Nathan Thornburgh

Nathan Thornburgh describes Queens as the entire world in one borough: the place where New York’s richest and most honest food cultures converge. After years of commuting between his home in Manhattan and Queens to eat and explore, the publisher of Primetime Emmy and James Beard Award-winning media platform, Roads & Kingdoms (which he co-founded with food writer Matt Goulding and was backed by Anthony Bourdain) caved in and moved to the laidback neighbourhood of Astoria in 2020. These are the places in Thornburgh’s regular rotation that best capture the energy and flavours of Queens.
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“Queens is the Immigrant Engine That Fuels the New York that People Think They Know”

I’ve been obsessed with coming to Queens to eat for a very long time. There’s no single dish that’s synonymous with this borough. It’s more the freedom of not being roped into one particular thing. We finally decided to put a ring on it last year. For people who don’t know much about it, I would say Queens is the immigrant engine that fuels the New York that people think they know. It’s not a new phenomenon. There are layers upon layers of geological time that mark the comings of different ethnic groups that have built New York. Eating your way through this borough is like a lesson in gastronomy, history, sociology and economics, all in one. That’s what kind of always drew me here even before I moved in. This is a table that I’m constantly banging on with my friends in Manhattan for whom going north of 14th Street sometimes feels like a trip to oblivion. Even though Astoria is just across the East River from Manhattan, convincing people that it’s on the map or worth visiting is challenging sometimes. But it’s a remarkable eating neighbourhood. I mean, all the shit that people pride themselves on, as far as food in New York is concerned, minus the super high end and Michelin-starred, it’s all here authentically. One other thing about Queens that really drew us to live here is that it’s a place where the people who work there live there. They run their restaurants in the same neighbourhoods where they actually live. It’s true of the people who work in the kitchen or washing dishes and it’s true of the people who own these places. It’s unusual in this world, and particularly in New York. It’s very different in Manhattan, where you get the sense that the population of service workers stream in every morning to serve Manhattanites and attend to their whims, and then leave in the early mornings and late nights. For me, it feels good to be in a neighbourhood that is really connected to the people who live there and work there.

Old-School Italian Deli Sandwiches

When I was on the road, the thing that I was really craving was a sandwich from Sal, Kris and Charlie’s Deli, which is a super old-school Italian sandwich shop in Ditmars, in the northern part of Astoria. That’s one thing that I feel like I can’t get in a lot of places. You just can’t find a really great sandwich everywhere in the world. It’s one of those really small, really busy places where you immediately feel like you’re in the way because everybody else seems to be on their 10,000th sandwich order and they know exactly what they’re getting while you’re just staring at the board trying to figure out what your stomach is telling you. But I like that sort of chaos of not really knowing, not being in your element, and ending up with this ridiculously good, inexpensive sandwich.

Filipino Donuts That Sell Out in a Flash

Most of the things that I’m excited about in Queens have been here forever. But one of the new great things is that there always seems to be really interesting boutique pop-ups. Some of them get over-hyped on Instagram, but one that I love is a Filipino pastry outfit called Kora. It makes these really bombastic doughnuts and originally started out of a kind of Little Manila that we have here in Woodside. It then did a pop-up kitchen that it sells them from on a weekly basis and they’re really amazing. It uses a lot of Filipino ingredients, so you’ll have these fried, brioche balls stuffed with ube or salted egg. It’s one of those things that have that kind of Queens’ immigrant richness to it, but also a little bit of that New York hypebeast thing because you have to order like a week in advance. They sell out super quickly and they tell you to come to Long Island City within a 30 minute window or you lose your doughnuts. They’re confident enough to set their own terms for how they run the business, which I also kind of love. Every Monday at 3pm, you get ready for your donut stuffed with flan cream and it’s pretty amazing. They do these sweet potato pastries with roasted sesame custard and they’re just a really rad interpretation of a New York obsession, but through a Filipino lens.

