When I think of a diner, I think of the shining silver beacons shaped like Airstream trailers that serve up encyclopedic menus of so-so food, (including the requisite Greek specialties) 24 hours a day from the roadsides of New England and the Mid Atlantic region. Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens is a lot of things, but it is definitely not a dinerâ€”unless, of course, your diner serves dal, samosas and tikka masala. Empanada Boy and I decided to go out to Queens to have dinner with our friend Vladimir Pudding last Saturday night. He’s staying temporarily in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood we had passed through on our way to La Guardia Airport, but never really visited. Pudding informed us that Indian food was the neighborhood’s claim to fame, so I did a little research and happened upon Jackson Diner. It’s a favorite of food pilgrims, and we had to see what made it worth the trek. If nothing else, I was sure it had to be better than the generic options in Little India on East 6th street in Manhattan.
The restaurant is a big, duskily lit, rust-colored, open room with all the charm of a high school cafeteria. We started off the meal with three tall Taj Mahal beers and then got down to the business of ordering. Most of the menu is devoted to Northern Indian dishes, but there was a little paper tab attached to the inside with a few South Indian options. We decided to try one of them, the pani poori, for an appetizer. These were little hollow balls of light flaky dough filled with cumin-seasoned chickpeas and other spices. The sauce that came with them was unremarkable, but I loved the bright heat of the mint chutney, the sweetness of the tamarind and jolt of the pickled onions, that had been delivered with crispy pappadums at the beginning of the meal. The addition of mint chutney to the poori provided a welcome accent.
Having whet our appetites with these morsels, we were ready for the main courses. We ordered bhaigan bharta (stewed eggplant), saag paneer (stewed spinach studded with blocks of soft cheese) and goat curry. When we told our server that we wanted them spicy, he asked: “Indian spicy?” Intrigued at this possibility, we decided to order the two vegetarian dishes at the American spicy level and the goat curry at Indian spicy. I made the mistake of tasting the goat curry first. It was delicious, with the extra blast of heat nicely cutting the smooth richness of the sauce and the meat, but my mouth was already too much aflame to taste the real difference between the two levels of spicy.
Even amidst the heat, I was still able to enjoy the superior flavors and nuanced spicing of the eggplant and the relative freshness and vibrancy that the spinach in the saag maintained. The cheese in the saag was also delightfully firm and tasted as though it had just been made. Plain naan and garlic naan made excellent scoops for stuffing ourselves silly with both of these dishes. But my favorite dish still has to be that goat curry. The Indian spicing really took the dish to a level I don’t think it could have achieved otherwise. It’s almost as though we Americans have been missing out on the real deal this entire time. Providing, of course, that those servers weren’t still holding back on the heat for a trio of gringos.
37-47 74th St.
Queens, NY 11372