Saturday, January 07, 2006

Border Crossings New York City Entry #53

This past week found me in three Asian restaurants that together reflect the glory of global New York. Perhaps none of the three deserve a lengthy tribute, but in combination reflect the joys of metropolitan life. We are blessed by the repeal of the harsh Coolidge-era Immigration Act of 1924, an outgrowth of the Palmer Raids and the fears of anarchy. Raise a toast to the 1965 Immigration Act: Lyndon Johnson's gift to gourmets (his responsibility for the waves of Vietnamese and Dominican refugees might be noted, but with more painful ambivalence). World cities are world kitchens. Immigrants first begin ethnic diners for their fellow nationals. In time these efforts merge seamlessly into cuisine of An American Place.

One of the first notable Indian restaurants serving the South Asian outpost in northern Queens was the Jackson Diner, beloved as a quirky diner. The restaurant has moved down the street, expanded, and now is elegant, contemporary (designed in shades of avocado, maize, and brick), if still modest, in the exuberant beating heart of Jackson Heights.

Before selecting some ingredients at Patel Brothers Supermarket, I stopped by. The luncheon buffet was spacious and generous. A dozen entrees were displayed by the front window. With their lively luncheon business, nothing sat around long, the curse of buffet culture. The Jackson buffet doesn't deserve a standing ovation, but at $9.95, it does what it needs to do. I particularly enjoyed the juicy Tandoori Chicken and the sweet, creamy Kheer (Indian rice pudding with raisins). Also available were Goat Curry, Shrimp and Egg in Curry, Palak Paneer (Creamed Spinach), Rice Basmati, Chicken Makhani, Lamb Korma, and Naan. For a quick, well-priced taste of India in a pleasant and airy room, the Jackson diner remains a part of New York lore. Perhaps in time we will speak of the Jackson Diner in terms reserved for Peter Luger: old New York, run by old New Yorkers.

What cuisine better matches a Broadway puppetry musical (Avenue Q) than Indonesian, a culture with its own distinguished tradition of shadow puppetry. There, in the heart of Hell's Kitchen - once the home of corned beef, boiled potatoes, and beer - sits Bali Nusa Indah, one of several Indonesian restaurants that bring a taste of Java to Midtown. I ordered Nasi Rames ($13.95), a mini-Rijsttafel (or at least a tasting). The dishes include jasmine rice, spicy hot shrimps and string beans, beef in coconut and chili sauce, chicken curry, beef satay with peanut sauce, mixed salad with peanuts, and dried anchovies with peanuts (very nice, if an acquired taste). In years past, I have shared some glorious Rijsttafels and this was not that, but it was a very satisfying post-theater treat. It is good to know that Bali Nusa Indah thrives, ready for the bereft crowds once McHale's - the go-to H-K bar for hamburgers of excess and tap beer - closes and the choice becomes Big Mac or Nasi Goreng.

Despite sharing a considerable border Burmese and Thai food are not similar. The spice-wary diner whose friends insist on South Asian food should opt for Cafe Mingala, one of a few Burmese restaurants in town (they don't refer to themselves as providing Myanmar cuisine, and who am I to argue). We ordered Basil Duck with Vegetables, Rangoon Night Market Noodles (Egg Noodles with Boiled Duck in a too-sweet Garlic Sauce), and the highlight Keema, which is rather like a Sloppy Joe in Mille-Feuille Pastry: Anglo-Rangoon on the Seine. Although the ground beef and potato mix was curried, it was a curry that any Brit could love. I fantasize that Thai gourmets whisper that their neighbors are wimps, but the dish was a pleasant surprise: a Boeuf Wellington for everyman. I suspect that recipes were surgically nipped and tucked for their Upper East Side clientele, but better an enhanced Burmese cuisine than no Burmese cuisine at all.

Traveling the corners of New York City, smelling the aromas, tasting the flavors, a culinaire can not but be roused by the politics of cuisine. Living in New York is to know in one's gut that closing our borders too tight and too fast is to cut off our tongue to spite that global gut.

Bali Nusa Indah
651 Ninth Avenue (at 45th Street)
Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen)

Cafe Mingala
1393B Second Avenue (at 73rd Street)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

Jackson Diner
37-47 74th Street (at 37th Avenue)
Queens (Jackson Heights)

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