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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 TourHere'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.
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.
Gifts and More
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
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.
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