Our friends at Culinary Backstreets, a Popupla Award winner for the Best Travel Blogs and Websites of 2018, run culinary walking tours in off-beat, culturally diverse cities around the world, including New York. Popupla editor Daniel Schwartz decided to take one for a spin — in the Queens neighborhood he grew up in.
QUEENS, New York – As much as I delight in eating my way around the world, I take real pleasure in chowing down in my own backyard. That's because my backyard is Queens, New York, one of the world’s most diverse areas and a generally excellent place to dine out. My hometown of Jackson Heights and the neighboring areas of Corona and Elmhurst are particularly tasty melting pots, brimming with culinary delights from around the world.
So when I heard our friends at Culinary Backstreets were taking travelers on street food tours through precisely those neighborhoods, I jumped at the opportunity to join. Even after two decades of picking away at the many restaurants, food trucks, and street stalls in my neighborhood, I knew I was only scratching the surface. Here was my chance to dig deeper.
I signed up for the four-hour tour that runs through Corona and ends in Jackson Heights (an extended six-hour version also includes Elmhurst) and met my guide, Esneider Arevalo, under an old movie theater that's now a CVS in Corona Plaza just beyond the tracks of the thundering 7 train, where tours meet every Saturday morning. Like in all of Culinary Backstreet's tours — which are offered in places like Lisbon, Athens, Tbilisi, Istanbul, Mexico City, and Tokyo to name a few — the tour guide is always a local.
Arevalo, a chef at the iconic (and recently shuttered) Angelica Kitchen in the East Village, is as perfect for the job of tour guide as they get. A long-time resident of Jackson Heights, originally from Colombia, Arevalo spends his free time eating through the borough, assisted by food-obsessed friends who chime in regularly via group text with photos of new places to put on their collective hit list. Arevalo's mother, to my great surprise, is the neighborhood's famous Arepa Lady, revered by locals and tourists alike, including Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, for her gooey, griddled, after-hour treats.
After a quick intro about Corona — an area once divided between African-Americans and Jews and Italians that is now predominantly Hispanic — Arevalo led us to Tulcingo Bakery for a Mexican breakfast staple: conchas (cookie-crusted sweet rolls) and champurrado (hot chocolate enriched with masa), intended, as they are, to fortify us for the day ahead. Before we could even finish our drinks, we were eating handmade tacos down the street at one of neighborhood's first taquerias, known for its weekend barbacoa, or slow-roasted goat.
On our way there, we were stopped by a friend of Arevalo's who mistook our small group of predominantly white millennial sightseers for extranjeros (foreigners) and saluted us warmly with a "Welcome to America!" We laughed. We all grew up on the East Coast and live in New York, but that passerby was on to something: In this neck of the woods, we might as well have been tourists.
Despite its wealth of culinary treasures, Corona does not get a hefty amount of tourist traffic. It's off the beaten path, a bit rough around the edges, not yet overcome by the kind of gentrification that has affected other neighborhoods in New York. (Keyword: Yet.) This is still a tight-knit community of cultures from around the world with their own ways of life that, though fascinating for visitors, are not intended for public consumption.
And while I can't speak in confidence about how our kind of interest affects these communities, I'm glad we experienced them through the eyes of a real-deal local. (If it wasn't already clear, this is not the kind of guide who leads big groups through urban safaris with a microphone and a little red flag.) It was a privilege for us to have eaten our way through the area in the first place. I'm grateful that we learned something of the history, hardships, and meaning behind each dish along the way, rather than just pointing at menus, eating quickly, and crossing things off a list.
We continued down Roosevelt Avenue, the area's main drag, until we hit a block of Ecuadorian food carts, their cuts of barbecued meat on full display for the weekend. Our destination was Pique y Pase Pepin (95-40 Roosevelt Ave.; +1-347-469-2023), where we tried cuáker, a hot and sweet oatmeal drink perfumed with star anise, that takes its name from the brand of oatmeal. A few streets down, we sunk our teeth into three different types of pan de queso, or cheese bread, each representing a part of the Colombian ethnic identity — pan de bono for the European influence, pan de yuca for the African, and buñuelo for the indigenous. Then, a stop at a tiny Argentinian bakery for dulce de leche-filled alfajores and a peek at their version of cannoli, also stuffed with dulce de leche.
As we worked our way deeper into Jackson Heights, Arevalo continued to point things out we would have otherwise missed. Like the struggle facing local street food operations due to the rise in food truck culture and the abundance of fruit stalls on Roosevelt Avenue as a result of legislation encouraging fresher eating in under-serviced areas. Inside a candelabra, or spiritual candle shop, we learned about the Caribbean practice of Santería and how such a belief was even allowed to form under strict Catholic rule. (The answer lies in Spain's approach to colonialism.)
Over empanadas at La Gran Uruguaya (85-06 37th Ave.; +1-718-505-0404), Arevalo touched upon European influence (our empanadas had tuna and olives in them), how to drink mate, and race relations. At a chance encounter with a Ecuadorian street food vendor — the only one Arevalo has seen that sells ceviche de chochos (a fish-less ceviche of beans, onions, tomatoes, crispy plantains, chicharrones, and lime and orange juice) — it became clear that no two Culinary Backstreets tours are the same. It all depends on who decides to show up to work or cross paths with Arevalo on a given day.
Our ramble came to a close in front of a seafood restaurant operating out of the back of a bodega. The menu offers specialities from Veracruz, Mexico. After being written up in the New York Times, the tiny space is almost always full, so we had to eat our shrimp cocktail — sharp, punchy, and mouthwatering even by memory — outside. Tired and full from our little trip around the world, we parted ways under the rumble of the 7 train, my eyes opened to people and parts of my own neighborhood I would have never discovered otherwise.
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Editor's note: Popupla co-founder Jeralyn Gerba took a Culinary Backstreets tour in Tbilisi, Georgia, and loved it.