Goat Roti and Caribbean Drinks Near The Airport

Little known fact: there are phenomenal places to eat around JFK [International Airport]. We just went back to a place that I have been going to for years out in Ozone Park. Queens is such a massive borough that it’s about an hour away from where we live. It’s called Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar and it’s in this kind of Indian/Trinidadian micro district with Caribbean and South Asian bars, shops, restaurants and people. Singh’s has everything you would want from a really great Trinidadian/Indian spot, particularly the stewed goat. Goat for me is the mascot of eating in Queens because there are so many different cultures from Nepali to Jamaican that are just really good at cooking goat delicacies. Being able to go to a place where I can get really kick-ass goat rotis is very special to me. It has a whole set of homemade soft drinks that they make from roselle hibiscus. They also make sea moss which is kind of an algae drink that’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac. So, all the thick drinks you’d want from your Caribbean spot.

Merguez and French-Moroccan Specialties

A lot of the local spots that we have were hanging by a thread in the pandemic, so you always go back to check in with them with a little bit of trepidation. There are a couple of places that are really in our routine, one of which is called Merguez & Frites. Hamid, the guy who runs it, is the sweetest dude ever, who’s always on the phone with his Bluetooth earpiece, speaking in Arabic, French and English all at the same time. He’s about that life and makes way better food than he has to, I think. It’s not just merguez and fries. There’s poached salmon, soufflés and classic French dishes, along with Moroccan street food like chickpea karantika [pie], and all out of a very humble storefront near the Grand Central Parkway. He’s become a kind of weekly stop for us because his food is just really fucking good. For me, that’s peak. It’s how I would like to eat now and forever. I’m not sure how many people outside the neighbourhood know about his spot. I mean, he’s not on any eat-out lists in New York so you feel like it’s your own little secret, but I don’t want it to be too much of a secret because I want Hamid to operate happily for decades to come. He’s worth that pilgrimage.

High-End Ramen in an Unexpected Space

I don’t eat a lot of high-end food when I’m home and I don’t do any of that in Queens. Maybe it’s part of my detox from the kind of traveling that I do. But there are plenty of what I could call “elevated versions” of things in Queens. Like there’s a really lovely ramen shop called Shuya that will do very special Japanese things that feel like they’ve been transplanted from the hipster Japanese neighbourhood in the East Village to a pretty ragged block on Broadway and 43rd in Astoria. It makes a really delicious, high-end bowl of ramen, which I know sounds strange, but that’s what “high-end” looks like in Queens. They are also woodworkers and are somehow connected to a design group, so they have this gorgeous little shop, which is like a wooden jewel box and also wholly unexpected.

Take-Out Saviours

Pye Boat Noodle is one of those takeout places that was important for us during the lockdown. As the lockdown ended, we got to see that it was actually a place with a really nice vibe and a terrace in the back where you could enjoy a cold beer. It feels like a bit of Bangkok, and just really well done. It’s basically a Thai spot that does great versions of the classic things Americans demand of their Thai restaurants, like pad see ew, pad Thai and maybe a green papaya salad, but it also has a lot of specialties from the Bangkok region. Just being able to get that food that close is great. There’s also a small Desi spot, which goes by both Desi BBQ Halal and “New York Pulao Kabab”. It’s really for cab drivers more than anything, who are clearly the most discerning clientele because the food is really delicious and has been consistent since we’ve started going there. It makes the best barbecued chicken that you’ll ever have in your life. You’re not really allowed to cook with coal or wood indoors in New York, but this guy does something that I think is pretty special to give a sense of that char to the barbecue which he told me about the other day. He takes some pieces of the marinated meat – I don’t know in what ratio –and throws it right on the fire and just starts grilling on top of that, because a gas flame just doesn’t give you that sense of char. That’s all you really want from a roadside Pakistani barbecue chicken place, and it’s super cheap.

Beer Hall and Mezcal Cocktails

Astoria is a hard drinking neighbourhood. We are home to one of the most famous beer halls in New York, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden. It’s a good Czech spot which has a massive outdoor space. There are really great cocktails in Astoria. I like this new place called Ruta Oaxaca which is a Mexican spot that does a nice job with everything it does. Big mezcal list, excellent cocktails: I’m into that.

