In Punjab, the word dera translated means “a sitting place,” where people can relax and enjoy other people’s company. Dera Restaurant, located in Jackson Heights, Queens, has been a neighborhood staple since 1971, when it was known as Shaheen serving traditional Pakistani food in addition to Indian, Bangladeshi and Nepali dishes. Muhammad Saif Ullah Nagra, Dera’s current owner, took over the restaurant’s lease in 2004 and changed its name from Shaheen. Being a restaurateur is something he never imagined he would do when he first came to the United States in 1991.
Nagra moved from Gujranwala, Pakistan, to Brooklyn, where he worked a series of odd jobs to make ends meet, including stints at a video store and a Manhattan bakery before opening a jewelry store in Jackson Heights. During this time he was a regular at Dera Restaurant where he could satisfy his cravings for flavors from his home country.
“When I came to this country, it was very hard to find Pakistani food. It was 1991, now it’s 2022, it was a totally different time,” he says. “There were also few South Asian people here, now there are a lot from different countries — not only Pakistani but Indian, Bangladeshi and Nepalese.”
Around 2004, Nagra was beginning to tire of working in the jewelry business; he found sitting inside the store all day boring. At the same time, Shaheen’s owner was looking to get out of the restaurant business. Nagra began working at the restaurant, ultimately taking over the lease and eventually renaming it Dera. Business picked up with Nagra at the helm; he had been part of the community for a long time and knew many people.
“I didn’t have any experience working in the restaurant. I only had experience working at the bakery in Manhattan,” Nagra says. “But that was in Manhattan and there were different people than here in Jackson Heights. Because of my jewelry business the people knew me very much, which is why I was easily able to pick up the business.”
Nagra quickly turned the place around. He fixed some sanitation issues and kept the restaurant open later, rather than closing at 7 p.m. Business started to boom.
“It felt very good. Before, I used to come here to eat and then it became my restaurant. I feel very good, I’m happy it’s been a very successful restaurant,” he says.
Mohammed Faridi has been coming to Dera Restaurant for nearly 20 years. He says it reminds him of home.
“The food is traditional, it tastes like homemade food. It’s not like a mass-produced restaurant food, it’s homemade and it makes me feel like I’m back home,” he says. “I am from Pubjab, where the traditional food is spicy, hot, fresh and quick and that is what [Dera] reminds me of. This is a great place to have fun with your family or loved ones. You can bring everybody over and you will be taken care of.”
The restaurant has more than 60 items on the menu — none of them more than $20. Customer favorites include, beef nihari, a Pakistani beef stew, beef or goat paaya (feet), haleem, mashed chicken with lentils and Dera’s selection of naan.
Beef paaya with garlic naan and rice. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado
“Our naan is the best. Sometimes people come only for the naan, garlic naan, sesame naan, plain naan, keema naan, we have a lot of stuff,” Nagra says.
Dera Restaurant also offers a variety of sweets for $10 a pound. Here, you’ll find traditional Indian jalebi, a batter of plain flour prepared and deep fried in Desi ghee, gulab jamun, fried milk dough balls dipped in sugar syrup and rasgulla, a syrupy ball-shaped dumpling.
Sabrina Ahmed is another customer that has been coming to Dera Restaurant for many years, so much so that it’s become somewhat of a family tradition.
“We are from Ozone Park but we come to Jackson Heights for grocery shopping and Indian food. We’ve been coming since I was a child so it’s a family thing. We are Bangladeshi but we love Pakistani food,” she says. “I always get the butter chicken or the chicken biryani. It’s flavorful, spicy, but a good spicy, so be sure to grab a Coke with it.”
Nagra hopes Dera Restaurant will continue to be a place where people come to sit, connect and enjoy delicious food for at least another 20 years. But for now, he is grateful to have made it this far.
“When I came here, I didn’t know anybody. I had no visa. I was struggling, but I remembered this is the land of opportunity,” he says. “I am happy I was able to be successful here.”
Visit Dera Restaurant at 72-09 Broadway in Jackson Heights, open everyday from 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.