Lurie's spice route then ran to 37th Avenue's Dhaka Kabab & Biryani House, where the blades of halal butchers whirred on the first floor and a buffet of biryanis (rice casseroles) beckoned upstairs. Nearby Maharaja Quality Sweets & Snacks held our favorite treat of the tour: a deep-fried chili pakora stuffed with potato. Divine, crunchy comfort food that cost just a buck.
After our snack attack, we said goodbye to Lurie and returned to shop 74th Street, browsing the souklike Butala Emporium with stacks of bracelets, straight-from-Mumbai books and dashboard statues of Hindu gods -- "so you have a good drive," explained a salesclerk. In Butala's basement, we discovered furniture fit for a rajah (a silvery settee with lion-head finials, bookcases painted with elephants), plus cricket bats and sitars.
Indian clothing and jewelry shops dominate 74th Street, the part of Jackson Heights, Queens, known as Little India.
(Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
Countless gold shops included Silk-N-Gold, where women in traditional clothing sold 22-karat jewelry. Small hoop earrings with tassels ran $150; bejeweled necklaces cost thousands. At Sahil Sari Palace, we ogled rainbow bolts of silk and sequined saris ($50 and up). "These are very fashionable," said a clerk, handing me a purple tie-dyed tunic. It did look straight out of Marie Claire, and at $15 -- I laid down my rupees.
Before leaving, we visited the Eagle Theater, an art deco-era movie palace that now shows Bollywood films. The next feature didn't start for hours, but we cajoled an usher into a mid-show tour. Peachy interiors and a popcorn stand selling sodas and samosas led into a big auditorium. On-screen, a video showed a flirting Indian couple.
The woman flipped her sari suggestively, singing about love as she sashayed away from her suitor's embrace. Bollywood convention forbids lovers from passionate smooches, but this Sanjay and Juliet looked ready for a tumble. "What do you think she's really saying?" whispered Callan. My guess: "Give me some more fried peppers, and I'll finally let you kiss me."
GETTING THERE: Jackson Heights is in northwestern Queens, about a 20-minute subway ride from Manhattan. The commercial district (including 74th Street's famous sari shops and Roosevelt Avenue's Latino eateries) is a short walk from the Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue stop on the E, F and R lines or the 74th Street/Broadway stop on the 7 train. The 82nd Street stop on the 7 gets you closer to the historic architecture on and around 34th Avenue. South Asian shops and restaurants cluster on 74th Street, with the biggest concentration between Roosevelt and 37th avenues. For Latino street food, stroll along Roosevelt Avenue near the subway stop.
TOURING: Jenine Lurie gives informative, food-filled tours of Jackson Heights (and other New York neighborhoods); the next is Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., for $40 per person, including most snacks. She will schedule tours by appointment for groups of five or more (917-916-2988, www.foodevents.com). On June 11 and 12, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group will sponsor tours of the historic district, including some usually off-limits interior gardens ($10 each day, $15 for both; 718-565-5344, www.jhbg.org).
LODGING: Jackson Heights isn't a hotel center, but Manhattan options convenient to Queens-bound trains include the luxe Melrose Hotel (standard rooms start around $269, 140 E. 63rd St., 800-635-7673, www.melrosehotel.com) and the hip-yet-cheap Habitat Hotel (rooms from $75 for a single with a shared bath; 130 E. 57th St., 800-497-6028, www.habitatny.com).
EATING: South Asian chat (snack food) rules Jackson Heights. Spots worth a stop include Sheereen Mahal (37-56 74th St.) and Maharaja Quality Sweets & Snacks (73-10 37th Ave.). For sit-down meals, the Zagat-rated Jackson Diner (37-47 74th St.) serves a huge Indian buffet ($7.95 weekdays, $9.95 weekends) plus a la carte dishes like bhel puri (rice flakes with onions, tomatoes and tamarind sauce) in a mod orange-and-green room decorated with arty photos. On the Jackson Heights-Woodside border, sleek Sripraphai Thai restaurant (64-13 39th Ave., entrees $6 to $15.50) draws crowds with its noodles and soups.
SHOPPING: Gold and sari shops -- some claim in a bigger concentration than in most Indian cities -- line 74th Street's South Asian strip. Try Silk-n-Gold (37-49 74th St.) and the friendly Sahil Sari Palace (37-39 74th St.) for fabrics, men's kurtas and ladies' tunics. The two-level Butala Emporium (37-46 74th St.) stocks kitsch, folk art, furniture, musical instruments and books from South Asia. For a little Bollywood, the Eagle Theater (73-07 37th Rd.) screens Pakistani and Indian films with subtitles in a slightly shabby art deco structure.
INFO: Queens Tourism Council, 718-286-2667, www.queensbp.org.