Drinking in the Balkan ‘Hood

One of the things that I’ve been really digging is the Greek and Balkan DNA in this neighbourhood. There’s a huge Greek population, including a lot of Greek Cypriots and people from the former Constantinople, a ton of Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs, Kosovars, Croats, Bosnians: you name it. One thing that they all have in common are these really strong, clear liquors. A lot of these countries will call it raki or haraki, but it doesn’t have any anise in it. It’s distilled grape alcohol that you mostly drink straight. It’s intense but tends to help you digest. You can even have it in the morning, depending on how your flow is. A lot of my favourite drinking can be at some of those places. There’s a really nice Greek spot on the corner of Astoria Park called Agnanti. It’s kind of a taverna where I go to sip on some tsipouro and feel like I’m in some other country. It’s got nice food and house wine, but it’s the deep enthusiasm of the waitstaff that gets you there. They’re part of this “Constantinople” crowd, so they have a lot of dishes that feel very Turkish-inspired. Astoria Park is a gorgeous little park right on the East River, so anytime you can be across the corner from the park, enjoying your hard alcohol, a thimbleful at a time, I think is a good time.

Coffee and Culture in Queens

My coffee spot is a place called Napoli’s. It’s close to the house and makes a really good espresso. It has an Italian name, but it’s run by Serbians. I wouldn’t go there looking to make a friend, that’s not what the service is like. I’m a little bit of a masochist. I like to go to places where they’ll kind of ignore me, and wait on me with dead eyes. It’s absolutely true with this place and I kind of enjoy it. I mean, after months and months of going there I maybe get the slightest nod of recognition, so I don’t want to over-state it. It’s possible that they do know who I am and that they don’t hate me, but I can’t be sure. A very different coffee experience is at Alkhayam Hookah in Little Egypt, which is a couple of blocks down from the big mosque we have in the neighbourhood. Grab some baklava from Al-Shams Sweets & Pastries and then head to Alkhayam for some looking out on the sidewalk sipping coffee and watching people go by. That’s my kind of sit and hang out coffee experience. It’s a hookah bar obviously, which is a big thing in our ‘hood and did not dim at all during the pandemic. I found it hilarious, this deep dedication to the culture that even as everybody was in full lockdown, the only change I could see these guys make was to start using disposable single-user mouthpieces, otherwise everybody was still popping their mask off and smoking on the sidewalk. Then there’s a little family-run Colombian spot called 3coffee on Steinway, which makes really nice little pastries and super nice quality coffee.

Where To Buy The Freshest Fruit and Vegetables

The produce markets here are so good. There’s a corner shop called United Brothers Fruit Markets, which is a gorgeous fruit and vegetables market with curb appeal. These guys truck in daily from Long Island with really fresh and really good stuff and have a display that’s out of this world. They allow it to just spill out on the sidewalk and that’s how a fruit market should be. In a lot of places in the US, you find the freshest groceries from a place like Whole Foods, which is the least inviting storefront. It’s something that you can take for granted in Europe, North Africa and Mediterranean countries where the produce lives on the street much better. That’s not an American thing though. These guys really do it and that’s where I do my shopping. I went there yesterday and bought a bunch of portobello mushrooms and leeks and came back home and made handmade ravioli like I was an Italian grandmother.

“The Absolute United Nations of Groceries”

Euro Market is a grocery store that’s the absolute United Nations of groceries. When they say “Euro”, they take a wide fucking lens on what Europe is. They’ve got Middle Eastern staples, all the way through to German cookies, Balkan lagers you never knew existed but somehow need to try, and a bunch of really great cheeses and meats from Greece and the Balkans. Shopping there is a total revelation, so I’m a huge fan. The United States went from having an ethnic or international food aisle, to a Hispanic or Asian food aisle. Food Bazaar is another incredible shopping spot that gets so damn specific about where its foods and snacks come from. It’ll have a northern Ecuadorian food aisle, or like a Jeju Korean food aisle, and every kind of curry from Thai to Japanese to Indian, put in their proper spot. It’s a chain, not a one-off like Euro Market, but they do such a good job of representing Queens as a place to shop.

