Queens-based food writer Joe DiStefano has been covering the borough’s ethnic food beat for more than a decade. When it comes to ethnic diversity, some estimates name Queens as number one in the world – it’s so rich that DiStefano has made exploring the borough his life’s work. He’s our go-to guide for global eats, from Nepalese momos and Vietnamese pho to Mexican tortas, so if you’ve got a hankering for authentic ethnic food, check out his blog, Chopsticks+ Marrow, or sign up for one of his food tours.
AndrewZimmern.com: How long have you been exploring and writing about the food scene in Queens? How has the borough changed over the years?
Joe DiStefano: I’ve been pounding the delicious streets of Queens since the 90s when I moved to Woodside. After work, I’d take long walks along Roosevelt Avenue underneath the 7 line, sampling everything from tacos to Filipino food. I started writing about the Queens food scene about 10 years ago. In that time there’s been a huge influx of folks from Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, so much so that I have taken to calling Jackson Heights, Himalayan Heights. Dongbei cuisine from Northeast China, which includes such wonderful dishes as the cumin-encrusted Muslim lamb chop, has become a major culinary force in Flushing’s Chinatown. And barbecue has become popular in the borough too, with spots like John Brown Smokehouse where I like to feast on burnt ends with a side of radish kimchi.
AZ.com: Where did your obsession with ethnic eats come from?
JD: My father was, shall we say, a good eater. Good eats for him involved monthly trips to Manhattan’s Chinatown. One of my earliest memories was being lifted up to admire the lacquered Cantonese meats hanging in the window of a restaurant on Mott Street. We’d eat at Wo Hop then stop by the noodle factory to buy won ton skins, which he’d use to make his own version of chow fun. So I’ve had an affinity for ethnic foods from way back. When I moved to Queens, it really opened me up to whole new worlds of flavor.
AZ.com: Outsiders may not know how ethnically diverse Queens is. Tell us a little about the different cultures and cuisines you come across.
JD: There’s tons of diversity, including Ecuadorean, from ceviches to ladies roasting cuy or guinea pig; Mexican street food, from a gent who makes exquisite shrimp and octopus cocktails, to Tortas Neza who makes the tastiest tortas outside of Mexico City; there’s even a Dominican fruit stand where a guy hacks open fresh coconuts with a huge machete. And we’ve got Asia covered too with regional Chinese, from the fiery fare of Sichuan to the cumin scented cuisine of Xi’an; Thai spots that dish out noodles, larb, and some lovely red ant egg salad; Vietnamese, from pho to modern banh mi; even an Indian Temple with an amazing vegetarian restaurant in the basement. One of my favorite cultures and cuisine is that of the Himalayan diaspora. The food includes everything from Tibetan momo, beef dumplings spiced with ginger and Chinese celery, to wonderfully fiery Nepalese fare as served at Dhaulaghiri Kitchen. And the culture is so warm and frankly, spiritual. There are more than 20 restaurants from the Himalayas in Queens. Each and every single one features a picture of the Dalai Lama’s, beatific visage adorned with a prayer scarf.
AZ.com: What can one expect if they book a food tour in Queens with you?
JD: To not need to eat dinner afterwards! Seriously though, they can expect to have their minds and palates awakened as they try some of my favorite secret spots for the tastiest ethnic cuisine in New York City, whether it’s Soybean Flower Chen, who ladles out exquisitely fresh tofu from New York City’s only florist/dou hua shop, or Baul Daada who mixes up Bangladeshi chaat street side in Jackson Heights. They can also expect to experience culture, from rituals at the Ganesh Temple in Flushing to exploring the grounds of the temple, Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram in Elmhurst, or just watching kimchi being made at ginormous Korean supermarket, Assi Plaza.
AZ.com: What are you favorite spots in Queens for a grab-and-go snack? What about a fancier sit down meal?
JD: My go-to grab-and–go spots are the $1 duck sandwich window at Corner 28 in Flushing, any of the numerous Chinese skewer vendors along Main Street, and JoJu Modern Vietnamese sandwiches in Elmhurst. For a fancier sit-down meals I love M. Wells Dinette, Salt & Fat, and Bear.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JD: Several types of hot sauce, including Ring of Fire Habanero; a bottle of the noxious Russian fermented mare’s milk drink kumis (that I can neither bear to drink or throw out), some apples, and some lovely Sichuan pickled vegetables.
Queens-based food writer and culinary tour guide Joe DiStefano has been exploring the borough’s diverse global cuisines for more than a decade. An intrepid eater and explorer he’s widely recognized as a go-to source on the borough’s rich tapestry of cuisines and cultures. He founded the web site, Chopsticks+Marrow, where he blogs about food in Queens and beyond, in late 2012.
DiStefano writes for the quarterly magazine Edible Queens and was the editor and founder of its food blog, World’s Fare. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, as well as numerous blogs and web sites, including Gourmet and Serious Eats New York. He is especially proud of his ability to do The New York Times crossword in 15 minutes or less without spilling his roti canai on it. In his spare time he is writing a book about the history of culinary culture along the 7 line in Queens.