As New Yorkers, we may sometimes take for granted the mad profusion of international delicacies available on our city streets. So a recent culinary adventure through Jackson Heights by the food blogger Nikki Gardner, from Western Massachusetts, was a good reminder of how lucky we are.
While in town for a food conference, Gardner rode the 7 train out to Queens for a street food tour led by Andrew Silverstien from Streetwise New York, chef Fany Gerson (who owns La Newyorkina and wrote My Sweet Mexico and Paletas), and Voices of NY’s friend John Rudolph, of Feet in 2 Worlds.
Feet in 2 Worlds ran an excerpt of the mouthwatering post, accompanied by stunning black-and-white photos, from Gardner’s blog, “art & lemons.” Gardner sampled more than 14 different dishes, ranging from Tibetan beef momos (dumplings) to shrimp ceviche to hot pandebono, a Colombian cheese bread made with yuca and corn flours, and spiked with cheese and sugar.
We walk two blocks and turn the corner at 82nd Street where Andrew disappears and returns with plastic shopping bags filled with tamale de rajas y queso (poblano pepper and cheese tamales) from The Tamale Lady. It’s the first vegetarian offering and the mild peppery heat offset by bursts of cheese and polenta-like masa is worth the wait.
Gardner also did her research on the neighborhood, and provided an interesting primer:
Before 1900, Jackson Heights (known then as the Trains Meadow section of Newton), was an undeveloped farming community with “barns and bee hives, carriage-houses and corn-cribs…dirt roads, packed hard by years of iron-shod hooves” (1). To travel to Manhattan, residents rode The New York and Queens County Railway’s Jackson Avenue trolley to Long Island City, followed by a ferry ride to either 34th or 92nd Street, not exactly a quick trip to the city.
All that changed in 1909 when the Queensboro Bridge connecting 59th Street in Manhattan with Long Island City was built. Over the next decade, the Queensboro Corporation (run by entrepreneur Edward A. MacDougall) invested $3.8 million in farmland along the planned subway line with plans to develop a self-contained urban community with garden apartments, row houses, and public gardens modeled after Britain’s Garden City movement or a city within a city according to MacDougall. With the arrival of an elevated subway along Roosevelt Avenue in 1917, Jackson Heights was only 20 minutes from Manhattan which made it an ideal location for young families to live.
Over the years, the neighborhood experienced booms and busts from its early success to the economic hardships brought on by World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II. The 1950s brought another economic boom as more families moved to the suburban neighborhood, including a wave of middle-class Colombian entrepreneurs whose culinary history remains today. The 1965 family-centered immigration law attracted a larger immigrant population to the area, many of them working-class Hispanics and Asians who traveled from California to settle in Queens.
More than any one dish, Gardner seems most taken with the neighborhood’s mixtures and intersections of cultures.
By the time we get to Las Quesadillas de la 86 one block away on Roosevelt Ave. and 86th St., I’m too stuffed to try the mushroom quesadillas served on homemade flour tortillas. The train rumbles overhead. A Bollywood film plays in a storefront window nearby where Nag Champa incense waves through the air.