How to Eat Your Way Through the World’s Food Capital: Queens

The borough is home to 2+ million people speaking over 100 languages, and the best eating doesn’t happen in restaurants

By Max Falkowitz

Published on July 18, 2016

The best eats in Queens aren't found in restaurants—they're cobbled together at concrete picnics.

The Census Bureau estimates that half of the 2.3 million people who live in Queens were born outside the United States. Over 100 languages are spoken daily on its streets. Such dizzying diversity has earned the borough a reputation as a food lover's paradise: If the world cooks it, you can probably find someone here who makes it. And if the recipe requires an obscure ingredient from home, there's a market in Queens that sells it.

For the curious home cook, it doesn't get better than this. And for the wandering eater, there's nothing like spending an afternoon eating through the borough without setting foot in a single restaurant. Because once your bags are loaded with yogurt and curry paste and a kilo or two of smoky sausage, you won't just be wondering what to cook first, but how those Thai dried bananas might taste dipped in some Mediterranean honey. So do as we did: Plonk your haul down in a park and have yourself a picnic.

Despaña Cashier
Despaña Brand Foods

Despaña’s tiny Jackson Heights storefront is full of imported goods on every available surface.

On sunny Saturday mornings in Jackson Heights, Jose Reyes pours wine. A plastic cup of tempranillo, filled nearly to the brim, is his standard welcome at Despaña, the Spanish food importer and meat shop where he's worked for 30 years.

Tempranillo in plastic cups, the most vibrant chorizo, and assorted small plates await you at Despaña.

Reyes now oversees the company's sausage operation: 2,000 to 3,000 pounds a week of garlic-laced chorizo, coils of Basque chistorra, and morcilla sausage, dark and sweet as dried fruit thanks to a smart combination of cooked-down onions and coagulated pig's blood. Come for the wine but stay for the free samples of sausage as well as bites of tinned tuna belly in olive oil and nutty Manchego cheese, to say nothing of the olive oil, sherry vinegar, and special Spanish sweets. Despaña's retail flagship may be down in Soho, and that larger space offers a sit-down menu as well, but nothing's quite as charming as snacking on sausage while bumping elbows with the locals here in the tiny Jackson Heights spot.

Despaña Brand Foods
86-17 Northern Boulevard, Jackson Heights
(718) 779-4971
Closed Sundays

Muncan Food Corp. Counter
Muncan Food Corp.

The counter at Muncan Food Corp.

Marko Stefanovic is the third generation of Yugoslavian meat men at his family's charcuterie shop, Muncan Food Corp., in the Greek, Italian, and Balkan neighborhood of Astoria. Muncan carries dozens of cured and smoked meats, which are so revered that, according to Marko, former Astoria residents who've moved as far as California travel back to Queens for a taste of proper domaca and tirola (traditional pork sausages) and parizer, a Balkan-style bologna made with pork, beef, and veal. "If you come to the U.S. from a place where these foods are normal, your holidays don't feel like holidays without these tastes," Stefanovic says. "We provide them."

Muncan's retail general manager, Zoran Matovic.

Hanging vines of sausage obscure the ceiling of the narrow shop, filling the air with the potent smells of smoke and pork and spice. Below, meat cutters banter in Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish while handing customers samples of lamb prosciutto and duck pastrami. The shop's most popular item goes by many names: jumari in Romanian, cvarci in Serbo-Croatian. In a nod to the shop's Hispanic customers who visit specifically to buy the stuff, Muncan labels it chicharron. But this isn't another airy pork rind: It's the ne plus ultra of fried pig—hunks of jowl, a perfect balance of meat and fat, cooked to a resounding crisp with a satisfying chew, piled into a paper bag for convenient snacking.

Muncan Food Corp.
4309 Broadway, Astoria
(718) 278-8847

Thai Thai Grocery
Thai Thai Grocery

P. Noi stocks everything a Thai cook needs, including an array of frozen fish and little snacks. But beware, fried bananas only appear for a limited time.

Two miles away, over on Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst, is P.Noi Thai Thai Grocery. When locals seek out tongue-tingly makhwen (a relative of the Sichuan peppercorn), essential to good larb, they come to Thai Thai, where they might also pick up some chewy stink beans, pudgy like favas but far more aromatic and great stir-fried with shrimp.

The shop owner, an enthusiastic 60-year-old-going-on-24 who only goes by P.Noi, greets all visitors with the de rigueur sawadee ka and a bow and a grin. Once she starts dispensing cooking advice—this feathery herb adds an earthy lilt to soup, that sausage with the pork skin nubbins is best eaten raw—it's easy to see why her tiny market has become an anchor for a close-knit community of Thai home cooks.

Left: The owner of Thai Thai Grocery, P. Noi, greets her customers.

"It's just me here running things seven days a week," she says, barely getting out the sentence before taking another customer's order. Folks in the neighborhood stop by for her hard-to-find imported goods and homemade snacks like khao niao ping: little packets of sweet-and-salty sticky rice molded around fudgy Thai bananas, bundled in fragrant banana leaves, and grilled for a kiss of smoke. They're a special only available on the weekends, and on this particularly busy Saturday, they disappear minutes after hitting the shelf.

P.Noi Thai Thai Grocery
7613 Woodside Avenue, Elmhurst
(917) 769-6168

Parrot Coffee
Parrot Coffee

The cheese and coffee selection at Parrot Coffee.

A 10-minute ride west from Thai Thai on the elevated 7 train takes you out of Thai Town and over to Sunnyside, where Middle Eastern and Himalayan restaurants join Irish pubs on both sides of bustling Queens Boulevard. There you'll find the flagship location of Parrot Coffee, a pan-Mediterranean market that used to sell the best baklava in the city until the Mexican guy who made it moved away.

Parrot's got an ample coffee selection, but it's also a go-to source for dry goods, canned foods, breads, cured meat and fish, and sweets from across the Middle East and the Balkans. The dairy selection here is unparalleled. Like ricotta? Creamy mizithra may do you one better. And if you think good feta begins and ends in Greece, the counter workers here will change your mind by gently steering you toward the varieties from Romania and Bulgaria, which satisfy a cheese lover's deepest cravings for salt and sour and funk.

Also of interest here: homemade goat milk yogurt, with a brighter flavor than yogurt made with cow's milk and a classical Mediterranean tang absent even among fancy brands at supermarkets. And coils of flaky homemade Turkish tahini bread, tricky to locate even in dedicated Turkish bakeries, crackly and rich as croissants flattened in a waffle iron.

Parrot Coffee
Locations in Sunnyside, Astoria, and Ridgewood

Map It: One Day in Queens

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