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Little India in Jackson Heights: A Quick Tour of a South Asian Neighborhood

By John Roleke

Exit the Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Jackson Heights, dash across the street underneath the overhead train, and at first glance the area is like any polyglot immigrant crossroads in the great borough of Queens. The intersection is a hodgepodge of ethnic restaurants, cell phone outlets, and kiosks advertising money-grams to Colombia. There's a Korean stationery store and a cluster of Catholic schoolboys. But choose 74th Street and start walking north.

The first sign of something different is a "sweets shop" whose window displays row upon row of neatly stacked balls and rectangles in pastel pinks, pistachio greens, caramel browns, and coconut whites. In a few more steps it becomes clear: chaos solidifies into a bustling Little India neighborhood where more South Asian immigrants—Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi—live than anywhere else in New York City.

Seventy-Fourth Street from Roosevelt to 37th Avenue and the surrounding blocks are the neighborhood's commercial heart, a place to see the latest Bollywood films, shop for saris, people-watch, and savor the curries and Nan bread.

Tiny Tour

Here's a tiny tour of the wonders to be found in a few short blocks. A little knowledge plus a lot of curiosity will provide you with a fine afternoon.

Bollywood Films
Start out right by seeing the Bollywood feature film at the Palace Theater (73-7 37th Road). Formerly a blue venue, the shabby exterior hides a delightful local theater devoted to Bollywood films. Truly the big screen is the best place to see the whirling all-singing, all-dancing, over-the-top drama of the Hindi movie masalas.

If the shows aren't running, step right next door to the little Bollywood retail shop Melody Stop (73-9 37th Road), where the hits continue on video, DVD, and CD. Don't let the crowded, too narrow shop deter you from a visit. The melodies are sweet and the prices sweeter. Expect to pay five dollars for truly marvelous features like Lagaan (a colonial piece), Kaante (Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects gone Bollywood), or the 1970s masterpiece Sholay (Bollywood's greatest Western, or at least curry Western). The sales staff is friendly, and will recommend titles of note to novices.

Music, too
For a more leisurely browse, round the corner onto 74th Street and head up the block to Raaga Super Store with its wider selection and much wider aisles (37-26 74th St.). Look for its selection of bhangra, the electro-Indian pop music of the moment that has sucked a hip-hop sound into Punjabi folk music. On your way to the shop you'll have already heard the latest tunes pounding the concrete from cars inching their way up 74th Street.

Gifts and More
Backtrack a few storefronts to Butala Emporium (37-46 74th St.), a perfect place to find an Indian gift. Yes, Ganesh, Durga, Shiva, and other deities are there in print and statue form, along with incense, clothes, stamps, and religious charms at decent prices. In the corner there's a well-stocked news rack with South Asian weeklies and monthlies and other printed matter—even comic book renditions of the Hindu epics alongside soap opera magazines. Further back the walls are stocked with English texts on the study of the South Asian subcontinent.

Downstairs find furniture, intricately carved wooden furniture at good prices. There are also Indian instruments of top quality, like the tabla drum, dholak, sitar, and harmonium. Butala is a place where you can spend a quarter or a thousand dollars, and leave with a treasure.

Stroll down 74th Street and other shops beckon. Some brilliantly. Almost every other storefront is a jewelry shop where 22 karat gold predominates. Unlike the 14k, this rich gold is a heavy, deep color that makes up for its lack of shine with its beautiful dense sheen and malleability, which allows for more intricate, fantastic designs. Sona Chandi is typical of the small shops (37-14 74th St.).

If you do buy jewelry, you must get all spiffed up. There are several beauty salons that feature traditional henna tattooing—mehndi—and hair removal by—hopefully painless—threading, not the brutal wax and strip. Gulzar Beauty Salon is recommended (74-01B Roosevelt Ave).

Can you pull off wearing a sari to go with that gold and henna? It takes impeccable posture. At least window shop for saris at regal clothing stores like Neena Sari Palace (37-23 74th St.).

Food, Delicious Food
Your tour of the neighborhood should climax with a meal. I recommend the Jackson Diner (37-47 74th St.), which has become a New York institution over the past ten years. The Diner gained its incongruous name from its former location in what had been the neighborhood's greasy spoon. Its current spacious digs have luckily not dampened the quality of the food. The restaurant serves typical northern Indian dishes—curries and tandooris—that are filling yet relatively light, not floating in a sea of ghee. Scan the menu carefully. There are a few uncommon delights tucked away. The mustard greens. Oh, the mustard greens. They're pungent and flavorful, and make me stand up at attention and then applaud. The Jackson Diner only accepts cash, so come prepared.

For strict vegetarians and vegans there are a couple other options in the neighborhood. Try Dimple Vegetarian Restaurant (35-68 73rd St.). It advertises itself as "truly vegetarian." The dosas are delish.

Or you could skip the meal, and go straight to dessert at one of the strip's numerous sweet shops. Indian sweets look odd, but turn away at your loss! They are always made with a base of butter and sugar, and may include milk, flour, nuts, or paneer (cottage cheese). Try Maharaja Sweets and Snacks (75-10 37th Ave.), and pick up what looks best.

Before leaving, don't forget to visit Patel Brothers's market (37-07 74th St. ) for garam masala, a blend of Indian spices. This concoction is a true curry powder, not to be confused with the dull dust sold at supermarkets. It'll knock the socks off your eggplant, the skin from your knees, the dull from your chickpeas.

Jackson Height's Little India is easily accessible by subway (N, R, G, E, F, 7) to the Roosevelt Avenue station. A car isn't the best means to breach the crowded streets of Jackson Heights. If you insist on driving, the BQE and Northern Blvd are the nearest routes. Avoid driving on Roosevelt at all costs, and good luck with parking. Enjoy.

John Roleke writes about Queens at Check his Queens, New York blog for the latest events and more neighborhood tours.

Copyright 2005, John Roleke, All rights reserved.

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