Now that the streets around Times Square are almost cleared of New Year’s Eve confetti and I’ve digested several plates of lucky New Year’s noodles it’s time to take a look back at 2015. It was a big year for me, including a profile in The Wall Street Journal. Queens continued to amaze with everything from octopus tacos and Thai noodles to Caribbean Chinese and the most unlikely French patisserie ever. In no particular order here are 15 of the best things I ate last year.
1. Yummiest dry tom yum
The weekend noodle soup pop-up at Elmhurst’s Pata Paplean remained on point, but one of my favorites there wasn’t a soup at all. Tom yum haeng—dry tom yum noodles—consists of springy yellow noodles, fish balls and golden shards of fried pork all dressed with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chili, and cilantro. Mix it all up and dig into the best dry noodles in Thai Town.
2. Tastiest deep-fried seafood nostalgia
The cheery blue and white Bigelow’s Seafood has been around for more than 70 years. After driving by it for about that amount of time, I finally had the privilege of trying it this past spring. These wizards of the fryer turn out impeccable Ipswich clams, fried smelts, shrimp, and soft shell crabs all served in an atmosphere that time and cholesterol have forgotten.
3. Fiercest Caribbean-Chinese fried shark
After hearing about The Nest for many years I finally got try to the Caribbean-Chinese specialist in Richmond Hill. The jerk chicken fried rice and bungle goat were quite nice, but the big surprise here was nuggets of golden fried shark.
4. Fieriest Tibetan Dumplings
Not only were the C-momo at Spicy Tibet the most incendiary Himalayan dumplings around, they taught me to love the sizzle platter. By the way the C stands for chili; the dish is the dumpling version of the famous Indian-Chinese chili chicken.
5. Most magnificent Muslim lamb chop
“Wow I think you renewed my faith in this dish,” a dining companion told me when we tried the Muslim lamb chop being served at hawker stall Peng Shun Spicy Pot in Flushing. Unlike others, which are often dried out, Peng Shun’s remains juicy underneath its mantle of cumin seeds and red pepper flakes. It is the spiciest, crispiest, finger lickingest version I’ve ever had.
6. Most marvelous mashup
The Tibetan beef dumplings known as momo are so common in their homeland and surrounding countries I’ve taken calling them the hamburgers of the Himalayas. It was only a matter of time before someone created a momo burger. Little Tibet’s is excellent, juicy and served up on a toasted tingmo, it’s a dish that could only happen in Queens.
7. Unlikeliest French patisserie
An Asian supermarket is an unlikely location for a top-flight French patisserie, but nevertheless that’s exactly where Rudolf Merlin set up shop. The French-trained pastry chef turns out exquisite croissants, éclairs, and other goodies. It’s a good thing I don’t live closer or I’d weigh 300 pounds.
8. Most excellent Valentine’s eggplant
Hunan cuisine may be known for fiery fare employing scads of pickled salted red chilies, but it’s got just as many more subtle homestyle dishes like xian dan huang qie zi, or steamed eggplant with salted duck egg yolk a dish I fell in love with on Valentine’s Day. It was savory, salty, and like many of the best loves, entirely unexpected. It was so good over rice I ate two bowls, a first for me.
9. Tastiest breakfast börek
One of the things I love most about leading food tours in Queens is reliving the sense of discovery through my guest’s as they experience new flavors—fresh Chinese tofu, Nepalese jerky, Mexican seafood cocktails—for the first time. Sometimes, I even make new discoveries like this magnificent homemade börek filled with a savory mix of ground beef and herbs. Along with a nice cup of Turkish tea one might even consider it part of a complete börekfast.
10. Best Indonesian comfort food
Queens’ second Chinatown of Elmhurst skews more Southeast Asian and includes tons of Indonesian cuisine. One dish I found myself returning to again and again was the Surabaya style soto ayam at Asian Taste 86. Tinged yellow from plenty of turmeric and topped with a heap of koya, a pungent powder of prawn crackers mixed with fried garlic, the piping hot broth brims with shredded chicken and cabbage. It’s good, head-clearing, medicine particularly after adding squeeze of lime and a tablespoon of incendiary orange sambal.
11. Most fabulous pad thai
Pad Thai gets a bad rap in New York City thanks to an overabundance of Americanized versions that are too sweet, too peanutty, and often both. Leave it to Elmhurst’s Plant Love House to give me a new appreciation for the much maligned dish. A tangle of bean sprouts, dried chili, sugar, lime, and crushed peanuts orbit a mass of noodles topped with shrimp and shot through with garlic chives and bits of dried tofu. Mix it all together and experience a galaxy of flavors and textures—sweet, spicy, nutty, sour and crunchy—just the way pad Thai ought to be.
Bear’s Grizzly is a burger to be reckoned with.
12. Choicest cheeseburger
Like much of the food at Bear, the house cheeseburger known as the Grizzly, reflects Chef Natasha Pogrebinsy’s Ukrainian-American heritage. Thus the beefy patty’s bite comes from sharp Russian mustard. There is of course a lush blanket of American cheese and a crispy lacework that turns out to be more fried American cheese. It was truly the best burger I ate in Queens last year.
13. Nicest new noodles
The bustling Chinatown that is downtown Flushing teems with all manner of noodles. One of the best I tried last year was the house special gui lin mi fen as served at a newish restaurant of the same name. It’s presented in two bowls. One contains spaghetti like strands of rice noodles topped with beef shin, pickled green beans, green onion, roasted peanuts, cilantro. Two generous slices of deep-fried pork chop lay casually atop everything, a meaty afterthought. The other bowl contains a milky broth. Pour the broth over the noodles and give it all a good mix. The waves of flavor and texture—salty pickled veggies, crunchy roasted peanuts, meaty beef, crunchy pork, bright cilantro, and rich broth—are amazing. In place of the typical crushed red chilis that grace the table at every Chinese soup joint find a bright orange concoction that looks—and tastes—like it belongs in a West Indian eatery. Adding it to the soup really ups the flavor and sinus-clearing ante.
14. Craziest Mexican pineapple
There’s a reason Jazmin Deli calls it a piña loca. Part fruit salad, part candy store and all party, the $15 fiesta consists of a cored out pineapple filled with a mixture of spiced fruit, cucumbers, and the candy coated peanuts known as cacahuate estilo Japones. It’s garnished with skewers of more fruit, and several types of candy, including a straw coated in spicy tamarind.
15. Outstanding octopus taco
Pedro Rodriguez of La Esquina Del Camaron Mexicano, is a wizard when it comes to cooking octopus, the cephalopod in his seafood cocktails always treads the line between toothsome and tender. So it’s no surprise that his octopus tacos—double tortillas stacked with charred octopus and sautéed onions—are amazing. The smoky tentacle tacos are even better with a salsa he makes from chili de arbol.