QUEENS, N.Y. - As we crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, just a few minutes from one of the most unlikely destinations we've ever set for a family trip - Long Island City - I decided it was a good moment to explain to the kids why we were vacationing in Queens.
"Guys," I said, turning to the backseat, "this trip is going to be a bit more food-focused than usual. And we're about to take a trip around the world."
My children know a few things about food travel, whether it's New England, New Orleans, or even Brooklyn, which we'd just visited. But unlike those more glamorous destinations, Queens' touristic charms are not immediately obvious. Though it shares a county border with trendy Brooklyn, Queens is more about a stunning patchwork of authentic international diversity.
Nearly 50 percent of its 2.23 million residents are foreign-born and approximately 138 languages are spoken, from the long-established bastions of Greek culture in Astoria to the newest enclave of Nepalis growing around Woodside, to the myriad Hispanic communities and dynamic Flushing, now New York's largest Asian center - and an adventure eater's paradise that is perhaps the single best reason for Philadelphians to visit.
With the promise of a real dim sum palace, a taste of authentic Thai, mounds of genuine Greek feta, colorful arrays of Indian sweets, and whatever other surprises awaited, it wasn't a hard sell.
It had been more than a decade since I last explored Queens, when I nibbled everything from Filipino barbecue in Woodside (at Ihawan) to Brazilian feijoada (at Malagueta) and savory beef Bosnian cevapi sausages (at Cevabdzinica Sarajevo, still a convenient lunch stop before visiting the must-see Museum of the Moving Image) in Astoria.
And though Brooklyn-style gentrification has undeniably worked its way in around the edges here, Queens is still not quite cool enough to be hipster-chic. Even though the largest rooftop farm in New York is one acre in Long Island City, it is curiously called "Brooklyn Grange," perhaps reaching for the cred of that borough.
In Queens, there is no pretense. And if you're looking for Queens-branded T-shirts, good luck finding one amid the shadows of the elevated No. 7 train that runs along the gritty streetscape of bustling Roosevelt Avenue. What you will find, though, is the culinary crossroads of one of the most diverse places on Earth, a rapidly shifting collage of Argentine alfajores, Peruvian roast chicken, Korean fried chicken, Pakistani kabobs, Mexican tacos, and the Colombian corn patties of the famous Arepa Lady cart (run by Maria Piedad) at 79th and Roosevelt in Jackson Heights.
As New York's most diverse quarter, though, Queens is also one of the most constantly changing.
In Jackson Heights, for example, what once was New York's epicenter of Indian culture has changed dramatically over the past few years into more of a Bangladeshi neighborhood, as Indians, gaining in prosperity and education over generations, have begun to disperse to Edison, N.J., and other places. There were other reasons for the shift, though, says Nirav Shah of Rajbhog Sweets, an Indian dessert shop and vegetarian buffet that, as a neighborhood anchor for 36 years, has grown into a successful national chain (with a large, newly expanded location in Cherry Hill).
"At least 50 percent of the Indians and Pakistanis began to leave after 9/11 because people were being targeted," he said.
The colorful trays of dairy-based sweets such as kalakand, chum chum, rasmalai, and rasmadhuri are as delicious as ever at Rajbhog. But a lackluster meal of dull flavors earlier at the Jackson Diner, a longtime Indian standby, was perhaps emblematic of a letdown. Next time, I'll be exploring the Bangladeshi grilled fish and meat specialties of the Haat Bazaar market across the street from Rajbhog, or the Chinese-Indian fusion fare of Nanking, where self-avowed "Queens partisan" Francis Lam, an editor for Gilt Taste magazine, recommends the chilli paneer and cauliflower with Manchurian sauce ("get it dry, not in gravy!")
The Greek community of Astoria is another of Queens' long-established ethnic enclaves. And while that population has also declined, with an influx of Middle Eastern and Brazilian immigrants, we still found worthy traces of that Hellenic influence.
At Agnanti Meze, an intimate taverna on the edge of sylvan Astoria Park, we dove into a feast of chef Spiro Sidorakis' homespun, rustic flavors. A wedge of zucchini and feta pie came wrapped in a golden crust of homemade phyllo. House-made stuffed grape leaves (a dying art) were filled with lemony rice scented with dill and mint. I loved the tenderness and charred tentacles of simply grilled octopus splashed with red vinegar and oregano, the crunch of Cretan rusk breads softened in olive oil and tomato-feta salad. Most memorable, though, was the signature "rooster in sauce," a wine-marinated bird stewed in the Peloponnesian style with cinnamon-scented tomato gravy that arrives cloaked in a mosaic of stamp-shaped pastas called hilopites.
Agnanti is not far from the 101-year-old Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden, the parklike Czech beer garden that, with picnic tables of revelers downing grilled klobasa sausages and steins of Staropramen, is as laid-back as Brooklyn's beer gardens are self-consciously hip.
