The King of Queens
Joe DiStefano is arguably the most gung-ho, ride-or-die Queens food fanatic there is. I’ve never spotted him without a Queens ball cap topping his slight frame, and it’s often paired with a Queens T-shirt—doubling down on borough pride.
For over a decade, the food writer has been chronicling Queens’ dining scene; his first foray into food writing came with the early days of Chowhound, and then a first food byline in Gothamist. A regular Gothamist column entitled “At The Ethnic Market” followed. His blog, Chopsticks and Marrow, came about in 2013, with short posts that detail things like what it’s like to eat barnacles for the first time, or what’s up with the Filipino fish breakfast called bangsilog. He literally wrote the book on his obsession: 111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss.
Whether he’s interviewing someone famous or visiting a hole-in-the-wall spot to write up on his blog, it’s really about connecting over a shared passion. “For the most part I try to find out as much as I can about the food,” he said. And he certainly can hold his own with any culinary savant— he wrote the very first Edible Queens cover story in 2009, wherein he ate live octopus (among other delicacies) at Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert. (Note: I have edited Joe’s writing under this magazine’s current ownership.) Joe is also heralded by Andrew Zimmern as “Queens’ de facto food critic,” and has been dubbed “The Guy Who Ate Queens” by New York Magazine.
As is the case with many specialists, he doesn’t have room in his life for much else. He has intimate knowledge of what eateries are new and what’s closing; it’s as though he has a worn, tabbed, color-coded encyclopedia in his brain with intel on every dish, dumpling and bodega in Queens. On his hunt for tastiest provisions, anything that might derail him is a distraction. He scarcely dirties a dish in his own home, and says his kitchen is a disaster.
(We’d originally hoped to meet him in his Rego Park apartment for this story, but Joe is most at home at Queens food stalls.)
But once conversation turns to balut, papadum, tlayudas or Chinese seahorse, Joe’s face illuminates, and he speaks with calm authority. He speaks French and some Mandarin (he studied the latter at a local library); but truly, food is Joe’s language, and Queens is his dialect. Stay on this subject and Joe is enlivened, full of recommendations and observations about regional customs, traditions and cooking techniques.
Getting to know the man underneath can prove a challenge. Joe is more comfortable telling the stories of others than he is sharing his own. At a Flushing press event, for instance, he regaled the audience with a compelling tale about Dumpling Galaxy’s Helen You, and how she previously journeyed many hours to deliver dumplings to her father in a Chinese labor camp. But when asked questions about himself, Joe confidently guides the conversation back to what matters: the food.
The fourth-born son of a homemaker and Department of Sanitation worker, Joe claims Queens as his rightful birthplace, though the family relocated to the East End of Long Island when he was quite young.
Once a picky eater, it was largely the adventurous spirit of Joe’s civil servant father that opened up his palate. His mother was a sterling home cook—but not as daring as his father, who instigated outings to Chinatown. The family would drive to Jamaica and take the F train downtown, where some of Joe’s earliest memories were created: being hoisted to store windows to spy on roast meat, and visiting a noodle factory to buy wonton skins so his father could try his hand at homemade chow fun, a memory Joe references often.
Joe earned an English degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he began writing about music, movies and sometimes news for the alternative college newspaper called the Stony Brook Press. He says it’s what gave him the “writing bug.”
Joe hadn’t yet begun writing about food, but he laid the groundwork. His Manhattan-bred roommates exposed him to more exciting cuisines, snacking on un-fried papadam dipped in chili, and engaging him in Indian-pickle-eating contests.
When Joe moved to Woodside in 1998, he was in the early phases of his career, working for trade magazines. “I was into food, but it was sort of like, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Indian restaurant on Sixth Street and order the spiciest thing we can and order a beer the size of our forearm to go with it.” He cherishes those Manhattan memories, sure, but what really opened him up was taking in his new neighborhood on Woodside Avenue, just two blocks from the 7 train. On his walk home every night, he would explore a variety of cuisines and, by extension, different cultures. A slow infatuation was fostered.
These days, as a well-known local food authority, Joe is frequently asked to curate Queens food experiences, like he’s done for the Meadows Music and Arts Festival the past two years. He delights in showcasing local chefs and eateries, and puts on many of his own events. For instance, he co-produces the frequently sold-out Queens Dinner Club experiences with Chef Jonathan Forgash. He recently introduced attendees to the nixtamalized corn tortillas and al pastor at Tortilleria Nixtamal and threw a mela at Bangladeshi restaurant Boishakhi.
Joe is also vice president of a Catskills-based events company called NY Epicurean Events, where he helps organize culinary events throughout the year, like a cheese festival and a charcuterie showcase. I attended the latter, called Charcuterie Masters, at Flushing Town Hall a couple of years ago, and the space was packed with pâtés, sausages, salumi—every fleshy morsel imaginable. (I noted that there were very few side dishes or lighter fare on offer. Are you gonna bring a salad to the meat show? That would be an amateur move. Joe is no amateur.)
For a man so wide-eyed and curious about food and culture, you might expect Joe to be well-traveled. You’d be wrong. Thanks to a possible “combination of a mental block and being a nervous traveler,” he’s gained much of his knowledge of the world simply by eating his way through Queens.
“If I go to a Thai restaurant and [people] see me balling up the rice, they’ll ask, ‘How’d you learn to do that?’ Queens.” But when people question why he hasn’t been to a cuisine’s birthplace, he feels kind of shruggy about it. The man hasn’t even finished sucking the marrow out of Queens yet. How do you expect him to have the time for jet-setting?
That said, by the time this story is published, Joe’s first trip to Mexico City will have come and gone. When we spoke, he was brimming with excitement about having booked it. People tell him he should go to Asia; maybe he’ll make his way there next.
I haven’t counted a single day in my observation of Joe DiStefano that he hasn’t published a food story, blog post or Instagrammed a shot of fascinating delicacies—Taiwanese buns one day, a simmering bowl of guay teow num tok the next. He responds cheerily to nearly every comment left by his many friends and acolytes (people who have taken his food tours often end up hawking his social media feeds to continue to live and eat vicariously through their Queens guide). The sheer stamina it must take to maintain and be constantly producing and analyzing, I would imagine, is a lot.
But Joe wouldn’t want to indulge such talk. He’s got restarauteurs-cum-friends to catch up with—like the owners of Elmhurst’s Pata Paplean, where he’s a regular—and he’s got noodles to slurp. Leave the man to it.
Joe loves food. Joe loves Queens. As far as he’s concerned, that’s all you need to know.
Joe DiStefano | @joedistefanoqns
Chowhound | @chowhound
Gothamist | @gothamist
“At The Ethnic Market”
Chopsticks and Marrow
111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss
Eric Ripert | @ericripert
Andrew Zimmern | @chefaz
New York Magazine | @nymag
State University of New York at Stony Brook
Stony Brook Press | @sbpress
Meadows Music and Arts Festival
Queens Dinner Club | @queensdinnerclub
Chef Jonathan Forgash | @jonathanforgash
Tortilleria Nixtamal | @tortillerianixtamal
Boishakhi | @boishakhirestaurant
NY Epicurean Events
Pata Paplean | @patabarnyc