This is the third installment in a new series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The most recent installment covered Thai classic Sripraphai.
The Little India that runs along 74th Street in Jackson Heights just north of the elevated 7 tracks got its start in the early 1970s, soon after appliance store Sam and Raj opened on the block of 74th between 37th Road and 37th Avenue. It was legendary for being a way to get Indian goods, propelling more Indian businesses to open nearby, and the block remains the neighborhood’s vibrant center to this day. By 1990, the district counted over 100 businesses, which came to include Pakistani and Bangladeshi ones, too. Now Himalayan restaurants, principally from Tibet and Nepal, have become another prominent feature.
This neighborhood is one of perhaps a half dozen concentrated South Asian shopping districts in the metropolitan area, also including Jersey City’s India Square along Newark Avenue, and lower Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, affectionately dubbed Curry Hill. These neighborhoods typically teem with sari shops, appliance stores, temples and mosques, paan sellers, book stores, and jewelers, as well as grocery stores, sweets shops, butchers, and restaurants, all targeting South Asian shoppers.
One early anchor of the burgeoning Jackson Heights scene was Jackson Diner. It opened in 1980 at 37-03 74th St. in a compact space, under the watchful eye of the father of current owner Manjit Singh. While the original debuted with a typical diner menu of eggs and burgers, by 1983 the food had become mainly Indian, calculated to appeal to vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Yet, the general feel of a diner remained, delighting its customers and making Jackson Diner seem distinct from other Indian restaurants.
Initially, the Indian bill of fare was limited to curries of lamb and chicken, northern vegetarian dishes, tandoori roasts, and snacks like pakoras and samosas, but soon such southern vegetarian recipes as dosas, idlis, and uttapams were incorporated. In fact, many New Yorkers tasted their first masala dosa at Jackson Diner, at a time when this dish made from an adventitiously fermented batter of raw lentils and rice was available almost nowhere. (A hotel restaurant near the U.N. called Madras Woodlands was the only other place I knew of.)
Jackson Diner became a big hit as the decade progressed, and by the 90s, it was considered a main destination for the burgeoning foodie scene, helped along by its convenient location proximate to an express stop on the E, F, R, and 7 trains. If there was one restaurant New Yorkers not from that borough knew about in Queens, it was probably Jackson Diner.
But as the new century dawned, the popularity of Jackson Diner was its undoing. It opened a Greenwich Village branch with a menu that omitted dosas, which failed. Meanwhile, the original moved into vastly more spacious digs on the same block of 74th Street, with a much higher seating capacity and an elegant room with banquettes running along walls decorated with fine art. Up above exposed ducts and colorful shapes hung from the ceiling, an abrupt contrast to the original setting. A lunch buffet was instituted, but much of the charm was gone.
Does the food remain as good as it once was? And was it ever that good? I pondered these questions as I made a couple of visits recently.
In the evening, the place remains something of a destination, and as 7 p.m. approaches, customers stream in from the subway. At that hour, I sat with three friends on a weekday evening. The menu was vastly longer than I remembered it, with some intriguing dishes, including an expanded tandoori section, some northern regional dishes not offered before, and a scattering of such Indo-Chinese fare as chile garlic fried rice, Hakka chicken, and “dry” gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian.
When I spotted hummus on the menu, rarely found in Indian restaurants, I was sold. Paired with a garlic naan, it makes a damn good shareable starter for $6. At the same price, other appetizing flatbreads came with dips, too, including a keema naan filled with ground meat and served with a cup of yogurt raita, and a cauliflower kulcha accompanied by the powerful pickle called achar. This is innovative menu writing, with pleasing results.
Another standout was called crispy okra ($8), featuring an oblong plateful of the shredded vegetable coated with chickpea flour and fried. Whether you like okra or not, you’re likely to like this. The northern Sikh holy city is credited with machi Amritsari, a generous platter of freshwater fish filets lightly coated with spice and fried golden brown. If the dish only came with french fries, it would be the world’s best fish and chips.
Our favorite main course was a maverick tandoori selection — Kashmiri kebab ($17), name-checking the mountainous border region between Pakistan and India currently under dispute. It consists of ziggurats of roasted chicken coated with saffron and egg, though the result is notably not yellow, but red. The chicken boasts a subtle, smoky flavor. Jackson Diner also presents lamb chops Lahori, citing the Pakistani capital of the Punjab.
Our second favorite main course also involved chicken. Chicken lajawab (meaning “priceless” in Urdu) dumps gobs of dark and tasty thigh meat into a ginger-driven gravy, further zapped with shards of raw ginger on top. Vegetarian entrees from the northern Indian canon are solid, but not quite as exciting as the meat and poultry curries. Sarso ka sag ($12), a bowl of mustard greens, was not as assertively spicy as we’d hoped. On the other hand, we thoroughly enjoyed the malai kofta, which are cheese-and-vegetable fritters deposited in a mild brown sauce that is worth sopping, either with rice or flatbreads.
Really, the only disappointment of the meal was the masala dosa ($10). While it was large enough, and the wrapper cooked to a deep brown, the potato filling was completely lacking. Darn! On the other hand, dosas at the original Jackson Diner probably weren’t much better. In those days we were willing to settle for inferior dosas and still love them, before the southern Indian immigrants came to town and demanded better dosas at places like Jersey City’s Sri Ganesh Dosa House and Flushing’s Temple Canteen.
Priced at $11.95, the buffet still draws the locals in at lunchtime. It consists of 20 or so dishes per day, of which two-thirds are vegetarian. The vegetable curries are usually top notch, and there are often two chicken entrees and one lamb or goat curry. Not everything, though, is as frequently replenished as it might be, and the chicken tandoori pieces are small and dry. Still, if you can find three or four things you really like by examining the steam table first, lunch at Jackson Diner is cheap for the massive amount of food you might consume.
The buffet down the street at Indian Taj, on the same block, is a dollar less at lunch, and the food a shade better. Clearly, the way to go is to visit Jackson Diner in the evening and order a la carte from the menu, sticking with the northern Indian fare and perhaps an Indo-Chinese dish or two.