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Where Do Immigrants Go For Authentic Food?

By Joshuan Brustein

A small Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant named Desh Priyo opened in Astoria, Queens about the time when Apurva Mehrotra moved into his brother's apartment.

One of the new restaurant’s signature dishes was biriyani, a rice dish that was also a family specialty, and the restaurant was located directly in between the brothers’ apartment and their subway stop. It didn’t take long for the two men to fall in love with their new neighbor.

“When I first moved into the apartment, I was definitely there 10 out of my first 15 days,” said Apurva. He and his brother continue to eat at Desh Priyo at least once a week, and often dine there as many as four days a week.

When Desh Priyo suddenly closed this spring, the brothers had a large problem. Just when things began to get serious, though, the restaurant re-opened. The time the restaurant was closed “seemed like an eternity, but I think it was only about two weeks,” said Apurva.

“If they would have been closed for more than a month, I probably could have seen myself going to Jackson Heights.”

The trip to Jackson Heights is a familiar one for many immigrants in New York. The streets surrounding the Roosevelt Avenue subway stop offer an astonishing variety of cuisines. A halal grocery squeezes itself between one restaurant offering el sabor de Mexico and another serving authentic Japanese sushi. Neon signs of chickens and pigs flash in the windows of Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, or just ‘Latin’ restaurants.

One man sells fresh sugar cane juice next to an Indian restaurant, proudly proclaiming its absolute vegetarian character. A few blocks away, another chops papayas and mangos to be served with salt and hot sauce to diners descending from the 7 train running overhead.

Jennifer Ugarte, a New Yorker of Peruvian descent who was raised on the Lower East Side, has recently found herself getting on that train often. She grew up disliking Peruvian food, even toting a backpack full of macaroni and cheese on family trips to Peru. But after years’ worth of summers in South America, Ugarte developed a taste for the food of the region. Now, she travels to Roosevelt Avenue about once a week, because “it’s a nice reminder of over there,” she said.

For some things, though, an even a longer trip is required. Fried hot dogs served on a platter with french fries, called salehiphapaf in Peru, are found easily in Lima. As far as Ugarte has been able to determine, the popular dish does not exist in New York.

“It seems like the simplest thing in the world, but I can’t seem to find it here, no variation of if, not even in the Peruvian restaurants,” she said. And “I can’t make it, it doesn’t come out right.”

Another one of Ugarte’s favorites, chocolate panetton, a type of cake, is also unavailable in New York. For these treats, Ugarte has to wait for her next visit to Peru. She plans to move there this fall, maybe for good. Preparing herself for a permanent relocation, Ugarte has already found a restaurant in Peru that serves macaroni and cheese.

Jackson Heights is also a popular place for those who want to taste the food of others. Moses Flores, who moved from Puebla, Mexico twelve years ago, spent several years in Queens before moving to Westchester. He still visits on the weekends – but not to eat Mexican food.

“There is good Mexican food near home," he said. He and his wife come to Queens to visit friends, shop, and to try many different kinds of food – Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian. "Queens has everything," he said.

But Amilda Dymi, an immigrant from Albania, would not agree. She hasn’t been able to find a good Albanian restaurant anywhere in New York since she moved here to study at Columbia University over five years ago. Dymi now lives in Norwood in the North Bronx. Many of her Albanian neighbors have opened restaurants, she said. But they are almost always Italian restaurants, which are easier to market to non-Albanians.

“Albanian food is a lot like Mediterranean food -- Italian food, Greek food,” she said, and one can usually find something similar to the traditional Albanian dishes on the menus at restaurants that serve such food. “I guess that’s why no one bothered [to open any Albanian restaurant]. I was surprised when I first got here.”

Dymi said that there are a few Albanian restaurants in the Bronx, and several others in Ridgewood, Queens. The Albanian-owned Italian restaurants also occasionally offer a few Albanian dishes. But serving Albanian food and serving good Albanian food are two different things. Dymi believes that staying at home is often the best option.

“I’m not saying that I’m a great cook, but it’s better than what they serve there,” she said.

Kevin Park and his wife, Young Lin, who recently moved to Manhattan from Korea, also get most of their native food from their own kitchen. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to travel around the city to eat Korean. The couple cooks Korean food daily, which means they need a lot of ingredients that aren’t necessarily being stocked at the local Gristedes.

On Saturdays, Park and Lin travel to Manhattan’s little Korea on 32nd Street. The district has everything they need -- they have never been to the larger version in Flushing.

This grocery trip has turned into a weekly date. “We go shopping on Saturday, and go out for lunch while we are there,” said Park. The focus of these Saturday trips is bean paste. While other Korean ingredients can be found in other stores (albeit in slightly modified varieties) good bean paste is impossible to find anywhere else. And it’s a staple of many Korean dishes.

“Western people don’t like it because of the smell,” said Park, speculating on why bean paste hasn’t become popular here. “We don’t like the smell either,” Lin adds. “Just the taste.”


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