Jackson Heights makes for one of my favorite culinary day trips. A half hour or so in the neighborhood’s markets sets me up with Indian groceries for the next few months and fresh produce for the coming week. In short order I replenish my collection of spices and grab bags of lentils and rice, fresh long beans and purple yams. That week I’ll make a creamy red lentil soup, some paneer makhani with rice and perhaps a stir fry with long beans and mushrooms.
First, I’ll stop for dinner at Jackson Diner, a neighborhood institution and a good casual spot to feast on the area’s fine Indian food. It’s not much to look at, with cafeteria-style decor and rows of nondescript metal chairs and tables with paper place mats. But the smell of roasted spices tells a different story, as sizzling platters of tandoori meats leave the kitchen, giving off smoke as they parade crackling through the dining room followed by rich curries packed with warm spices and garlicky loaves of naan.
The star appetizer, and perhaps one of Jackson Diner’s best items, is a dish of achari mushrooms. The mushrooms are marinated in yogurt and spices and roasted to perfection in the hot tandoori oven. They arrive speared together with blistered onions and peppers, crisp on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside, with spicy and smokey flavors throughout. Using simple, inexpensive ingredients, the dish shows the power of the tandoori method of cooking to take ordinary foods to new heights. (Incidentally, I have replicated these with some success on the outdoor grill.)
The curries are spicy and flavorful, although some are more successful than others. A highlight is the paneer pasanda, cubes of homemade paneer cheese in a sauce that is creamy, aromatic and quite spicy, not at all dulled down for an American palate. It is full of ginger and warm spices with tomato and cream. Shrimp sagwala is rich and earthy, the shrimp cooked nicely and simmered in spinach and spices. It could use more ginger to cut the richness, though, and its absence leaves the dish a little one-note. All of these are improved with the Jackson Diner’s excellent garlic naan, which is crispy on the bottom and soft on the top, brushed with ghee and copious garlic and parsley.
It is hard to resist the grilled dishes, which come out sizzling hot and fragrant from the tandoor. Tandoori lamb chops are tender and buttery, with a surprisingly mild yogurt marinade, another of Jackson Diner’s best dishes. Tandoori chicken breasts called Murg Malai Kebab are nice and tender, marinated in ginger, garlic, and green coriander and mellowed with a good hit of lemon. Not all tandoori options are as successful, however. The tandoori shrimp taste like salt. The fish is fine but forgettable. Two different sampler platters are good options for the indecisive.
The service isn’t great, but I haven’t had a bad experience either. There is room for improvement in the decor, however. The cafeteria atmosphere is fine, perhaps even welcome, but I could do without the numbered cards on the tables to indicate to the staff where your order belongs. It’s tacky, and with a simple layout to the dining room I believe the staff can handle it without table markers. Perhaps even worse are the pale pink plastic pitchers of water on each table, which remind me of summer camp. Simple clear plastic or stainless steal pitchers are inexpensive at restaurant supply stores and would make a meaningful difference in the decor. But the room itself is perfectly nice and the atmosphere is comfortable. Either way, I’ll keep coming back for the food.
37-47 74th Street, Queens, NY
Recommended Dishes: Achari Mushrooms ($7), Tandoori Lamb Chops ($19), Murg Malai Kebab ($13), Paneer Pasanda ($10), Garlic Naan ($3.50).
Make Indian Food: