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A Dosa’ Inspiration at Mumbai Xpress

My friend Mascarpone emailed me the other day and suggested we get together for a bite. She added: “I have a car, so if there is any out-of-the-way place you want to try…let me know.” I scanned my must-try lists and came across a place on the New York Magazine Queens top 20 cheap eats list that seemed far enough away that I would never make it without significant effort or a car. The location: Floral Park, Queens (way the hell out there, virtually on the border of Long Island’s Nassau County). The restaurant: a casual snack shop, specializing in vegetarian cuisine from Southern India, called Mumbai Xpress.

One of the best meals I ever had while I was reviewing restaurants for Chicago magazine (and one of the best period) was at a vegetarian Indian place in a generic strip mall in an unmemorable corner of the Chicago suburbs. The depth of flavor that the vast array of traditional spices coaxes out of simple vegetables and grains makes this the only vegetarian cuisine I’ve tried that I could subsist on for any length of time without ever craving meat.

We found a parking spot almost directly in front of the restaurant, the first of many signs that we were not really in New York City anymore. (Another sign came later when Mascarpone talked her way out of a parking ticket after her meter expired.) The interior layout, decor and lighting were reminiscent of a cafeteria, complete with a metal-edged glass counter dividing the kitchen from the dining room and the universal use of plasticware and paper plates. The menu was long and a little intimidating, considering our limited knowledge of the cuisine from this region and the names each dish goes by. So when our server came around, we simply asked for her advice. Mascarpone knew she wanted puri, the hollow, crispy puffs, which can come with chutneys or cracked open and stuffed with vegetables. We ended up getting dahi batata puri: puri filled with potatoes and a little chili powder and topped with yogurt, sev (crispy fried strips) and cilantro and doused with sweet and spicy chutneys. These fall under the Indian snack category called chaat, and they made tasty one-bite (albeit large) treats, complete with crispness, soft depth, richness and kick.

Our next course was Mumbai Xpress’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich. This had three layers of grilled bread, such as would a club sandwich. The first two were spread with cilantro chutney and lined with soft potato, while the space between the other two was occupied by the mild Indian cheese, paneer, and thin slices of raw green peppers and raw onions. Mascarpone is not a big fan of raw peppers or onions, so this dish was not a hit with her. I happily gobbled it up, but I’m not sure I would order it next time. It’s not that the sandwich was bad, just that I’m sure there are many more remarkable dishes on this lengthy menu.

Despite that wealth of options, our final dish was one that I would be hard-pressed to not order again on any subsequent visit. This was a beautiful rectangular dosa, browned and lightly crisped to a flaky consistency. This came studded with thin slices of hot pepper and stuffed with a delicately seasoned blend of soft potatoes and peas. In addition to yogurt and chutney, this came with a small bowl of spicy stew-like sauce, meant, we assumed, for dipping the pieces of dosa we tore off. The stew tasted spicy, savory and delicious, but we found it difficult to scoop up much of it with the very lightly absorbent dosa. Perhaps we should have gotten ourselves a spoon? Even without this somewhat perplexing condiment, this dish was incredibly satisfying. As we finished up, another table of Indian people were being delivered a huge dosa made from a lacy rolled up pancake of sorts. That might have to be on the list next time.

And, as long as I can get Mascarpone—or someone else with a yen for adventurous eating—to drive me out there, with Mumbai Xpress, there will definitely be a next time.

Mumbai Xpress
256-06 Hillside Ave.
Queens, NY 11004

Mumbai Xpress on Urbanspoon

Jackson Diner: Not Your Mama’s Diner

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 diner—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.

Jackson Diner
37-47 74th St.
Queens, NY 11372

Jackson Diner on Urbanspoon