Mahfuzul Islam was born and raised in Queens—specifically Queens Village, adjacent to Jamaica—and he’s been living there his entire life. The area is home to the largest population of Bengalis in New York City (and probably all of the US).
Islam’s parents, aunts, and uncles emigrated from Bangladesh before he was born, and he grew up with a large extended Bangladeshi family, where cooking and food were how they stay connected to their roots. Growing up, he and his cousin Alvi Zaman spent a lot of time cooking with their mothers. Islam recalls Zaman’s mother watching the Cooking Channel and making huge Thanksgiving feasts based on what she saw.
In 2015, Islam and Zaman went to the then-new Queens Night Market. They quickly noticed there was no Bengali food there. “That was generally the case at the time,” says Islam. “There was no presence of Bengali food then, and even Indian food was limited to, like, typical tikka masala.”
So the two decided to change that. A few months later, they returned as vendors under the name Jhal NYC (“jhal” means “spices” in Bengali), vending Bengali street food using their mothers’ recipes. They even ended up employing Islam’s mother and aunts to cook the food, eventually hiring other stay-at-home immigrant mothers who didn’t speak English and had trouble finding other work.
Soon, Jhal NYC was doing pop-ups all over, sharing Bengali food and culture with New Yorkers and serving as a grassroots effort to help Bangladeshi immigrants get their footing in the US. They helped stay-at-home mothers learn English, understand the subway system, write a resume, and polish other skills to help them adjust to life in a new country.
Islam paused his work with Jhal NYC last year because of the pandemic, and because he decided to run for office—specifically for his home district, New York State Assembly District 24, which encompasses Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Holliswood, and Hollis Hills in Queens. His platform focused on community building, actually affordable housing, community-inclusive development, free CUNY and SUNY education, increased mental health services, and participatory budgeting. Islam lost in the Democratic primary, but he continues his work for the community.
As a native and lifelong resident, Islam is always thrilled to recommend his favorite South Asian restaurants, bakeries, and cafes in Queens. He’s especially excited to give some exposure to his favorite Bengali spots, which are often overshadowed by the more well-known Indian restaurants of the borough. Plus, he includes a few Tibetan, Nepali, and Pakastani favorites to round out his list.
“With Bengali cuisine, you’ll have the food we eat when guests come, which is heavier, with more ghee and meat and biryani; and the food we eat at home, which is lighter, with more fish and vegetables with white rice,” explains Islam. “Sagar has both, but they are known for the heavier stuff, like their goat biryani and a chicken seekh kabab, which is made from ground chicken and lentils. Their chicken roast is also really good, it’s akin to a chicken korma, but not as creamy, and heavy on the caramelized onions and something called aloo bukhara, which are like prunes, with a sweet and tart flavor.”
Bangladeshi food is constantly being tied up and confused with Indian cuisine, because the two do share a lot of the same spices and ingredients, and some Bangladeshi restaurants will also serve a lot of Indian dishes. “I specifically mentioned those items because you won’t see them at Indian restaurants,” says Islam.
“We’re also really big into Chinese food. Sagar has three locations of Sagar Chinese and they serve Bengali Chinese food,” he adds. “Their lollipop chicken is a big deal.”
“‘Tong’ in Bengali literally means ‘stall,’” says Islam, of this street cart found in Jackson Heights and Jamaica. Tong, similar to Jhal (although Tong started after, Islam points out), sells Bengali street snacks like fuchka. “It’s similar to the Indian street snack pani puri,” he says, which are made from puffed, crunchy puri filled with yellow peas and potatoes, and topped with raw red onions and shaved egg yolks before pouring tamarind water over the whole bite.
“For the food that we eat day-to-day, Haat Bazaar is the best,” says Islam. “We have these dishes called bhortas, which are mashed vegetables, or sometimes dried shrimp or fish, with onions, cilantro, and mustard oil. Haat Bazaar’s eggplant bhorta and aloo, or potato, bhorta, are both really good, and you eat them with white rice.” Fish is another staple of Bengali cuisine, and ilish, or in English, hilsa, is almost like the national dish, says Islam. “Sometimes they’ll fry it or cook it with spices like coriander, cumin, and ginger.”
This Long Island City spot from Roni Mazumdar and executive chef Chintan Pandya has been popular since it first opened in 2018, and Islam is a fan. “They’re more new Indian-ish, and their dum biryani is really good,” he says. Adda is welcoming and stylish at the same time, something the owners strived for in creating a place they’d want to hang out in. Other acclaimed dishes include Amul cheese and chili naan, dilliwala butter chicken, kale pakoda, and tandoori gobi.
“Any South Asian restaurant list, this place needs to be on there,” says Islam of the basement cafeteria. “I believe it’s one of the oldest Hindu temples in America.” Islam usually orders the Pondicherry dosa, which he says has a little spice to it, and he also enjoys the sambar.
Islam’s preferred Tibetan spot, Phayul in Jackson Heights serves his favorite momos. “I also always get their tingmo, which is a flaky bread that you can dip into stuff, and they have a really good dried beef salad with a spicy chili oil, that’s called tsaksha drang tsei,” he says. The spot is always busy and it’s easy to spend less than $20 if you want—even less if you only order momos.
Kabab King Diner
This 24/7 Pakistani diner is a staple and has almost become like a monument in Jackson Heights, along with Jackson Diner, says Islam. “They have a great shish kebab that’s beef or chicken rolled into naan that’s a go-to quick snack,” he says. “They have a tandoor in there so their naan is nice and fresh, and they put the raita sauce inside the wrap.”
Usha Foods & Usha Sweets
According to Islam, Usha in Floral Park is the best place for chaat, or Indian savory snacks. “I like their samosa chaat and papri chaat a lot,” he says. Usha also has a wide variety of Indian sweets and baked items like gulab jamun, jalebi, and ladoo.
“Himalayan Yak is one of the nicer-looking restaurants in Jackson Heights,” says Islam. They serve Nepalese, Tibetan, and Bhutanese dishes. “They have this fondu cheese rice chili dish called ema-datsi that’s really good and cheesy,” says Islam. “And they do a traditional butter tea as well.”