A food tour of New York’s most multicultural borough revels in Latin American and Asian cuisine, but also highlights how gentrification threatens to end this riot of flavours.
I’m waiting for what will turn out to be the most impressive sandwich I’ve had in recent memory. In the small dining room in the back of Beky’s Bakery, owner Roberta Torres sits at the head of the table, as her family eats breakfast around her. She wears her trademark Frieda Kahlo apron and keeps one eye on the line of customers forming at the counter. The ceiling is strung with fake flowers and a telenovela plays on the TV. We could be in Puebla, Mexico, where Roberta is from, but we’re not; we’re in Queens, New York, one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the US, where perhaps more languages are spoken than anywhere else on the planet, and Beky’s is just one of nearly 6,000 restaurants representing the 120 nationalities that call this county home.
It was the success of Roberta’s pushcart — selling tamales on a street corner — that allowed her to open up this small spot, squeezed between an insurance agency and Juanita Salon. I would never have known to come here if I weren’t a guest of food blog and tour company Culinary Backstreets, which was launched in Istanbul in 2009, and has since expanded to nine cities, including Tokyo, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro and, in April 2017, Queens.
But back to the sandwich. It’s a cemita: a toasted sesame-seed topped bun stuffed with melted queso oaxaca, chorizo, and avocado with a smoky kick from the chipotle. The trademark ingredient, however, is papalo, a Mexican herb with a unique floral edge. Our guide, Esneider Arevalo, 50, a deeply knowledgable and charismatic man with startling green eyes, orders two for our group to share. One woman speaks for us all: “Every once in a while you eat a sandwich that changes your life.”
This is the third stop on the tour, which moves through Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona – the neighbourhoods with the largest foreign-born populations in Queens. Everyone else in our group of five – an academic bunch, all women – has taken a Culinary Backstreets tour before. They recommend I pace myself.
As we walk along Roosevelt Avenue, the borough’s main thoroughfare, lined with dollar stores, pharmacies, and cafes, Esneider tells me about his childhood, pausing to let the rumble of the elevated subway pass overhead. He left Medellín, Colombia, at 17 to join his mother, who had moved to Queens two years previously. He soon found work as a dishwasher. I asked how he ended up as a guide with Culinary Backstreets. “I come from foodie royalty,” he says.
His mother, Maria Cano, is the well known but now retired Arepa Lady, whose pushcart on 79th Street and Roosevelt Avenue drew acclaim from Chowhound’s Jim Leff and the late Anthony Bourdain. Esneider himself worked his way up to become head chef of Angelica Kitchen, New York’s original farm-to-table vegan restaurant. His and his mother’s story is the stuff of American dreams, even if that dream has been complicated by the current political climate.
We stop at Seba Seba, a 30-year-old corner diner where locals eat plates of pollo asado (seasoned grilled chicken), to pick up a bag of Colombian pastries: pan de yuca, almojábana, and buñuelo. The buñuelo steams as Esneider breaks it with his hands to share between us, passing out napkins from his tote bag of supplies. “It tastes like a Colombian hushpuppy,” one of the group says, referring to deep-fried maize dough balls that are particularly popular in the American south.
This whole experience is pleasingly low key – there’s no being corralled into restaurants that accommodate tourist groups – and Esneider brings not just culinary expertise but testimony to the immigrant experience of 48% of the borough. He has also travelled extensively through his work with Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement and touring in his DIY punk band Huasipungo. Right now, he is the sole operator for Culinary Backstreets New York.
We pass a corner usually populated by street vendors, but there’s just one woman, her cart piled high with food including over-ripe mangoes. The day before there was a police raid on unlicensed vendors. “The pushcart has been the traditional port of entry into the economy for a lot of immigrant families,” Esneider says. “But there is a cap on licences and people without them are vulnerable to police harassment. They say they want to control quality, but it’s part of the gentrification process. By increasing police presence in neighbourhoods they want gentrified, they squeeze out local businesses.”
The next stop is food truck Hornado Ecuatoriano to try hot morocho, a sweet-spiced corn drink similar to rice pudding, and a popular midday snack in Ecuador. As we eat, we talk about how high-end restaurants with trendy food trucks monopolise the licences needed by immigrants. This is not a tour for the Instragram-happy foodies (though Esneider might benefit from it); it pushes you to look more deeply into your food choices, to examine how what we eat intersects with the economics of immigration and gentrification. I always try to eat sustainably, but until now I had never considered the socioeconomic ramifications of which food trucks I frequent.
The tour continues to El Molino grocery store, where Esneider points out ingredients from cactus to panela (unrefined cane sugar), offering us recipe ideas as he goes; then onwards to La Caridad, a Cuban-owned botánica (a shop selling alternative health products and folk medicines), its shelves stocked with effigies, candles, and colognes promising to deliver everything from salvation to revenge. A shop next-door sells white dresses as crisp as frosting for girls’ quinceañera, Latin America’s coming of age tradition – like sweet sixteen but coming a year earlier.
We keep eating: alfajores (a dulce de leche cookie), a chivito (a steak sandwich), and champús, a spiced Colombian drink of mashed lulo (a citrus fruit native to northern South America), corn, and pineapple. At this point everything is blending into one delicious cultural medley.
This is not a tour for Instagram-happy foodies. It pushes you to look at your food choices
We turn down 82nd Street and for the first time we see chain stores like Gap and Old Navy. While Jackson Heights was designated a Historic District in 1993 its protections don’t extend this far. Despite local resistance, the Jackson Movie Theatre was demolished after 90 years serving the community and will soon to be replaced by a Target department store. “A Target will give 15 jobs but take 30 from local businesses,” says Esneider, who campaigned against the re-zoning.