Little India in Jackson Heights: A Quick Tour of a South Asian Neighborhood in Queens, New York City
If you exit the Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Jackson Heights, dash across the street underneath the overhead train, at first glance this area of New York City is like any polyglot immigrant crossroads in the great borough of Queens. The intersection is a hodgepodge of ethnic restaurants, cell phone outlets, and kiosks advertising money-grams to Colombia. There's a Korean stationery store and a cluster of Catholic schoolboys. But choose 74th Street and start walking north.
The first sign of something different is a "sweets shop" whose window displays row upon row of neatly stacked balls and rectangles in pastel pinks, pistachio greens, caramel browns, and coconut whites. In a few more steps it becomes clear: chaos solidifies into a bustling “Little India” neighborhood where more South Asian immigrants—Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi—live than anywhere else in New York City.
Seventy-Fourth Street from Roosevelt to 37th Avenue and the surrounding blocks are the neighborhood's commercial heart, a place to see the latest Bollywood films, shop for saris, people-watch, and savor the curries and Nan bread.
A Tiny Tour of Little India
Bollywood Films and Music
If the shows aren't running, step right next door to the little Bollywood retail shop Melody Stop (73-9 37th Road), where the hits continue on video, DVD, and CD. Don't let the crowded, too narrow shop deter you from a visit. The melodies are sweet and the prices sweeter. Expect to pay five dollars for truly marvelous features like Lagaan (a colonial piece), Kaante (Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects gone Bollywood), or the 1970s masterpiece Sholay (Bollywood's greatest Western, or at least curry Western). The sales staff is friendly, and will recommend titles of note to novices.
For a more leisurely browse, round the corner onto 74th Street and head up the block to Raaga Super Store with its wider selection and much wider aisles (37-26 74th St.). Look for its selection of bhangra, the electro-Indian pop music of the moment that has sucked a hip-hop sound into Punjabi folk music. On your way to the shop you'll have already heard the latest tunes pounding the concrete from cars inching their way up 74th Street.
Gifts, Jewels, Saris and More
Stroll down 74th Street and other shops beckon. Some brilliantly. Almost every other storefront is a jewelry shop where 22 karat gold predominates. Unlike the 14k, this rich gold is a heavy, almost dull color that makes up for its lack of shine with its beautiful dense sheen and malleability, which allows for more intricate, fantastic designs. Sona Chandi is typical of the small shops (37-14 74th St.).
If you do buy jewelry, you must get all spiffed up. There are several beauty salons that feature traditional henna tattooing—mehndi—and hair removal by—hopefully painless—threading, not the brutal wax and strip. Gulzar Beauty Salon is recommended (74-01B Roosevelt Ave).
Can you pull off wearing a sari to go with that gold and henna? It takes impeccable posture. At least window shop for saris at regal clothing stores like Neena Sari Palace (37-23 74th St.).
Let's Not Forget Food (and Dessert)
For strict vegetarians and vegans there are a couple other options in the neighborhood. Try Dimple Vegetarian Restaurant (35-68 73rd St.). It advertises itself as "truly vegetarian." The dosas are delish.
Or you could skip the meal, and go straight to dessert at one of the strip's numerous sweet shops. Indian sweets look odd, but turn away at your loss! They are always made with a base of butter and sugar, and may include milk, flour, nuts, or paneer (cottage cheese). Check these links for a rundown on Indian sweets or pictures of typical ones. Or better yet, walk into Maharaja Sweets and Snacks (75-10 37th Ave.), and pick up what looks best.
Before leaving, don't forget to visit Patel Brothers's market (37-07 74th St. ) for garam masala, a blend of Indian spices. This concoction is a true "curry powder," not to be confused with the dull dust sold at supermarkets. It'll knock the socks off your eggplant, the skin from your knees, the dull from your chickpeas.
Jackson Height’s Little India is easily accessible by subway (N, R, G, E, F, 7) to the Roosevelt Avenue station. A car isn't the best means to breach the crowded streets of Jackson Heights. If you insist on driving, the BQE and Northern Blvd are the nearest routes. Avoid driving on Roosevelt at all costs, and good luck with parking. Enjoy.