Situated in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge, across the street from Silvercup Studios, Five Star Punjabi Diner is one of the great luncheon bargains of New York. Though it may be a bit out of the way, it's worth a trip to Long Island City for this good—and very spicy—Indian buffet. From 11:00 A.M till 4:00 P.M., Punjabi offers an array of appetizing selections that includes five dishes from the steam table, as well as Chicken Tandoori, salad, rice, naan, and dessert for $8.99.
Punjabi's is neither the best nor the most elegant Indian buffet I've ever sampled, but it manages to satisfy nonetheless. The Chicken Tandoori, for instance, was less flavorful and less succulent than I might have liked—though I hasten to add that few restaurants get it right. Furthermore, the spices generally seemed less fresh than I had hoped for them to be. (Whence Punjabi's five-star rating comes is unclear.) That said, however, the items from the steam table were rather tasty and unusually spicy-hot.
On the day of my visit, the buffet included the ever-popular Chicken Tikka Masala and Goat Curry, as well as vegetarian dishes Aaloo Gobhi (a spicy combination of potatoes and cauliflower), Sag (a concoction of spinach, mustard, broccoli, onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes), and Dal Makhani (slow-cooked black lentils with fresh ginger, garlic, onions, and tomatoes). It goes without saying that the foregoing items are best enjoyed with naan. Warm, and having just the right consistency, Punjabi's version of the flat, leavened, tandoori bread is better than most.
When it was time for dessert, I cooled my palate with a small helping of Malai Kheer (rice pudding). Perhaps owing to satiety, I found the sweet dish to be unremarkable. A tiny amount was ample.
Unless one is completely blinded by love, Five Star Punjabi is not a venue for a romantic lunch. Inadequate lighting cannot conceal the dining room's tired and worn appearance. On my visit, the service was somewhat slow, and tables weren't cleared promptly—or at all, in some cases. The lone waitress was by no means at fault, however. Without anyone to assist her, she seemed overwhelmed and unable to keep pace with customers' needs. It's all part of the bargain, I guess.
Five Star Punjabi Diner
13-15 43rd Avenue (near 21st St), Long Island City, Queens
By train: F to 21st St-Queensbridge; 7,N,W to Queensboro Plaza
By bus: Q69