Khaabar Baari, Jackson Heights
Jackson Heights, Queens, is known for its vibrant Indian community. A walk down any sidewalk means a sensorial kaleidoscope, with windows full of brightly-colored saris, bins of bitter melons outside green grocers, and the spicy aromas of restaurant after restaurant. On one recent walk through Jackson Heights, my husband and I stopped for Bengali sweets and purchased a freshly-tapped coconut from two friendly men on the sidewalk with machetes. We considered the afternoon to be one of those essentially New York moments.
A favorite of ours in this neighborhood is the Bangladeshi restaurant Khaabar Baari. The two-level restaurant claims to serve Chinese food on the basement level, but we have only ever eaten the Bangladeshi food on street level. The space itself is casual and unassuming. There always seem to be some folks lingering at tables no matter what time of day it is, and you can expect anything from cricket to Bollywood montages on the big screen television.
Any time my husband and I eat at Khaabar Baari, we order too much. Once, we were politely moved to a larger table because our first choice wasn't able to hold all our plates. This is always a delightful problem without regret. We believe the cafeteria-style presentation of the food is to blame: when you enter, you're drawn immediately to your right, where tray upon tray of traditional Bangladeshi food rests behind glass. On some days, additional tables are set up to hold more offerings, ranging from meat and vegetable dishes to sweets my husband generally describes as various delicious admixtures of sugar and milk.
While this is one of our favorite restaurants, I've yet to order my own food here. There's no menu, and the servers generally speak very little English. A typical ordering experience involves Dhrubo pointing and asking in Bengali, "and what is that?... and what is that?" Bangladesh is just east of my husband's hometown of Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal, so the spices and preparations are similar to those in North Indian cuisine. A significant difference, of course, is the presence of beef. We typically order two or three meat dishes and one or two vegetable dishes. My husband will order rice and bread. There is no alcohol. The servers take your order and then bring your food to your table.
The food is traditional, and eating here feels like eating with a large extended family. On our most recent trip, our server even taught me some words in Bengali. The dishes have that sneaky quality of spice in which the heat builds with each bite. Expect cumin and chilies. By the end of the meal, I was happy to have the small bowl of salad to calm the heat a bit; however, by no means is the heat overpowering or a distraction from the various flavors. For example, the bhuna gorur mangsho (dry beef) is spiced with cloves (among other flavors), and gave a warming sensation when I ate it. As someone relatively new to this cuisine, it reminded me of Christmas. There may even be some cinnamon in there as well. It was a nostalgic taste, though I'd never had the dish before.
The bhindi (okra), and the green beans prepared with potatoes are regular parts of our meals here. The bhindi is cooked perfectly, still slightly crunchy, and with just the right amount of that characteristic okra viscosity. I particularly enjoy the beans, because they act as a culinary bridge for me. While they are decidedly Bengali in preparation, the textural combination of beans and potatoes reminds me of the dinners my mom would prepare when I was a child. It's moments like this one, as well as the combination of cloves and goat, that make this restaurant so special for me. I get to share some of my husband's favorite dishes with him, and to learn about a place and culture that informed his childhood; at the same time, I get glimpses of familiar tastes and textures.
We also enjoyed the murgir jhol (chicken curry), which was tender and juicy. It's served on the bone and, like most of the dishes here, is best eaten without utensils. This time, we also ordered kosha mangsho, a dry spiced goat dish, as well as goat biryiani, which was served with a hard boiled egg. We tried the cow's stomach as well, which had a pleasing and savory aromatic, but was a little too chewy for my preferences. And though we didn't have it on this visit, my husband simply loves the fish dishes here.
If you should have room after your meal (we never do), check out any of the sweets shops nearby on 37th Avenue. You can take your sweets home with you for later, if you want, or you can simply treat your eyes to the glorious array of colors. And if you order like we do, you'll enjoy walking off your dinner with a circuit through the lively neighborhood before heading home.
3722 73rd Street
Jackson Heights, NY