Tonight I met with the Jackson Heights Food Group for the first time. I was nervous, with no idea what to expect, especially when the restaurant was a nameless, super secret hidden Bengali place at the end of an alley. José was imagining all sorts of situations (kidnapping? being sold into slavery?) as he walked me there, just to make sure, but I was so excited to meet these people, I was willing to wander into the dark alley and risk it.
So it turned out that yes, there actually is a small place called Chillies, which is located at the end of a small alley on 73rd St. between Broadway and 37th Ave. I lived to tell the tale. The owners (I'm assuming that's what they were) served the 20 or so people who descended upon their counter at 7:20 PM this Saturday night for the JHFG with grace and a smile (well, the man of the couple didn't do much smiling but the woman was patient and friendly) as each person made their way up and ordered, mostly by what looked the best. On display were two fish curries, one with eggplant and one without. There was a hotel pan full of chicken curry, a mixed vegetable curry, yellow rice, and a chicken biryani. In another section of the case there were chickpeas, dal, and other cold dishes, but I never made it over there. Also, a tray full of pakoras and some sort of fried bread sat above the selections on the glass case. There didn't seem to be a menu or dinner special, so I asked for half an order of the mixed vegetables, half an order of the chicken, and the yellow rice, which was piled high and enough to feed a family. After each person ordered, their plates were promptly put into one of the two microwaves behind the counter, first the rice, then the curries. Needless to say it took a while for each person to be served. My meal came to $9, although other people paid anywhere from $12 to $16. I'm guessing they charged more for the fish. I sat down at a table close to the door, and dug in, enjoying the conversation around me, and learning more about the group. I wasn't the only first-timer, but most were regulars, and I was jealous to hear about their various food adventures since the creation of the group. Such a great idea, and I'm mad at myself for not finding it sooner.
I didn't bring my camera but here's a phone picture of the chicken:
I liked it. Slightly spicy. Strangely, some of the pieces were nice and tender, and others were incredibly tough. It was hard to eat with just the plastic fork, finally I ended up picking up the pieces and gnawing on the little bones.
Mixed vegetable curry
Terrible picture, I had already scooped half out of the bowl. Carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, onions, for sure. Dried red chillies for spice. Not sure if I am missing other veggies. It had a great caramel-y flavor, which added depth to the curry. Did they caramelize the onions or was it burned? I don't know, but it worked.
I managed to eat most of the rice, even thought the serving was huge. Should I be proud of that?
It looked great, particularly the long, thin, green chillies dotting the bright yellow. It wasn't overtly spicy, but left a slight tingle on the tongue.
I think I chose well from the offerings. Actually, I chose the only things that I would have wanted to eat, since I am (sadly) not a fish eater. A few people that I talked to who had the fish were not thrilled with it, although I can not speak for everyone. Honestly, I could have eaten the worst meal of my life at the secret restaurant and it wouldn't have mattered. It was great to go out on a Saturday night and be able to walk there and back, even in the freezing cold. It was great to finally meet the founder of the group, the famous Jeff Orlick. It was great to go out to dinner with people who care about food and are proud of where they live. I made a detour off of Roosevelt Avenue and into an alleyway on a cold night, and found the community I didn't know I was looking for. Now, I want more food.
Chillie's Grand Sweets and Restaurant
37-18 73rd Street
For some better pics of the event, take a look at Judy's flickr set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/judibean/sets/72157623246683199/