The great borough of Queens is known for its polyglot ethnic neighborhoods. Often it seems that every immigrant group in Queens has at least one representative on a single block. But the Little India section of the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights is different.
Seventy-fourth Street between Roosevelt Avenue and 37th Avenue and the surrounding blocks are the heart of a South Asian neighborhood. Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis call this area home and come here to shop and eat. It's the place for some of the highest quality Indian food in New York City; South Asian jewelry, clothes and music; Bollywood films; and plain old people-watching. This is a great neighborhood for strolling and taking it all in.
How to Get There
The neighborhood is easily accessible by subway (V, R, G, E, F, 7) via the Roosevelt Avenue station. The E and F are express trains —- only three stops from Midtown Manhattan —- but the 7 line has a most leisurely gait.
A car isn't the best means to breach the crowded streets of Jackson Heights. If you insist on driving, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Northern Boulevard are the nearest routes. Avoid navigating (aka "getting stuck") on Roosevelt Avenue at all costs, and try 37th Avenue for parking.
The Jackson Diner has become a New York institution. But don't let the name fool you. The restaurant gained its incongruous name from its former location in what had been the neighborhood's greasy spoon. Its current spacious digs have luckily not dampened the quality of the food.
The restaurant serves typical northern Indian dishes -- curries and tandooris -- that are filling yet relatively light, not floating in a sea of ghee, the clarified butter that is the base of much Indian cooking. Scan the menu carefully. There are a few uncommon delights tucked away -- like the mustard greens.
The Jackson Diner only accepts cash, so come prepared.
Jackson Heights is a great neighborhood for stocking up on Bollywood films and music. Bollywood is the name for the Indian film industry and the many titles it produces annually. It is the second largest motion picture industry in the world, and its masala-style films invariably include plenty of song and dance.
Start out right by seeing the feature film at the Palace Theater on 37th Road. Formerly a blue venue, the shabby exterior hides a delightful local theater devoted to Bollywood films. The big screen is the best place to see the whirling all-singing, all-dancing, over-the-top drama of the Hindi movie masalas.
If the shows aren't running during your visit, step right next door to the little retail shop Melody Stop, where the hits continue on video, DVD, and CD. Don't let the crowded, too-narrow shop deter you from a visit. The melodies are sweet and the prices sweeter.
For a more leisurely browse, round the corner onto 74th Street and head up the block to Raaga Super Store with its wider selection and much wider aisles. In addition to the movie titles, look for its selection of "Bhangra," the electro-Indian pop music that has sucked a hip-hop sound into Punjabi folk music.
On your way to the shop, you'll have already heard the latest tunes pounding the concrete from cars inching their way up 74th Street.
Backtrack a few storefronts to Butala Emporium, a perfect place to find an Indian gift. Yes, Ganesh, Durga, Shiva and other deities are there in print and statue form, along with incense, clothes, stamps and religious charms at decent prices. In the corner, there's a well-stocked news rack with South Asian weeklies and monthlies and other printed matter -- even comic book renditions of the Hindu epics alongside soap opera magazines. Further back, the walls are stocked with English texts on the study of the South Asian subcontinent.
Downstairs, find intricately carved wooden furniture at good prices. There are also Indian instruments of top quality, like the tabla drum, dholak, sitar, and harmonium. Butala is a place where you can spend a quarter or a thousand dollars and leave with a treasure.
Stroll down 74th Street and other shops beckon, some brilliantly. Almost every other storefront is a jewelry shop where 22-karat gold predominates. Unlike the 14k, this rich gold is a heavy, almost dull color that makes up for its lack of shine with its beautiful, dense sheen and malleability, which allows for more intricate, fantastic designs.
Sona Jewelry of London and Sona Chandi are typical of the small shops.
If you do pick up jewelry, you must get all spiffed up. There are several beauty salons, such as Gulzar Beauty Salon, that feature traditional henna tattooing, called mehndi, and hair removal by (hopefully painless) threading, not the brutal wax and strip. Can you pull off wearing a sari to go with that gold and henna? It takes impeccable posture. At least window shop for saris at regal clothing stores like Neena Sari Palace or the ISP (Indian Sari Palace).