Here begins a new series at Hell Gate: $20 Dinners. Good New York City restaurants where you can sit and hang out and eat for 20 bucks a person, including tax, not including tip or beverages.
Street food is awesome, no question. From those belly-busting potato knishes that were everywhere in the 1970s (extra mustard please... yeah keep going... yeah just one more squirt, thanks) to the quesadillas de birria from the Tacos Puebla truck that recently started parking under the elevated near my apartment.
But for all its merits—tastes great, is cheap, fun social scene when drunk—there's also something to be said for eating dinner while not standing on the sidewalk, probably near a pile of trash, angry drivers honking nearby for no reason.
You've heard of restaurants? Yeah those things rule too.
So even though the Tong Bangladeshi Street Food empire is thriving, with five food carts in operation around Queens and the Bronx, we were thrilled to read about their new storefront in Jamaica, which comes complete with tables and chairs, an ordering counter goofily tricked-out to look like a cart, and a colorful hand-painted mural of people devouring a mountain of the same food we were here to eat, namely: fuchka.
Fuchka are crackly, translucently-thin fried puff balls stuffed with warm mushy potatoes and yellow split peas, then topped with raw red onion, bits of cilantro, and shavings of hard boiled egg. You pick one up, dump in a splash of the tangy tamarind water that comes with, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. It's insanely good. Just a wild, beautiful ride.
Apparently fuchka carts are ubiquitous on the streets of Bangladesh, but not so much here in NYC. At least, not until Md. Naeem Khandaker rolled up in front of a Jackson Heights Duane Reade in 2018 and had an instant hit on his hands. Md. Asaduzzaman Pramanik, who was working at the new Tong restaurant when we stopped by, set the scene.
"Naeem came to this country around 15 years ago," Pramaanik told Hell Gate. "His ambition was to do something so that he can be more popular, and introduce our Bangladeshi street food to the country. Because here in New York you see Indian restaurants, Thai restaurants, Chinese restaurants, and the owners are from Bangladesh. Everyone from Bangladesh is in the business, but they are not mentioning our street food. So Naeem thought, I have to do that."
Pramaanik continued, "When he started Tong the street cart, Bangladeshi people were saying 'hey Naeem what are you doing?' But after a month the line was two or three blocks long. People lining up only for fuchka. Nowhere else in America was anyone doing this."
At Tong the restaurant, you get nine fuchka per order, so if you're with a buddy you'll have to fight over who gets the last one. Note that they were still in soft-opening mode when we made the trip, so the fuchka was not yet available "on fire," (literally) which for sure would have made for a more dramatic photograph (sorry), though Pramaanik was non-committal about whether the flavor was improved by turning the orbs into mini torches.
There are other good things to eat here too which, in addition to providing a central kitchen for all the food carts—an early morning shift cranks out the fixings of hundreds of fuchkas every day—was kind of the point of opening an actual restaurant in the first place. "We need a permanent space to ensure our street food gets represented," said Pramaanik. "For Bangladeshi people and not only that, but also for people [pointing at me, a normie-looking old white guy] like you."
The chatpati is a fiery stew-like dish, also popular in Bangladesh, that features many of the same ingredients as the fuchka, but adds chickpeas and hot chilies to the mix. This is an extremely satisfying, easily shareable plate of food, as is Tong's new luchi platter, which stars four soft bread pillows and three excellent accompaniments: beef chaap, which are well-seasoned mini burgers (mustard, garlic, ginger, other secret ingredients); some creamy yellow dal; and what Pramaanik called "Tong sauce," a delightfully sweet cucumber yogurt salad of sorts.
Coming soon, or maybe available already depending on when you read this: the puffy rice snack jhal muri, a vegetarian version of the luchi platter, several beverages and sweets, and that previously mentioned, eminently TikTok-able "fuchka on fire."
Hell Gate total for two, including tax but excluding tip and a pulpy lemonade: $34.81
Tong Bangladeshi Street Food is located at 153-35B Hillside Avenue, between Parsons Boulevard and 155th Street, about a block from the F train, and is currently open daily from 1:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. (929-257-6996)