Pizza in Queens (Because This Is New York At The End of The Day)

I don’t want to get in any sort of neighbourhood on neighbourhood pizza wars, but we’ve got great pizza options. There are a couple of different versions. Milkflower is a place that we really love. It does really nice pizza with high quality ingredients and is a little more creative with the menu. I’m a big fan of it and it’s the one that I might recommend the most. Another one is Nonnas 1977. I don’t know what the “1977” is about, but something good must have happened back then because they do really solid whole pizzas, sell by the slice, and also have a very well-tended little sidewalk dining setup. I don’t want to bag on them but a lot of these places are in somewhat disastrous locations, which is so common in Queens. We have a massive highway that runs right through the middle of our neighbourhood and creates a lot of weird half plazas and sketchy on-ramps, but people don’t even give a fuck. They will open up a delicious restaurant, right across from the on-ramp, you know? The car culture here is a lot stronger too, so there’s a lot of cruising and maybe dropping your muffler to make your car extra loud. It’s a different cultural vibe for sure, but people take no notice, which I appreciate about this place. For true by-the-slice it’s got to be Bellucci. It makes a really intense, greasy, fantastic, kind of classic New York slice.

Puerto Rican Food The Whole Country Seeks Out

It would not be New York if I didn’t put in a Puerto Rican shout out. There’s a place near here that is not just a beacon for Queens, but around the country, particularly during lockdown. Puerto Ricans have been ordering from this place that’s right around the corner from here and it’s called The Freakin Rican. It’s the trademark name of the chef, Derek Lopez, which is kind of cheesy, but the guy is super legit. He’s not an unknown thing – he’s got a footprint for sure. I actually first heard about him from my cousin’s husband who’s from Puerto Rico but lives in Miami and has been ordering from them ever since the pandemic started because he couldn’t get back home to Puerto Rico and needed to make his own Puerto Rican at home. It does staples like sofrito and sazón and will ship everything, even their pasteles. We live close to some Latin neighbourhoods, like Corona which is kind of a Puebla (Mexico) neighbourhood with a bit of Colombian and Salvadorian. But even in Astoria there are these little, family-run joints. There’s a Colombian grilled chicken spot on the corner down the street called Pollos a La Brasa Mario. They were trying to adapt, as everybody was, so they built a giant outdoor seating space, but it’s just a great spot for super proper, Colombian-style, grilled chicken. Nothing nouvelle about it.

Leaving The Neighbourhood For a Minute

The pandemic has been a lot more about restaurants that have closed than restaurants that have opened. But leaving Queens for a minute, there have been some strong newcomers. I’m really psyched about Matt Le-Khac’s new Vietnamese spot in Williamsburg called Bolero. It’s just a really lovely vibe, focusing on the mestizo aspects of post-colonial cuisine and culture in Vietnam with a fistful of great produce from Matt’s family farm in Pennsylvania. I’m also into the new place from Ignacio Mattos, the Uruguayan chef behind Estela. It’s a restaurant/bar/cafe/bakery with an Italian aperitivo vibe with gorgeous pastries, coffee and just care in all of it. It’s called Lodi and is in Rockefeller Center, where I spent a lot of time while I was working there. Everybody loves to hate Midtown but I have a lot of emotional attachment to it and I’m really glad that Mattos brought something special to Rockefeller Center, which has often been a bit of a culinary wasteland. Even after a hard couple years, there are some welcome signs of new life.

Where Else To Eat in Queens

The biggest problem with eating in Queens is that feeling that you might be missing out on some hidden gem just around the corner. Laura Siciliano-Rosen is the solution: she has a 6700-member Facebook group called Eat Something New in Queens that is a searchable, superdeep local guide to pupusas, momos, fufu and whatever other revelations might be lurking just out of view.

Photography Credit: Cengiz Yar

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