One cannot avoid Jackson Diner. It was a discovery for the foodies of Manhattan once; now it is an essential part of the New Yorker’s dining curriculum, like Katz’s Deli or the Russian Tea Room. So I went, half hoping the food would be terrible so that I could be a contrarian about it.
Of course, I had reason to suspect that the food might be overrated. Jackson Diner owes much of its fame to being one of the first arrivals on the scene. It opened in the early 1980s, a time when Archie Bunker would still have felt at home in Jackson Heights and the Queens Indian community was just beginning to blossom.
I ordered tandoori chicken and nan. It has been said that Jackson Diner has the best samosas in New York, but I am on a budget, and Jackson Diner is not quite cheap, so I forewent appetizers for tonight.
The chicken came out sizzling and popping, dark red, and seared black around the bone. When I pulled a drumstick open, the meat within was almost white. It promised to be dry and flavorless, like bad turkey, but in fact it was tender and infused with cumin and coriander—just slightly spicy. The nan was soft and buttery and irresistible.
It has been said that Jackson Diner is not quite authentic: they have made their dishes less spicy than the equivalents in Punjab or U.P. might be. I am not sure. I will say that when I use an Indian friend’s recipe* for curried chickpeas, my hands burn with spices for days after, and I must be very careful not to touch my face while cooking.
On the other hand, that recipe calls for chilies, and most Indian dishes I know of use chilies, potatoes, yams, or one of the numerous other items that were introduced to India in historically recent times—so perhaps innovation is not strictly at odds with authenticity.
You may also enjoy contemplating, as you savor your tandoori chicken at Jackson Diner, the history of the tandoor itself. The tandoor is a vertical oven, often a clay cylinder, that cooks at very high temperatures. Tandoor ovens have supposedly been discovered at Mohenjodaro**, one of the Indus Valley Civilization cities (in present-day Pakistan) dating back to the third millennium BC.
3747 74th St
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
11:30am-10:00pm every day
*This is the recipe, as edited over the years by a faulty memory:
Two cans of chickpeas
Half an onion
A teaspoon of cayenne pepper
A half teaspoon of cumin
A half teaspoon of coriander
A quarter-teaspoon of mustard seeds
**See KT Achaya, The Story of Our Food