On Thursday, I disperse into the city slower than the rest of the crowd that ricochets like pinballs. I’m wearing two backpacks (front and back) stuffed with enough clothes, shoes, and equipment to last a month. It’s a mile to the Millennium Hotel in Times Square where I’ll spend the next five days for the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference. I walk into the hotel looking as I’m ready to conquer the whole of Manhattan with mismatched outfits, a camera, and a backpacker’s appetite.
I unearth my camera, store the packs at the front desk, and join the street food tour headed to “El Camino del Santiago” or Little Colombia in Jackson Heights, Queens. Led by tour guides Andrew Silverstien from Streetwise New York, chef Fany Gerson (who owns La Newyorkina and wrote My Sweet Mexico and Paletas), and John Rudolph with Feet in 2 Worlds, I hop on the 7 train from Times Square with fourteen others to sample beef momos, tamales, pandebono, and more from local food carts and taco stands.
We get off the train near Broadway and 74th Street for our first of seven stops at Potala Fresh Food (a Tibetan food truck) where Andrew briefs us on the history of the neighborhood and the group shares plates of Tibetan beef Momos (dumplings) with red hot sauce.
Before 1900, Jackson Heights (known then as the Trains Meadow section of Newton), was an undeveloped farming community with “barns and bee hives, carriage-houses and corn-cribs…dirt roads, packed hard by years of iron-shod hooves” (1). To travel to Manhattan, residents rode The New York and Queens County Railway’s Jackson Avenue trolley to Long Island City, followed by a ferry ride to either 34th or 92nd Street, not exactly a quick trip to the city.
All that changed in 1909 when the Queensboro Bridge connecting 59th Street in Manhattan with Long Island City was built. Over the next decade, the Queensboro Corporation (run by entrepreneur Edward A. MacDougall) invested $3.8 million in farmland along the planned subway line with plans to develop a self-contained urban community with garden apartments, row houses, and public gardens modeled after Britain’s Garden City movement or a city within a city according to MacDougall. With the arrival of an elevated subway along Roosevelt Avenue in 1917, Jackson Heights was only 20 minutes from Manhattan which made it an ideal location for young families to live.
Over the years, the neighborhood experienced booms and busts from its early success to the economic hardships brought on by World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II. The 1950s brought another economic boom as more families moved to the suburban neighborhood, including a wave of middle-class Colombian entrepreneurs whose culinary history remains today(2). The 1965 family-centered immigration law attracted a larger immigrant population to the area, many of them working-class Hispanics and Asians who traveled from California to settle in Queens.
Our second stop is El Guayaquileno (an Ecuadorian food truck parked at Roosevelt Ave. & 80th St.) for ceviche de camaron (shrimp ceviche) and bollos de pescado (plantain and tuna fish stuffed tamale with peanut sauce).
We walk two blocks and turn the corner at 82nd Street where Andrew disappears and returns with plastic shopping bags filled with tamale de rajas y queso (poblano pepper and cheese tamales) from The Tamale Lady. It’s the first vegetarian offering and the mild peppery heat offset by bursts of cheese and polenta-like masa is worth the wait.
Across the street, sweet fruit punch cocktails and hot pandebono (Colombian cheese bread) wait for us inside La Delicia de Pandebono a Colombian bakery located at 40-32 82nd St.
The crisp and chewy pandebono, made with corn and yuca flours, cheese, and sugar prove to be dense, doughy, and addictive, unlike any bread I’ve tasted before.
Next we stop by Mexico Lindo, a small taco cart on the corner of Roosevelt Ave. and Gleane St.
I sip a grapefruit soda and wait for a vegetarian taco served on a thick corn tortilla stuffed so full of refried beans, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, vegetables, and pickled poblanos that I need a fork to eat it when it’s finally done.
By the time we get to Las Quesadillas de la 86 one block away on Roosevelt Ave. and 86th St., I’m too stuffed to try the mushroom quesadillas served on homemade flour tortillas. The train rumbles overhead. A Bollywood film plays in a storefront window nearby where Nag Champa incense waves through the air.
For our final stop, we walk down Roosevelt Ave. and back over to 40-19 Gleane Street for a carajillo (Spanish coffee with rum, sugar, and lemon peels) from Terraza 7 Train Cafe and alfajor (dulche de leche sandwich cookies) from Nueva Bakery. The bar is an artsy hub for live music, political discussions, film screenings, literary readings, coffee and drinks. It makes me want to live in Queens.
I reluctantly take the 7 train back to Manhattan. All I really want to do is camp out on the couch at Terraza with another carajillo and wait for the music to start. There’s always next time.
(1). Jackson Heights Beautification Group, http://www.jhbg.org/history/history.html.
(2). Jackson Heights History, http://macaulay.cuny.edu/student-projects/neighborhoods/jackson_heights/hist_timeline.html