Bukharian Jewish food might be the most under-appreciated ethnic food in the City. At least that's my thought after a wild foray to Rego Park, Queens, sometimes referred to as Regostan because many residents hail from the old Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Our guide was Alex, a friend who lives in the area with his wife and two children and works in nearby Forest Hills. We visited two establishments just blocks from each other off of Queens Boulevard. Alex knew the restaurants' owners and ordered from them in Russian (but menus are in English, as well.) Russian music videos wail from the walls ("It is Bukharian country music," lamented Alex, who hails from Uzbekistan's capital city). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Alex's small subset of Jews, the Bukharians, fled the republics to settle in Israel or the United States. Alex himself arrived in New York eleven years ago from Tashkent.
As Julia Moskin has written in the New York Times, "fresh noodles and lamb kebabs, cilantro and garlic sauces and spiced rice pilafs are home cooking for many of these new New Yorkers." Bukharian food is its own form of pan-ethnic cuisine. Asian and Indian influences abound in its recipes, which are utterly delicious, if heavy. In its richness it resembles Eastern European Jewish cooking. But chili, lemongrass, and cumin would be out of place in that more familiar tradition.
I could easily see a Bukharian David Chang opening a Momofuku-type restaurant for his own native food. Take lagman, my new favorite dish. It's a soup. I don't like soup. Not normally. But this is no normal soup. It's a clear beef broth that doesn't feel heavy. Chili oil spikes it. Fresh yellow, red, and green peppers, string beans, and pickled turnip adorn the broth. Fresh herbs such as dill and cilantro top it off. Lemongrass and bits of beef stud it. Fat noodles slither in it. A master noodle maker throws the noodles, which are one long thread.
What's amazing about this food is how many cultures it is connected to. Take the samsa. Yes, it's like an Indian samosa, and also made in a tandoor oven. But imagine a samosa with the flaky crusty dough of a perfect French croissant. Imagine biting into the piping hot dough and discovering inside juicy bits of caramelized onions and rich, pungent meat. Then imagine dunking the treat in a vivid, Mexican-salsa-like tomato and cilantro dipping sauce. Fiesta!
Lamb rib kebabs come steaming hot and covered with raw onions. French fries come topped with minced garlic and fresh parsley, dill, and scallions. This food is so sharp it is not for the faint of heart. That said, we took home six samsas, which I took to calling Gregor Samsas, and consumed them non-stop for the next 48 hours. We have been suffering from withdrawal ever since.
Our favorite place for lagman is Ganey Orly (65-37 99th Street. Rego Park NY 11374. 718-459-1638). For samsa and kebabs, it's Tandoori Food & Bakery (99-04 63rd Rd, Rego Park NY 11374, 718-897-1071). The former is Glatt Kosher while the latter simply kosher. Both restaurants are a short walk from the R train's Rego Park station.