The world on a plate: the diverse kitchens of Queens, New York

A food tour of New Yorks 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 smaller dining room in the back of Beky’s Bakery, owned Roberta Torres sits at the head of the table, as their own families eats breakfast around her. She wears her trademark Frieda Kahlo apron and maintains one eye on the line of customers forming at the counter. The ceiling is strung with fake blooms 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 speeches are spoken than anywhere else on the planet, and Beky’s is just one of virtually 6,000 restaurants representative of 120 nationalities that call this county home.

Beky’s Bakery

It was the success of Roberta’s pushcart — selling tamales on a street corner — that allowed her to open up this small place, squeezed between an insurance bureau 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 had now been spreading 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 kicking from the chipotle. The trademark ingredient, however, is papalo , a Mexican herb with a unique floral edge. Our guidebook, Esneider Arevalo, 50, a deep knowledgable and charismatic man with startling green eyes, orders two for our group to share. One girl speaks for us all:” Every once in a while you eat a sandwich that changes your life .”

Thai restaurant Eim Khao Mun Khai.

This is the third stop on the tour, which moves through Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona- the neighborhoods 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 stroll along Roosevelt Avenue, the borough’s main boulevard, 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 Medellin, Colombia, at 17 to join his mother, who had endeavoured to Queens two years previously. He soon found run as a dishwasher. I asked how he aimed up as a guidebook with Culinary Backstreets.” I come from foodie royalty ,” he says.

A Chinese herbalist in Elmhurst

His mother, Maria Cano, is the well known but now retired Arepa Lady, whose pushcart on 79 th Street and Roosevelt Avenue described 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 dreamings, even if that dreaming 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 container of Colombian pastries: pan de yuca , almojabana , and bunuelo . The bunuelosteams as Esneider transgresses it with his hands to share between us, passing out napkins from his tote bag of renders.” It savours like a Colombian hushpuppy ,” one of the group says, referring to deep-fried maize dough balls that are particularly popular in the American south.

Roasted corn vendor, Elmhurst

This whole experience is pleasingly low key- there’s no being corralled into restaurants that accommodate tourist groups- and Esneider brings not only 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 female, 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 households ,” Esneider tells.” 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 industries .”

Mi Otra Casa, a Mexican bar and eatery in Elmhurst

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 eateries 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 deep into your food selections, to examine how what we eat intersects with the economic aspects of immigration and gentrification. I always try to eat sustainably, but up to now I had never considered the socioeconomic ramifications of which food trucks I frequent.

Ismael, a butcher at El Molino, a mashup Mexican grocery and Argentinian butcher shop in Corona

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 botanica ( a store selling alternative health products and folk medicines ), its shelves stocked with effigies, candles, and colognes promising to deliver everything from salvation to retaliation. A shop next-door sells white garments as crisp as frosting for girls’ quinceanera , Latin America’s coming of age tradition- like sweet sixteen but going a year earlier.

Hornado Ecuatoriano

We maintain eating: alfajores ( a dulce de leche cookie ), a chivito ( a steak sandwich ), and champus , 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 82 nd Street and for the first time we insure chain store 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 tasks but take 30 from local industries ,” says Esneider, who campaigned against the re-zoning.

Lhasa Liang Fen. Photograph: Melanie Einzig

As we enter Elmhurst the restaurants switching from Latin American to Pan Asian. We pick up some Hainanese chicken rice at the tiny Thai restaurant Eim Khao Mun Kai and a box of momos ( south Asian dumplings) from Lhasa Liang Fen, where two Buddhist monks are watching a documentary on Tibetan hip hop.

We take our wares to the historic Moore Homestead Playground for a picnic in the spring sunshine. Two older men argue over a game of Chinese checkers while kids play handball on the courts below. Esneider talks us through each dish, navigating its history and geography. I think about how there is no linear narrative to the migrant kitchens of Queens. Each community has created a sense of home through the ritual of making and sharing food, and in turn, has added yet another thread to the multicultural knot that ties Queens together, constructing it ever more robust, ever more colourful, and, of course, ever tastier.
* The full-day United Kitchens tour is $150 per adult; the four-hour Corona’s Culinary Essentials tour $95. Walks are for four to seven people and all food is included in cost. Walks can be altered for vegetarians and others with various dietary requirements

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