Jackson Heights Feast
Momos & arepas. Sarees. Mazes.
It’s spring in New York, or close enough. The thaw this year is amplified by the wane in covid cases, the promise of something close to normal life.
“Eating weather,” says Heath, our six-year-old, the only boy. He believes, simply, rightfully, that food is his thing. You can place in front of him a plate of tripe with sticky brown sauce at dim sum, garlicky soups from the Balkans. He will shrug and say: “I’ll try it,” without asking for further details on the contents. Do not mistake him for a sophisticate–he spent the third afternoon of kindergarten at the principal’s office for dropping an F bomb at recess. I still bring a change of pants whenever we leave the house. But the only thing he truly fears is a ghost pepper, which he believes might contain an actual ghost.
Dumplings are a favorite of his and his three sisters so we are in Jackson Heights, Queens for momos at Nepali Bhancha Ghar, winner of the neighborhood momo crawl four years in a row, according to a hand-painted banner hung high at the back of the restaurant. There is a table for six in the middle of the room, which is all tile and formica and mirrored walls under fluorescent lights–a place where the complaints of four hungry children will not be heard over pots clanging in the galley kitchen. Jim tries to show the server our vaccine cards but no one cares anymore. On a TV in the corner, Joe Biden is talking about Ukraine. Someone turns to a channel playing Bangladeshi music videos as soon as we’re handed menus. As Jim and I decipher the list of twenty plus types of momos, I watch Blythe, who is eight, flex her wrists in time to the music, mirroring the dancers on tv.
We order what looks on arrival like too much food but won’t be, because someone can always eat more. The doughy, steamed beef momos are attacked first, gone as I’m working four-year-old Ramona’s hair into a bun to shield it from the meat juice. Before my hand even touches a fork. The fried shrimp momos are hot, crispy on the outside and unexpectedly spicy inside. The kids eat gingerly around the edges, trying to work up the courage to get at the filling. The chicken johl, in a curried soup, is all mine. I cough when a mouthful of broth meets the roof of my mouth. The spice flares my sinuses. The shock is equivalent to the time I inadvertently picked up a stick-brown live wire in the backyard. I down most of the cold water in the hammered metal pitcher on the table.
We walk along 37th Avenue on the way to the playground, acquiescing to requests for a treat at Lety’s. The kids get macaroons and cream puffs. Jim and I find coffee. We stroll by saree shops. Blythe is particularly enamored of a teal silk one embroidered in gold draped, draped on a mannequin her size. The air smells like turmeric and cumin.
At Travers Park there a sprawling playground to satisfy the full range of ages in our brood. Eloise sits on a bench with a graphic novel, sidelined by a fractured clavicle while the other kids run. She has broken more bones in one decade than I have in almost four. She lifts her face to the sun, asks if she can take the sling off if she stays on the bench. I say yes, because I do not want her to be afraid of her own clavicle. Her three siblings find a girl their age walking a puppy that would fit into my two hands. The girl doesn’t know what breed it is–it’s white and fat-pawed and skittish and nibbles at Ramona, who is not much bigger.
Jim and I find our own bench and google the school next to the playground, the listings in the block-long garden apartment buildings, playing What If We Lived Here. I used to wonder if everyone else was as restless as we were. But the excruciating inertia of past two years have turned even the most restful restless. We stopped daydreaming, briefly when Blythe was a baby, after we bought a house in New Jersey, declaring ourselves satisfied, settled. But the feeling didn’t last. Now we are back to the city part-time, imagining other lives. Fortunately they are the same lives, so far, although when he suggested relocating to Miami, I had my doubts.
Heath needs new pants. He drank the other half of the water pitcher at lunch and couldn’t make it to the park bathroom. I have forgotten the extra set, but Blythe is, for reasons unknown, wearing two pairs of pants. She hands him the top one.
“Pink?” he complains. I explain his lack of options. He groans acceptance.
“I’m hungry,” I say. I ran for an hour in the morning, and my body is still looking for fuel.
“How?” Jim asks. He did clean up duty on the momos.
The famed Arepa Lady, who had a food cart below the 7 train tracks years ago, before we had kids, now has a sit down place around the corner. It’s always busy but there is a table for six at this odd, in-between hour. We order beers for us, blackberry smoothies for the kids, beef empanadas, guacamole and fried plantains. In the back of Eloise’s notebook, Jim draws a maze for Heath to solve. Then all of the kids want one of their own. He orders another beer and starts churning out mazes with the steady efficiency of a dot matrix printer. “I used to do these all the time when I was a kid,” he tells them. What different childhoods we had.
Four kinds of arepas recommended by the server arrive. The arepa de queso topped with chorizo goes the fastest. It’s soft and creamy without being chewy. The sausage tastes mild after the Nepali meal. Everyone wants more food so we order again and declare the snack to be dinner, since we’re in the four o’clock hour now.
“Do we have to go home?” asks Ramona as she takes her last cheesy bite.
“No,” says Jim. “I’m just gonna drink beer and draw mazes until they kick us out.”
We are lucky to be inside. To be together. To be hungry.
7 train to 82 St - Jackson Heights
Nepali Bhancha Ghar, (Nepali. momo, samosas, roti, bbq meat, noodles)
74-05 Roosevelt Avenue btw 74th St & 75th St
Lety’s (bakery. macaroon, cream puffs, cakes & cookies)
77-07 37th Avenue btw 77th St & 78th St
Arepa Lady Areperia (Colombian. arepas, empanadas, patacones)
77-1 37th Avenue btw 77th St & 78th St
75-4 37th Avenue btw 75th St & 76th St
& other shops along 37th Ave.
34th Avenue btw 77th St. & 78th St.