The Jackson Heights you see today is not the Jackson Heights I grew up with. What once was the biggest stronghold of Indian food and culture in Queens is now much more Himalayan, as Desi families packed up for outer Queens and Nassau counties in neighborhoods like New Hyde Park.
Jackson Heights isn't alone; neighborhoods like Flushing have observed something of an Indian suburban exodus, and the restaurants have followed. While the Ganesh Temple Canteen is still making its perfect dosas, you'll be hard-pressed to find other first-rate Indian at the end of the 7 line.
Up until the middle of 2011, you could at Southern Spice, a Chettinad spot on 45th Street that was a regular object of Chowhound desire. But the restaurant suffered from bad luck—a difficult lease and some vehicles crashing into the front—so it too made the exodus to the suburbs.
Flushing's loss became New Hyde Park's gain, and while there are some worthy Chettinad restaurants in town, Southern Spice is worth the drive down Hillside Avenue for a taste of the dry, pungent heat that so beautifully characterizes this southern Indian cuisine.
Chicken 65 is a celebrated dish for the intensity and diversity of spices that go into its making. But the Crispy Cauliflower 65 ($10) is just as good—small battered florets of cauliflower that are fried to a crackling crispness, then cooked with several kinds of chili, black pepper, herbs, and what tastes like a couple dozen more spices for an arresting but nuanced heat. To cool it down, order a glass of Neer More ($3), frothy, thinned out yogurt run through with garlic, ginger, and fried mustard seeds—savory and beguiling but refreshing all the same.
Most Indian restaurants that try to offer a little bit of everything don't tend to succeed. But Southern Spice gets its northern tandoori food right, such as this Paneer Pudhina Tikka ($14), fat cubes of paneer marinated in yogurt, mint, and green chilies, then cooked to a deep, crisp char in the clay oven. Examine those crisp edges, then take a bite and relish the balance of grassy green heat and gentle dairy. It's one of the finest paneer dishes you'll find in town.
The dining room here isn't much to look at: dim, unadorned, very, very yellow. (You'll have to trust me as I was too busy licking char-grilled cheese and curried crab off my fingers to take more photos.) But it's roomy and comfortable, and the servers, now used to a Long Island crowd, are helpful with Indian novices. Go boldly, though, and show you want more than butter chicken, and they'll lend you a hand.
I got a nod of subtle affirmation for the chef's special of Karaikudi Nandu Varuval ($18; pictured at top), small crabs simmered in a coconut gravy deepened by fried spices and brightened by the musk of curry leaves. It's messy work, breaking open these crabs, but rewarding for sweet slivers of meat best dipped amply in sauce. You may get as much of that sauce on your hands as on your plate. To resolve this, try a serviceable-for-sauce-sopping Biryani ($10 to $14). Pick at it with your fingers, lick them clean, and let the stray crab shells fall where they may.