But we were in a rush to get to Titan Foods before it closed at 9 p.m. The biggest emporium of imported Greek foods in New York is an Olympus for feta lovers, with at least a dozen varieties, including the exceptional barrel-aged Arahova. But we also loaded up on peppery green Greek olive oil (a three-liter tin of Kalamata for about $22), bags of Greek-made pasta and rice, and a sweet nightcap of syrup-soaked baklava from the case of 20 different varieties of store-baked phyllo pastries.
While diversity-rich Philadelphia has some of its own worthy touchstones for Indian, Latino, and Greek cuisines, Queens should be a complete revelation when it comes to authentic Asian flavors.
Flushing has become New York's main stage for the many regional variations of Chinese culture, its wide avenues now a hub for the city's largest concentration of Asians as Manhattan's Chinatown declines. While Philly has a handful of venues serving good Shanghai xiao long bao (a.k.a. "soup dumplings"), first made famous in America at Flushing's Joe's Shanghai, I've never tasted a juicier version of the heartier fried variety (sheng jian bao) than at tiny Taste of Shanghai. And Philadelphia has nothing to compare to a vast dim sum place like Jade Asian, the sunny and plush dining hall where 1,200 people a day graze from rolling carts laden with little dishes and steamer baskets holding 120 selections made by the restaurant's battalion of chefs. Signature items like the har gow shrimp dumplings wrapped in translucent house-made dough were especially delicate. But so were the browned daikon cakes studded with Chinese sausages over homemade hoisin, the sticky rice balls filled with shrimp, plump green chive dumplings, and fluffy cloudbursts of steamed white buns harboring sweet pork inside.
Flushing's ability to accommodate several such large Hong Kong-style restaurants give it an advantage over Manhattan, says Jade Asian's Peter How, who is also president of the Asian American Restaurant Association. But Flushing has also become a prime destination, he says, for more recent immigrants from northern and western China, where the cuisines tend to be noodle-centric and spicier. A trip down the escalator to the New World Mall Food Court, in the basement next to Macy's at the corner of Roosevelt and Main, is an impressive immersion in that world. You won't find Saladworks here, but a dizzying 32-stall array of intriguing regional specialties, from hand-pulled noodles with oxtail to crab hot pots, Sichuan fu qui fei pian, buckwheat noodles from near China's border with North Korea, Malaysian prawns, spicy build-your-own stir-fries from Lao Ma Ma La Tang, whole lobster-fried-rice combos for $15, and Taiwanese ice desserts. If only we hadn't already eaten two lunches that day. Next time, Flushing gets an entire weekend of its own.
The one restaurant I am most grateful we did not miss, though, was Ayada Thai in Elmhurst, not far from the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona (another highlight of our visit). Genuine Thai cooking - one of Philly's weakest genres - has several notable practitioners in Queens, including SriPraPhai in Woodside and Zabb Elee in Jackson Heights. In the kaffir-lime-green confines of cozy Ayada, we got a vividly spiced blast of flavors from chef Duangjai "Kitty" Thammasat's central Thai province of Phichit. Some were familiar but raced with a vibrance I had yet to taste, the tender satay chicken infused with lemongrass and turmeric, the sour tom yam soup radiating galangal and handmade chile paste. Even more thrilling was the ground pork larb salad, which was both fiery and fragrant with toasted jasmine rice powder, lime juice, and fish-sauce funk. The most stunning and unusual dish, though, was the catfish salad. The fish had been minced into fine threads that were fried into a golden brown nest whose warm crunch contrasted with the juicy laces of shredded mango salad laid on top. Tossed with crunchy red onions and a beguiling marinade of tangy tamarind, fish sauce, and earthy ground chiles, each bite made my lips both hum with heat and hope for more.
It was the last and triumphant meal of our weekend vacation to Queens. But as the car climbed onto the elevated expressway and we headed home, the kids turned and waved a fond farewell to the most exotic place they'd ever visited - knowing we'd be back.
Ihawan, 4006 70th St., Woodside, 718-205-1480; ihawan2.com
Malagueta, 2535 36th Ave., Astoria, 718-937-4821; malaguetany.com
Cevabdzinica Sarajevo, 37-18 34th Ave., Astoria, 718-752-9528
The Arepa Lady food cart, Roosevelt Avenue and 79th Street, Queens; on Twitter @Arepalady
Rajbhog Sweets, 72-27 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, 718-458-8512; rajbhog.com
Jackson Diner, 37-47 74th St., Jackson Heights, 718-672-1232; jacksondiner.com
Haat Bazaar, 37-11 73d St., Jackson Heights, 718-205-8588
Nanking Express, 72-23 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, 718-626-5464; nankingrestaurantgroup
Agnanti Meze, 19-06 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria, 718-545-4554; agnantimeze.com
Bohemian Beer Garden, 29-19 24th Ave., Astoria, 718-274-4925; bohemianhall.com
Titan Foods, 25-56 31st St., Astoria, 718-626-7771, titanfood.com
Taste of Shanghai, 39-07 Prince St., #1A, Flushing, 718-888-1636
Jade Asian, 136-28 39th Ave., Flushing, 718-762-8821; jadeasianrestaurant.com
New World Food Court, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing, 718-353-0551; newworldmallny.com