Editor's note: Welcome back Joe DiStefano, a.k.a. "The Man Who Ate Queens" and the chief writer of Chopsticks and Marrow, where he explores food all over Queens and beyond. After decades of adventurous eating around New York, Joe's here to share his wisdom on how best to eat off the beaten path. — M.F.
I can trace my genesis as a culinary adventurer to my old man who took me to Manhattan's Chinatown for shrimp rice rolls at Mei Lei Wah, back in the good old days when Fish Corner Market still plied its pungent wares on Canal Street. After 15 years living in the culinary wonderland that is Queens, I've turned full time.
I've been fortunate enough to show off the borough to everyone who'll listen, from hungry tourists to luminaries like Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain, and Fuchsia Dunlop. And along the way I've codified some rules for how best to eat adventurously.
Some of them have been
borrowed lovingly stolen from writers Calvin Trillin, Jim Leff, and others, to whom I apologize for the theft. But I hope that by reading you'll feel more free to break away from food media's tyranny of listicles and so-called experts, myself included, and strike out on your own for the good stuff.
1: Try Everything Once, Twice if Need Be
An adventurous eater doesn't practice culinary contempt before investigation. I have no need to try home-style fermented squid guts ever again, but I'm still glad I did once. Like most other ika no shio kara, this dubious special at Sake Bar Hagi was slippery, slimy, and it stank to high heaven. I couldn't choke down more than three bites. But now I know.
Balut, the infamous Filipino fertilized duck egg, has a reputation for being one of the nastiest things around, but it was only by trying it that I learned its bad rep is undeserved. Yes, there is a teeny tiny gnarly-looking duck fetus in there, but it sits atop the richest, creamiest hard-boiled egg ever. Best of all, there's a tablespoon of amniotic duck soup to slurp down as a bonus. My favorite place to score the duck egg delicacy is the balut man who sets up outside of Krystal's in Woodside.
2: The Law of Culinary Equilibrium (i.e., Don't Be Discouraged)
There's inherent risk in trying new things, but it's best to believe in food karma. If you eat a bad taco, a substandard dosa, or a paltry pupusa, don't get feel disillusioned. Immediately—within two days at most—cancel out the offending foodstuff by eating a superb one. Just the other week, I had a soggy disappointment of a dosa in Jackson Heights. The very next day I was in the basement of the Ganesh Temple restoring order to my culinary universe by tucking into a crispy, buttery ghee roast.
3: Look to the Bakeries
Sure they sell bread, cakes, and cookies, but bakeries in ethnic enclaves often double as miniature restaurants. One such joint is Broadway Bakery in Jackson Heights, where two ladies from Lima, Marlene and Rocio, prepare Peruvian specialties like ceviche de pescado and chicharrone con camote, a breakfast sandwich of sweet potato and fatty pork. In Rego Park, Rokhat Kosher Bakery sells Uzbek bread, meat pies, and wonderful plov, a kind of rice pilaf.
4: Fear Not the Street Eats
Whether you're in Bangkok or on the bustling streets of Jackson Heights, hawker fare is ground zero for culinary explorers. Street food is often better than its restaurant counterparts because its practitioners are specialists whose bottom line is tied to doing just a few things very, very well. Just ask Tortas Neza, a Corona truck that makes some of the city's greatest carnitas. Or Baul Daada Jaal Muri Shop (a find I owe to fellow adventurer Jeff Orlick), where a distinguished Bangladeshi gent will shake up a batch of the spicy, crunchy puffed rice chaat known as jaal muri right before your very eyes.
5: Go Off Menu
The so-called 'secret menu' at Chinese restaurants is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Real secret menus these days aren't printed at all. The other the day the cook at Crazy Crab 888, a seafood boil and Burmese joint, whipped me up an off-menu Burmese classic: ohno khao suey, a spicy, hearty chicken soup enriched with coconut milk and curry leaves, and bobbing with fried tofu and fish cake. Just ask if the kitchen is making something special that day and sound excited to try anything (see the first commandment).
6. Always Try the Housemade Hot Sauce
A restaurant's hot sauce recipe is a delicious window into a kitchen's skill and the cuisine they practice. I'm a huge fan of the citrusy chili paste at Great N.Y. Noodletown for one. Closer to my home base, I like the little jars of cooked-down onions and chilies shot through with Sichuan peppercorn that grace the tables of Elmhurst's Himalaya Kitchen.
7: Be Selective at Dim Sum
I don't know if this has to do with my dim sum companions (frequently other white dudes), but often cart pushers converge on my table with an attitude of, "Hey look, I'll bet they'll eat anything we bring them." There's a lot of frantic "You try, you try."
Here's the deal with dim sum. Set the pace at the beginning of your meal and be selective. If you load up on shiu mai, har gau, and pork buns on your first go-round, you might be too full when the truly unique stuff comes out.
8: Try to Speak the Language
Learn to say please, thank you, and delicious in several languages , a small courtesy that goes a long way. While you're at it, you should probably know how to order spicy food as well. Check out Chopsticks & Marrow's audio guides to get schooled on just that.
9: Don't Take 'No' for an Answer
Thanks to legions of fellow food adventurers, most servers don't bat an eye when folks order the weird stuff. But if you're told "it's stinky and you won't like it," insist that you do. Ready to up your game? When it comes to delicious odiferocity, nothing beats the tsak sha chu rul (Tibetan beef and cheese soup) at Phayul. It smells like a bowl of warm Taleggio fondue.
10: Accept You'll Never Eat it All
You will never have the full compass of any Chinatown, or anywhere else for that matter, ever. Don't believe "definitive guides" to food neighborhoods from publications prestigious or suspect. I like to call this rule Vito's Law, named after my old man who taught me that Chinatown is always in a delicious state of flux.
More Food Wisdom from Joe DiStefano
About the author: Joe DiStefano is a Queens-based food writer and culinary tour guide, or as he likes to say, an enabler of gluttons. In between food tours and blogging at Chopsticks and Marrow, he is writing a book on the history of culinary culture along the 7 line.