story by Dave Harrison
photography by Lizabeth Nieves
Every Queens resident has heard it at some point, after telling another out-of-touch Manhattanite where they live.
“Oh, I’ve heard the food there is fabulous!”
Yes, it is…if you know where to look. And Joe DiStefano is a man that knows where to look.
I met up with Joe on a summer afternoon on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, where I found him sitting outside New York Food Court, sporting a New York Mets hat and holding a wax-paper bag. His greeting was accompanied with a piece of Taiwanese popcorn chicken (yen su ji) from Taipei Hong, along with a “hope you like chicken”, that was more a command than an invitation. Luckily, I like chicken, and this didn’t disappoint.
We took a seat inside the food court, which, true to its name, looks like it could be located in any U.S. mall, if not for the distinct lack of English writing on the signs and menus, as well as the absence of all but a few non-Asian customers. It’s the kind of place that many ‘foodies’ claim to seek out, offering a seemingly untainted taste of the many regional cuisines of China and Southeast Asia, but that is nearly impossible to navigate without knowledge of the language, menus and dining habits of those cultures. This is where both trial-and-error and word-of-mouth come into play, but with Joe as a guide, we can take a shortcut. He orders the Roasted Lamb Chop (meng gu kao rou) from Peng Shun Spicy Pot, which gives us time to talk food during the 15-20 minute preparation time.
Raised on Long Island, DiStefano was a self-described “picky eater” as a child, until a love of food (Chinese, in particular) set him off on a quest. Discovering new flavors and tastes in the tea shops of Manhattan, eschewing the initial ‘I’m not supposed to be here’ feelings by diving deeper into the ethnic food culture of New York City. An early presence on the online message board Chowhound, DiStefano shared and received recommendations and tips on the city’s hidden gems, while intensifying his focus on Queens, his home borough since 1999. From there he began documenting his food experiences beyond the message boards, writing for a variety of sites and publications, including Edible, Serious Eats, Eater and his current blog, Chopsticks and Marrow.
We devoured the lamb chop, drenched in cumin and paired with white rice, all while the proud chef watched from his counter, smiling and beaming when we gave him a thumbs up. The meat fell off the bone and into our mouths, and I gave up on chopsticks as Joe assured me that there was no wrong way to eat the dish.
We left the food court with smiles and waves, as Joe pointed out the other vendors and their specialty dishes. Outside, toothpicks in our mouths, he looked over at me.
“You still hungry?”
After establishing himself as a top food writer, DiStefano decided to share his quest to “try the best of everything” with others. For the last four years, his 7 line walking tours have offered adventurous eaters the chance to sample the huge variety of foods made and served along the subway line that runs from Flushing Main Street to the edge of Long Island City, before darting into Manhattan. The 4 ½ hour tours feature the epitome of what people are referring to when they mention the fabulous food of Queens, although unlike many of the popular spots in Manhattan, many of the chefs aren’t on Twitter, and there may be a language barrier on many of the menus.
After a quick stop at the Arepa Lady in Jackson Heights, where we enjoyed arepas larger than my fist, Joe told the story of Maria Piedad Cano, the Arepa Lady, who made food so good that people would spend evenings searching out her cart on Roosevelt Avenue. Later, her sons opened the restaurant, making the quest for her famous dishes a little less difficult.
From there we headed to our last destination of the evening, Lhasa Fast Food. Semi-hidden behind a cell-phone shop on 74th Street in Jackson Heights, imagine the hippest NYC speakeasy, but replace all of fine wood trim and fancy fixtures with plywood and duct tape, and you’re getting close.
Despite appearances, the yellow noodles (laphing serpo) was spicy and perfect, and the beef momo (a traditional dumpling native to Tibet) hit all the spots, and the loop of America’s Got Talent showing on the television wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the reaction from the small group of patrons, who couldn’t get enough.
Most recently, DiStefano was tapped by Smorgasburg, the popular food fair spin-off from the Brooklyn Flea, to curate Smorgasburg Queens: The World’s Fare. In fact, DiStefano mentioned that he had recently tried to get the chef from Peng Shun Spicy Pot (from our earlier lamb chop dish) involved, but that it had been slow going. Still, cooks from across the borough and around the city are trying to get into the weekly event held in Long Island City each Saturday, and Joe continues to discover, cover and share his favorites, encouraging all comers to “try the best of everything”, which may just be a perfect microcosm of the borough itself.