Jackson Heights’ street food scene, like the weather, is heating up. There are so many vendors dishing up Latin American chow along Roosevelt Avenue that you practically need a map to track them. So Jim Leff has drawn us one on Google —and he’s been furiously adding pushpins as new faces appear. “The speed with which this scene is changing is just amazing,” he marvels. “I’m struggling to keep up.”
The situation is too fluid and the venues too numerous to list them all, but here are some of the best and newest (west to east):
- On Roosevelt Avenue around 80th Street, a fellow rolls out a cart bearing a whole roast suckling pig. He’s around on weekends after about 10 a.m. Latecomers risk missing out. “By late afternoon,” reports The Turtle Bay Dove, “mostly only the head was left!”
- On 82nd Street just south of Roosevelt, a stellar tamale vendor peddles her wares on weekend mornings and possibly weekdays as well. Her ultra-fluffy tamales sell out well before noon. Look for chocolatey, slightly sweet mole tamales, and don’t miss her arroz con leche (hot sweet rice beverage), which “practically undulates with soulful flavor,” Jim promises. (As good as this vendor is, he adds, there are even better tamales to be had a mile west, from a vendor who works under the Long Island Rail Road overpass in Woodside. Smart orders include cheese, chicken with peppers, and a formidable Oaxaqueño.)
- Nearby on 82nd Street, a newish crew of vendors makes quesadillas from scratch, scooping fresh masa out of a huge tub. Everything is done to order, with no shortcuts, so expect to wait as long as 15 or 20 minutes. It’s well worth it. The chorizo in the chorizo-potato filling (a.k.a. choripapas) is real meat, Jim observes, “not the usual veterinary-quality squeeze tube o’ sausage.” Huitlacoche (corn fungus) and homemade tinga (stewed meat) are also good bets. “As time goes by,” he advises, “they’ll surely have to cut corners to stay viable, so enjoy them while they’re still deliciously clueless.”
- On Roosevelt between 82nd and 83rd, ace Colombian bakers are at work in a storefront that once housed a courier service. Technically this isn’t street food, but it’s an improvised-looking operation that’s barely a step above the carts. Go for some of Queens’ best fried empanadas (with terrific house-made hot sauce) and a pan de bono (cheese roll) that achieves the elusive spongy/melting textural balance. “Only these guys get it just right,” Jim says.
- Near Roosevelt and 85th, a stealth fryer works afternoons at what looks like one of those ubiquitous fruit-and-chips carts, making churros more or less to order. “They’re not world class,” JH Jill writes, “but they are the best I’ve had here in New York.” Their flavor and texture are on the money, says Jim, who faults only their oiliness.
- A few doors east, on what is emerging as a hot block for street eats, another vendor (assisted by her son) turns out great quesadillas and chicharron (pork crackling) gorditas. Other nearby vendors appear poised to join the action. “This is probably how Las Vegas started out,” Jim suggests. “Watch for more.”
- Across Roosevelt Avenue, one of the several taco trucks that go by the name El Fogoncito has staked out a regular parking spot and is open at night. The carne asada plate has nicely marinated meat and solid rice and beans. It also advertises horchata, usually not a taco truck staple, and may have some specialties from Ecuador, the vendors’ homeland.
- Near Roosevelt and 86th, a guy shows up on weekends and sells good elotes (grilled corn on the cob with crema, cheese, and chile sauce).
- A half block east, two sweet Salvadoran ladies offer Mexican tacos and——though there are very few Salvadorans in this part of town——pupusas, “made with great care and love,” Jim reports, “redolent of corn, and utterly soulful, if not the most deft.”
- Beyond street bites, Jim’s map lists Terraza Cafe in Elmhurst, “a cool trippy bohemian bar for South American musicians and artists.” It’s also one of the few places in the neighborhood where you can hang out with a well-pulled espresso, notes JH Jill.