant outpost specializing in the sort-of-Chinese, sort-of-Indian, and ultimately unique foods of Nepal and Tibet. Thali platters arrange restrained portions of curry, vegetables, and tangy pickles around a mound of rice for an edifying Intro to Nepal; choose the farsee-goat option, submerged in pumpkin gravy, and don’t neglect the extra-gingery dal. Ghoken materialize as perhaps the sturdiest buckwheat pancakes you’ve ever seen, and the sensational sukuti sadeko is a sort of beef-jerky ceviche—tangy, limey, spicy, with a jolting astringency and a jaw-muscle-defying texture.

17. Agnanti
19-06 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria; 718-545-4554
In what’s left of Greek Astoria—the part not co-opted by Brazilian buffets, Bosnian cevabdzinicas, and Egyptian hookah bars—very few tavernas stray from the familiar feta-and-fish formula. Agnanti, hard by Astoria Park, is the notable exception. Not that it doesn’t cover the basics, like a proper Greek salad and all manner of flaky phyllo pies. But gravitate instead to such obscurities as ntakos, a mound of hardtack-dry barley rusks moistened with pulpy tomatoes and a torrent of good olive oil; the ancient grain soup called trahana; and the specialty of the house, a tough old rooster tenderized in a sweet, subtly seasoned tomato sauce and served over tiny squares of pasta. The hearty fasolia plaki, or oven-baked limas, can be found under the menu heading “Tastes of Constantinople,” a Greek interpretation of Turkish specialties. The setting is cramped and lively, the service proficient but brusque, and the cash-tips policy annoying, but, in the end, a small price to pay.

18. Cheburechnaya
92-09 63rd Dr., Rego Park; 718-897-9080
Bukharan Jews originally hail from that Central Asian city in what is now Uzbekistan, but most of them seem to have relocated to Rego Park, right off Queens Boulevard. That’s where you’ll find Cheburechnaya, which has everything a kosher-keeping Bukharan homesick for the good old days on the steppe could ask for in a restaurant. The service is suitably gruff, the BYO vodka flows like water, and the tables are big enough to play Ping-Pong on. The food is good, too. Start with morkovcha (garlicky carrot salad) and a chebureki (variously stuffed fried turnovers). Scoop up some hummus and baba with your lepeshka (house bread shaped like an overgrown bialy), and delve into a nice beefy bowl of lagman (noodle soup) or maybe a plate of plov (meat-mingled rice pilaf of sorts). The charcoal-grilled lamb kebabs are uniformly succulent, lamb being to Bukharan cuisine what pastrami is to the Lower East Side. The ground-meat lulya kebab is especially juicy and tender, the deeply flavorful lamb ribs even better, and if you like skewered lamb testicles—and who doesn’t these days?—you’re in the right place.

19. Istria Sport Club
28-09 Astoria Blvd., Astoria; 718-728-3181
Of the many greetings with which a restaurant host can address his public—“Welcome,” “Hi there,” “Please, sit anywhere you like” all spring to mind—the phrase “Who sent you?” delivered in a husky voice at this quasi-private subterranean social club was new to us. If no one has, in fact, “sent you,” there aren’t any really good answers to this question, so we shrugged at an old photo of Joe Bastianich hanging on the wall, and mumbled, “He did.” Not that it really mattered. Istria Sport Club, established in 1959 as a home away from home for the neighborhood’s expat community from the Adriatic Coast peninsula (Bastianiches included), has long been accessible to curious interlopers. Our greeter, who also turned out to be our waiter, having concluded the niceties was happy to recommend the specialties of his birthplace: comforting homemade pastas like gnocchi and fusi, both in a succulent veal gravy; the Balkan sausages called cevapi; and palacinke crêpes for dessert. Although rich and hearty, the food isn’t the main draw here. It’s the transporting atmosphere and the company, like Milano, an off-duty waiter from nearby Piccola Venezia, who recognized us and waved hello. “I’m here every night,” he said, as Zlatko, the affable club manager-cum-accordionist, pumped away on his squeeze-box, leading the dining room in a spirited sing-along.

20. New Imperial Palace
136-13 37th Ave., Flushing; 718-939-3501
It seems these days that Chinese regional cuisines go in and out of fashion faster than Android models: No sooner do you master your Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle-eating technique than you are confronted with Henan big tray chicken. There’s something comforting, then, about Cantonese cooking, America’s original Chinese takeout. So the next time nostalgia strikes, grab fifteen of your nearest and dearest and commandeer a round table at this bustling joint, where poker-faced waiters know what you want almost before you order it. Bamboo steamers of Dungeness crab and sticky rice, the house specialty, sail out of the kitchen at a steady clip, and with good reason, but there’s barely anything that swims, slithers, or scuttles that’s not on offer, including abalone, conch, sea cucumber, and sablefish. Sizzling casseroles are present on nearly every spinning lazy Susan, and so are succulent chickens either roasted or deep-fried. But if you ­really want to wax nostalgic, try No. 96, crispy orange-flavor beef, and order it to go.

The Queens Top 20