Walk east, away from the trendy confines of Williamsburg, and you enter a no-man's land of industry. There's no reason to be here in Ridgewood, Queens, on a Saturday afternoon in January. But then we spot the shack amid a bus depot and scrap metal yard: Bun-ker Vietnamese, the most buzzed about Vietnamese food in New York.
Feeling out of place is a familiar state when exploring Queens. The forgotten middle-child of New York's five boroughs sprawls across geography and ethnicities and you can be led far from what you recognize, in taste and place.
But with a little effort, this vast terra incognita rewards the curious diner. From chefs obsessed with dry-aging steak to classy seafood bars in Astoria – not to mention that Vietnamese street food from an Eleven Madison Park alumnus – a tour through the neighbourhoods of this densely populated county offers up New York's most eclectic dining away from the crowds of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Bun-ker Vietnamese is tiny, with a tiki-bar vibe. We slip in just before the noon lineup begins. Tables are crowded with food, locals and adventurous eaters. What distinguishes Bun-ker from your neighbourhood pho shop is quality ingredients. Chef Jimmy Tu has combined the sensibilities and experience of haute Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan with the schooling he received trailing street vendors in Vietnam. Each bite is like a Russian doll of flavour: With grilled ribs, for example, you get the classic hit of thai basil, minty shiso and lemongrass. Any number of fresh seafood specials delight, and the standard coconut tapioca pudding is spiked with jackfruit and palm seeds for a sweet end.
Bun-ker Vietnamese: 46-63 Metropolitan Ave., bunkervietnamese.com, 718-386-4282
At the end of the 7 line is New York’s other Chinatown. Jets shear the buildings on approach to LaGuardia and the streets are tighter than Times Square. Often, North American Chinese is a bland whitewash of its varied regional cuisines. But here you can find spicy Sichuan at Lao Cheng Du (the sign says Prince Noodle House), Hunan at Hunan House or Xi’an at Biang!. The latter is reason enough to make the trip. Named for the sound the biang biang noodles make when being hand pulled and slapped, Biang! is a step up from the usual Chinatown spot, with a clean, long space, Edison bulbs and brisk but friendly service. Made in house by hand, those noodles are a chewy web unlike any other, slathered with chunks of spicy cumin-laced lamb. A starter of soft tofu dissolves in your mouth and a lotus root salad is a crisp hit of ginger. Go for the dumplings, too, which made Biang!’s name back when it was only a food truck. A meal with leftovers and beers lands under $40 (U.S.).
Lao Cheng Du: 37-17 Prince St., 718-886-5595.
Hunan House: 137-40 Northern Blvd., hunanhouseflushing.com, 718-353-1808.
Biang!: 41-10 Main St., biang-nyc.com, 718-888-7713
Long Island City, Part 1
A hop from Manhattan, this gentrifying ’hood attracts culinary entrepreneurs who see a future beyond Brooklyn and are attracted by the real estate opportunities. Dutch Kills hides behind a nondescript façade on a gritty stretch of industrial road. Part of the Milk and Honey cocktail empire that helped spark the cocktail renaissance in Manhattan and beyond, this bar offers the same Prohibition-era design and craft libations, but with Queens prices – such as the Don Lockwood (Bourbon, Islay Scotch, maple syrup and chocolate bitters) for $11. Grab a drink during happy hour when simple classics are $8 before heading to M. Wells Steakhouse.
Dutch Kills: 27-24 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, dutchkillsbar.com, 718-383-2724
Long Island City, Part 2
You’re liable to miss the unsigned spot. It still looks like the car garage it once was except for the glimpse of the dining room through a porthole window. If anyone has made LIC a destination of late, it’s Montreal chef Hugue Dufour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis. Between their nearby Dinette inside MoMA PS1 and the steakhouse, which opened to much anticipation last fall, they’re teaching New Yorkers to worship meat anew. At M. Wells, the couple has reinterpreted the worn steakhouse concept by adding spectacle and upping the gluttony. If you sit at the chef’s counter, be prepared to watch a blue trout get fished out of the tank, bludgeoned and gutted mere feet from you. The pork-chop tower teeters, the excessive caviar sandwich turns your blood briny (a delight, if that’s your thing) and the French onion soup is amped up with a hunk of bone marrow. Of course you can also order steak, Flintstone-sized and wallet busting, but much of the creative fun is elsewhere on the menu. Plopped in the middle of the dining room, the dessert cart draws glances like a debutante. Get the hazelnut Paris-Brest.
M. Wells Dinette at MoMA PSA: 22-25 Jackson Ave., magasinwells.com, 718-786-1800
M. Wells Steakhouse: 43-15 Crescent St., magasinwells.com, 718-786-9060
Head north from Long Island City and you hit Astoria. At end of the N/Q line you find an age-old Greek neighbourhood and MP Taverna is the best bet for creative Mediterranean flavours. Farther south are some hidden spots where Brooklyn expats congregate. The Strand Smokehouse is beer hall meets BBQ joint. It’s huge and loud with live music and craft booze that washes down generous portions of meat. Mars, an unpretentious neighbourhood joint, marries oysters, cocktails and bistro fare. Cider fans should head to the Queens Kickshaw, which has one of the best cider lists in the city – and some killer grilled-cheese sandwiches. When we’re seated at the Kickshaw’s bar and get our pints and a band jams the blues, we feel the simple pleasure of arrival that only occurs after journeying into unfamiliar realms – and Queens, in the best sense, is many worlds away.
MP Taverna: 31-29 Ditmars Blvd., michaelpsilakis.com/mp-taverna, 718-777-2187
The Strand Smokehouse: 25-27 Broadway, thestrandsmokehouse.com, 718-440-3231
Mars: 34-21 34th Ave., lifeatmars.com, 718-685-2480
The Queens Kickshaw: 40-17 Broadway, thequeenskickshaw.com, 718-777-0913
In Woodside, not far from the western edge of Queens, you’ll find myriad options for Thai food that does not bow to the North American palate. You cannot go wrong at SriPraPhai, which deftly balances the spicy, sweet and acidic high-wire act of authentic cooking, or Ayada Thai. The latter, with lime green walls, gold statuary and subtitled Mexican soap operas, offers a panang curry that infuses the room with fragrant kaffir lime.
We pick chunks off a fried red snapper and dip them in the sweet sauce. The larb beef salad bites with hot chiles and soothes with basil and mint. If the spice won’t relent, a thai iced tea will douse the fire.
SriPraPhai: 64-13 39th Ave., sripraphairestaurant.com, 718-899-9599
Ayada Thai: 78-03 Woodside Ave. (& 78th St.), ayadathaiwoodside.com, 718-424-0844