Visitors to Jackson Heights, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in all of Queens, will find themselves encountering the epitome of New York City's (NYC) unique brand of chaos, noise, and cultural mix. It's no wonder, 167 different languages are spoken in Jackson Heights.
But Jackson Heights has yet another side, a quiet and welcoming community filled with historical curiosities, architectural beauty, and a culinary scene to tantalize the taste buds of any foodie.
All of this has drawn more attention to the neighborhood, including the camera of a local documentarian who produced "In Jackson Heights," and the convergence of ex-Brooklynites and ex-Manhattanites attracted to the rich cultural life and still-reasonably-priced-yet-quickly-rising value of real estate. It's difficult to select just a few fun things to do in Jackson Heights NYC, but here is a start for the first-time visitor.
Hit Up Himalayan Highlights
Jackson Heights has long boasted some of the best Indian/South Asian food in NYC (including locals-favorite establishments like Jackson Diner, and Patel Brothers, a supermarket selling niche Indian ingredients and food items), multiple sweets shops, jewelry, clothing, and souvenir shops along 74th Street, 37th Avenue, and the surrounding blocks.
However, over the course of the past 15 or so years, the neighborhood has seen an increase in immigrants from other South Asian countries like Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, too, with more and more tasty and authentic restaurants popping up to cater to that growing population. If you want to eat like the Himalayans do, including fare like delicious steamed momos (dumplings), or other, more exotic, authentic Himalayan delicacies, like gyuma (Tibetan pan-fried blood sausages), or thenthuk (hand-pulled noodle soup), just walk between 72nd and 76th streets, between 37th Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue, where you’ll find plenty to indulge your culinary curiosities.
A few of the top spots include: Himalayan Yak, the oldest of the bunch (it opened in 2000), continues to be a favorite of the community and offers Himalayan staples, as well as fusion dishes from the region. Lhasa Fast Food, hidden in the back room of a cell phone store, is a must-visit for momo connoisseurs. Little Tibet, meanwhile, not only serves up Tibetan specialties but also offers local microbrews from the borough of Queens.
Look up at the wall as you’re eating, where you’re likely to see the visage of the Dalai Lama, with his world-famous contagious smile, gazing approvingly upon your warm heart—and content belly.
Stroll the Jackson Heights Historic District
About a hundred years ago, two key factors helped spur the development of the then rural area of modern-day Jackson Heights. The Roosevelt Avenue elevated subway was completed, providing direct and convenient access to Manhattan from Jackson Heights, while a growing middle class required housing close to “the city” (Manhattan); Jackson Heights qualified, at just 30 minutes from Grand Central Station on the 7 train.
Thus, a beautiful neighborhood was born, planned and developed primarily by the Queensboro Corporation, who, influenced by new housing developments in Europe, designed what they called “garden apartments,” owed to the private gardens attributed to the newly constructed buildings. The directors of Queensboro Corporation had visited several European cities and claimed to have been particularly impressed with the housing projects of Charlottenburg, Berlin, to which the Jackson Heights development bears a striking resemblance.
Over time, many blocks of beautiful buildings were constructed: smaller stylish “courtyard” multi-family dwellings, as well as taller upscale apartment buildings, and cooperative apartment complexes, again with shared garden spaces. The many blocks on which these buildings still stand—stretching from the east side of 76th Street to the west side of 88th Street, and from Roosevelt Avenue to Northern Boulevard—are now a designated historic district, registered in 1993 by the city’s landmark preservation commission. Although the public cannot freely enter the buildings to explore their interior beauty or private courtyard gardens, it is pleasurable enough to just stroll from block to block, taking in the details of these pre-WWII architectural gems, and getting a small peek at the courtyards from the street.
This innovative NYC housing project now stands as the structural record of a time when the city was reinventing itself for its ever-changing population.
Sip on the Perfect Peruvian Pisco
Bring up the topic of pisco to a Peruvian and a Chilean and you’re likely to launch a very heated debate about the country-of-origin for the famous South American grape brandy and the delicious cocktail it turns out: Pisco Sour. However, most liquor historians agree that the brandy and the drink come from Peru. Pisco is as culturally/historically important to Peru as Scotch is to Scotland; the Peruvians even have a national Pisco Sour Day on the first Saturday in February.
Here in North America, and locally in Jackson Heights, it is Peruvian restauranteurs (behind the successful NYC chain Pio Pio) who brought to New York City a bar passionately dedicated to pisco. The pisco bar, Amaru (which means “serpent” in the Quechua language), offers a vast selection of pure and blended pisco, as well as signature cocktails designed by Esteban Ordõnez, a former bartender at Apothéke. With a massive presence of South Americans in the area, there was already a built-in, in-the-know audience for this venture, but the bar also attracts curious imbibers alongside more serious pisco enthusiasts who want to delve deeper into this unique spirit.
Game On: Visit the Birthplace of Scrabble
Look for a street sign—colored brown to demarcate a historic district—at the intersection of 35th Avenue and 81st Street, which has a subscript of Scrabble values assigned to the street sign letters. This was done to recognize the invention of the board game Scrabble by Jackson Heights resident Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect who created a game that he initially called “Lexiko” (from the Greek word lexicos, meaning of "words") and then changed to “Criss-Cross Words.”
The game, invented during the Great Depression, was an amalgamation of elements from crossword puzzles and anagrams. He unsuccessfully tried to shop the idea to game-makers, eventually selling the rights to an entrepreneur who, after making a few minor changes, renamed the game as “Scrabble.” And the rest, as they say, is history. Scrabble remains one of the most popular board games in America and continues to sharpen the vocabulary of players young and old... and it all started in Jackson Heights.
Bite into Some Crunchy Chicken Goodness
No, it's not Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), nor an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO): the restaurant acronym UFC instead stands for "Unidentified Flying Chickens." At first glance, you might think that using the term “unidentified” to describe food isn’t especially enticing, but kitschy branding aside, the Korean-style fried organic chicken served at this eatery is extra crispy and absolutely delicious. They also serve over 100 varieties of craft beer, as well as Korean soju and wine. Located in a perfect little hidden spot on Roosevelt Avenue, it’s the kind of eating and drinking pleasure that makes a trip to Jackson Heights entirely worth it.