Queens jurors often find themselves serving at a pair of formidable-looking gray buildings, one old, one modern, that stand stolidly side-by-side on Sutphin Boulevard: the Queens Supreme Court, handling criminal cases, and Queens Civil Court, which takes on lawsuits and the like. These structures lurk a few blocks west of Jamaica's central business district, which looks something like the downtown of a small Midwestern city.
[All photos by Robert Sietsema unless otherwise noted]
Fortunately for foodie jurors, these august institutions stand in the middle of the city's greatest neighborhood for Central American food. Within a few blocks of the courts (and also convenient to travelers on the way to Kennedy Airport) are at least a half-dozen Salvadoran restaurants. One good choice is a place with the wishy-washy name of El OK Salvadoreno (145-16 Jamaica Avenue, 718-526-7917). It's really much better than OK, with a grocery store in front, and rollicking café in back. One of its virtues: the cooks there make rice pupusas as well as the more-common masa ones.
I probably don't need to tell you that pupusas are small, griddle-browned pancakes filled with cheese, pork, beans, or a combination thereof. One makes a snack; three are a full meal. Sometimes the cheese ones contain pickled green loroco flowers – a cousin of oregano – for added zip. To eat a pupusa in the proper manner, slit one edge and fill the pancake with the slaw provided alongside, known as curtido. Sometimes you get a red sauce, too, to be deployed in the same way. You may also choose to eat pupusas without the curtido.
New kid on the block among Salvadoran restaurants is Marina (144-03 Jamaica Avenue, 718-297-6211), which has distinguished itself with a spicy version of curtido. The oldest and most elaborate restaurant of this type is Rincon Salvadoreno (9215 149th St, 718-526-3220). Founded in 1980, it claims to be the oldest Salvadoran in town, and looks like a Central American take on a Greek diner. I can vouch for the excellence of their fried yuca and pork-bearing combination platters.
My favorite Salvadoran in town is El Comal ("The Griddle," 148-62 Hillside Avenue, 718-523-3353), which bills itself as a pupuseria – and with very good reason: the pupusas there are hand-patted to order, rather than purchased frozen in plastic bags, and are relentlessly excellent. Another good light meal is their salpicon – a cold salad of chopped beef, mint, radishes, and purple onions that is massively refreshing, perfect summer fare and a Central American staple. Other than that, find a full Salvadoran menu of stews, soups, seafood, and omnibus platters containing several commonplace dishes.
The area around the courthouses is dotted with Guatemalan groceries, but few restaurants. You probably don't want to go the half-mile or so east on Hillside Avenue to the city's only full-blown Guatemalan, Tierras Centroamericanas, but there is a little hole-in-the-wall called Bella's Place (87-77 Sutphin Boulevard, 718-739-5373), just down the street from the courts and offering a combination of Mexican and Guatemalan food. From the latter category regular offerings include sopa de gallina (hen soup) and an adobado de cerdo (marinated and grilled pork). But check the steam table that dominates the room for further Central American fare.
Other Latin restaurants within easy striking distance include Punto Rojo (147-15 Hillside Avenue, 718-657-1660), a well-regarded bakery that also offers typical Colombian meals, and a good choice for a decent cup of coffee and slice of tres leches cake; and El Rey (147-13 Hillside Avenue, 718-206-1230), a Dominican spot with the usual heavy-on-pork-and-seafood menu. It opens every day at 7 a.m., so not a bad spot for an early bird breakfast. Odd man out in the clusters of restaurants a block or two north of the courts is Taj Mahal Restaurant and Party Hall (147-13 Hillside Avenue, 718-206-0614), which mounts a lunchtime buffet and specializes in Indo-Chinese and the even newer Indo-Thai cooking.
By the way, if you want to carry your food out and eat al fresco, there's a huge green space known as King Park located two blocks east on 89th Avenue. The expanse is named after Rufus King, a notable politician on the national scene in the 18th century and Constitution signer, whose rambling summer home is found on the park's southeastern corner in what was once the tidy Long Island village of Jamaica, and is worth a tour.
While Latin cooking reigns supreme around the courts, African food is another major category. Within easy lunchtime strolling distance (meaning three or four blocks), find what is currently the city's best Ghanaian restaurant, Mataheko (144-7 Jamaica Avenue, 718-739-3980). Named after a neighborhood in Ghana's capital of Accra, the place specializes in mashes featuring tubers and plantains accompanied by thick stews, known in the African argot as "soups." Among these, the peanut soup with beef is a standout. If you want something mind-numbingly spicy, try any of the pepper soups. The helpful waitress will be happy to explain a menu that's probably largely unfamiliar, but resist the impulse to order the African-American selections on the menu (like fried chicken), which take much longer to make. You don't want to miss getting back to your jury on time.
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