It’s a frigid day in New York City and my large, beige jacket is straining to keep me warm against the whiplash of wind hitting my face. I am quickly shuffling alongside local comedian and filmmaker, Jeff Cerulli, who hails from Long Island and now resides in the increasingly popular Astoria neighborhood of Queens. Having grown up in the New York City comedy scene for 10 years, Jeff is a veteran comedian who has performed in New York, Los Angeles and London and runs a monthly comedy show in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Comedy – an art form in its own right – is an underground world in New York with many aspiring comics setting up camp in this blossoming borough; as an established New York City comic with a unique documentary, Hungry, on competitive eating under his belt, Jeff offers to show me his version of Queens – where a love of food and art intersect.
Said to be the new frontier where global flavors and art converge, earlier this year Lonely Planet shocked many by announcing Queens as the must-visit U.S. destination of 2015. New York City’s humble neighbor and overlooked borough seemed to shy away from the attention like a lovable nerd suddenly being voted prom queen. Manhattan had been fawned over to excess, Brooklyn crowned as the up & coming (now established) Mecca of fashion, art and food, but Queens had stood on the perimeter of the spotlight…until now. With more than two million people calling it home; Queens is a place where cultures converge; it is a veritable bazaar of worldly cuisine, exciting art and sexy street food that has Lonely Planet claiming it’s on the verge of being the next big thing.
As Jeff and I weave in and out of foot traffic, making our way down Steinway Avenue, I hear snippets of other languages passing me by. Spanish, Indian, Italian, Russian, Greek – half a block on Steinway and it’s as though I have wandered into a United Nations convention. A block here, sharp right there and Jeff darts into a local Colombian restaurant, Tierras Colombianas, nestled on a street corner of Broadway and 33rd. The unassuming family joint is packed with Latin families nursing Aguila beers, Colombiana sodas and munching on tostones while watching futbol on the corner televisions. Jeff peels off his black, wool jacket and slides into a booth before quickly ordering his own heaping plate of tostones with a side of sweet plantains from the thickly accented server.
The lightly salted tostones arrive with a side of spicy salsa verde; the traditional Latin American dish is made up of flattened plantains that are fried to crispy perfection. Plantains – a staple of many South American dishes – are whipped up as tostones or maduros, an alternative sweet version that is gooey and has a caramelized exterior. At Tierras Colombianas, traditional dishes are enjoyed – from fried red snapper (a restaurant favorite) and arepas to empanadas and sancocho (a sort of Latin stew served with a hearty serving of potatoes, meat and vegetables accenting the broth). I am floating away on a sea of Latin flavors, happily scraping what remains of the sweet maduros on my plate, when Jeff asks for the check and sweeps me away to our next destination – Europe.
Right across the street sits the Omonia Cafe, a European eatery known for its Italian and Greek pastries. Opened in 1977, the Omonia Cafe is home to many Greek specialties; it is no surprise that Greek food is easy to find in Astoria – a part of town often called a home away from home for Greek immigrants. Omonia Cafe is nestled on the corner of 33rd and Broadway beneath a colorful, rainbow light display that seems to demand the attention of anyone passing by. Doubling as a restaurant and pastry shop, we are greeted by an eye-catching display case of intricate desserts upon arrival. Jeff and I order a cheesecake baklava – a Godsend combination – and wrap our treats in crisp, white napkins before heading towards Mokja for Korean BBQ and Kimchi.
A short stroll down one of Astoria’s main avenues leads us to the newly opened Mokja – a humble, modern Korean spot that packs a lot of flavor. Jeff orders crispy Korean BBQ wings glazed with soy garlic sauce; and Kimchi fries with spicy gochujang aioli. Of all the ethnic bites to grace my tastebuds today, it is Mokja that has me coming back for seconds and thirds. My palate teeming with flavors from South America, Asia and Europe, I am starting to see why Queens has been New York’s best kept secret. The borough is a veritable melting pot of cultures where a passion for all things delicious is matched only by the budding art and comedy scene.
Like coming across a hidden gem restaurant that is incredible but overlooked, I debate over writing up this piece. Brooklyn and Manhattan have flourished in the limelight of publicity, have become rampant now with high-priced boutiques and restaurants but Queens still retains that allure of mystery. Tibetan stores sit along side Egyptian eateries, which sit besides in-the-know, free comedy shows – and all of it remains undiscovered and unappreciated. While most New York tourists will flock to the headliner comedy clubs, such as Caroline’s and the Comedy Cellar (which has seen the likes of Jim Gaffigan and Chris Rock); the rising talent of New York’s comedy scene is best found at in-the-know shows held throughout the city in unassuming bars. Much how fantastic musicians can often be found at the back of a dive bar, so too are comedians discovered without the pomp and circumstance of over-priced tickets and crowds. Of course, as is always the case in the Empire State, what is undiscovered today is front page news tomorrow so it is only expected that the local comedians of Queens may one day require more than a $7 beer to watch.
Having filled out bellies to excess, Jeff and I walk contentedly down the street having quite literally taken ourselves on a culinary round-the-world tour in the past two hours. I can see why Queens is voted as the must-visit U.S. destination of 2015; it is buzzing with exciting food and untapped talent. I thank Jeff for showing me his version of this blossoming borough, for both giving me a taste of Queens as well as a look into its comedy scene and then hop on the subway with the comfort of knowing it takes little more than a $2.50 MTA pass to get a taste of the world.
To learn more about upcoming comedy shows around New York, follow comedian @JeffCerulli.Tweet