I was reminded of the distinctiveness of Bangladeshi food recently when I stepped into Hello! Bangladesh, a new restaurant in Long Island City at 30-05 36th Avenue, just west of the N and W elevated tracks. Over two dozen stunning dishes are laid out on a steam table in gleaming metal receptacles; it blew me away with how it offered some highlights of the nation’s cuisine plotted out like the periodic table of elements.
The owner of the restaurant is Tozammel Tanzil, who, with his mother Shahara Khan, has operated other Bangladeshi restaurants in Queens, including Boishakhi, just down the street. A striking green and orange sign spans the entire width of the storefront. Just inside the door, shelves are filled with hot snacks like samosas, keema kebabs, and fried chicken, with the two banks of steam tables to the left implanted on a handsome mosaic tile base. Eight tables and booths are upholstered in a deep shade of orange, and wainscoting reaches up the walls.
As I enter with two pals one Saturday afternoon, sun streams in the south-facing picture windows. The place is busy, with a pair of employees working the steam table, assembling combinations of food on square ceramic platters branded with the restaurant’s name, as Tanzil himself steps forward to greet us.
The four of us engage in lively discussion on the merits of mustard oil — a constant in Bangladeshi cooking — bright yellow, pungent, and producing a mild burning sensation quite different from chiles, black peppercorns, grains of paradise, or Sichuan peppercorns. The only other international culinary use I can think of is in mostardas, spicy fruit relishes of sorts from Cremona, Italy.
Here it is most prevalent in those dishes known as bhortas ($3 each) — coarse-textured vegetable purees made to be nibbled between bites of main dishes. Usually three or four are available, perched on small plates above the steam table and served at room temperature. Today, the selection runs to eggplant, broad beans, yellow split peas, and potatoes. We order all four.
While it is possible to load up your plate from the steam table for $15 or so, selecting small servings of several dishes (some, like freshwater fish, entail an extra charge), individual dishes can also be ordered with accompaniments of plain white rice, pullao, egg-dotted chicken biryani, and tehari. The latter is a Bangladeshi composed rice dish made with kalijeera rice — short-grained and nutty flavored — which is tossed with beef and flavored with turmeric and mustard oil. It looks like biryani, only less elaborate.
A dish that pleased a Bangladeshi friend was the beef kala bhuna ($12), served with a massive plate of pulao rice. “Kala means black,” my friend tells me, describing how dark this concentrated braise of beef chunks has become. The meat is almost unbelievably tender and the masala, ginger, and garlic have been fully absorbed into the dark chunks. Another favorite of mine is the chicken roast ($10); an intact leg and thigh smothered with masses of caramelized onions, which render the bird tender and sweet.
There are a few dishes you might also find on a Pakistani menu – Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan until independence in 1971. Paya ($7.50) is a goat soup, with a bite of meat on the bones here and there, and lots of tendon in a flavorful oily broth. For lovers of collagen, it’s just the thing. Halim is almost the national dish of Pakistan, a puree of lentils and meat; here the dish is more like a chunky soup, a perfect choice on a cold winter’s day.
Fish constitutes an important part of the menu, and indeed Bangladesh is a country of freshwater marshes and over 800 rivers. One day, we had rohu ($12) — a large silver fish immersed with snake squash in a delightfully light broth; another visit, we had hilsa, a smaller fish in the herring family that is fried. Always examine the steam table for a fish or two of the day; it is often written on a hand-lettered sign in the window.
Whether you visit the restaurant in search of a specific Bangladeshi dish or not, it’s easy to assemble a meal here whether it’s food from the region, simply cooked vegetables like okra and spinach, or Indian dishes like tandoori chicken, palak paneer, and a straightforward chicken curry. As far as drinks go, examine the selection in the refrigerator case, where you can get a mango lassi, or, surprisingly, a range of Jarritos Mexican sodas. You’ll find that mandarin or lime go particularly well with Bangladeshi food.