Diversification or Assimilation: A Closer Look at a Fusion Restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens

Diversification or Assimilation: A Closer Look at a Fusion Restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens

Jackson Heights is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. Is the cultural authenticity disappearing?

Ahhh, New York City—home of Times Square, flying rats, and eight million people. Known as the “world’s greatest melting pot,” individuals of numerous ethnicities and cultures combine to create a vibrant, colorful, and expansive society. Yet, within the larger population cauldron rests a hidden bowl of 180,000 people speaking 167 different languages. These individuals reside in no other than Jackson Heights, Queens.

Jackson Heights claims the title for being one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States…if not the entire world.  Multiple prominent publications recognize and applaud the neighborhood’s eclectic demographic.

Though bursting with diversity, Jackson Heights is not large in size. Still, the inhabitants open hundreds of restaurants, boutiques, and pharmacies unique to their respective cultures.

Specifically focusing on cuisine, there are 63 restaurants within the 1.8-mile stride from Corona Plaza to Diversity Plaza (not counting the underrated food carts on every corner).

Yet, one restaurant caught my attention more than others: PokéMOM. PokéMOM is a newly opened Japanese Fusion Restaurant located in Jackson Heights, Queens.

This is the storefront of PokéMOM, located on 74th and 10th. (Alanna Stein)

What does “fusion” even mean?

In terms of food, fusion is the practice of merging recipes and combining ingredients from different cultures. Typically, culinary artists utilize fusion to diversify their menus, expand their personal repertoires, and voice their identity. Fusion cuisine boldly introduces new food concepts to the public.

Unknowingly, we eat fusion food without even thinking about it: a slice of Hawaiian pizza, a piece of Mexican lasagna, a bite of cheesesteak egg roll. Fusion food is all around us.

Experimental in nature, New York City allows fusion restaurants to flourish. Specifically with the diverse culture of Jackson Heights, serving fusion food is an extremely effective way to generate customers. So, PokéMOM seemingly cracked the code to success!

But is the restaurant fusion by economic pressure or choice?

How does the appearance play into the appeal?

PokéMOM intelligently utilizes its storefront to appeal to many walks of life. The window panels are converted to life-size menus, perfectly presenting the available food. Interestingly, maps from three different continents are used to fill the frame, speaking directly to numerous populations in Jackson Heights and further inviting business.  The immense variety of food is the definition of fusion cuisine, thus, the outside of PokéMOM is literally the epitome of Jackson Heights.

But does the inside reflect the ideals of the outside?

In an interview with Raj, the manager of PokéMOM, he reveals the truth behind this fusion restaurant. PokéMOM started as an “authentic” Japanese restaurant. Raj admits that he preferred when the restaurant served only traditional Japanese food. However, he reveals that such traditional food did not sell; success didn’t come until Raj mixed mayonnaise into his original sauces!

So, no. PokéMOM is not a fusion restaurant by choice. Instead, it’s a story of a Japanese restaurant losing its authenticity due to economic pressure.

And, no. PokéMOM’s inside does not reflect the outside. Instead, the underlying theme contradicts the idea of fusion, becoming an upsetting case of assimilation.

In a place built on the pillars of diversity, cultures will undoubtedly mix and merge. However, the interaction can be either forced or natural. If forced, the interactions will stink of commercialization, ultimately breeding cultural appropriation. If natural, the interactions will shift the meaning of authenticity for the greater good of cultural hybridization. Both cases result in loss, but clearly, instinctive intermixing invites more growth than decay.

I think PokéMOM is a case of the latter. Yes, Raj may not be able to cook his favorite authentic foods, but he is still subtly introducing Japanese culture to an American neighborhood. Raj succeeds in creating a new experience for all demographics.

So, while PokéMOM may not be authentically Japanese, it is authentically Jackson Heights.

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