>> Behind The Racks | Eat the World NYC

11 October 2018

Behind The Racks

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

This article originally appeared in the 11 October 2018 edition of The Queens Tribune:

The three-neighborhood border between Jackson Heights, Woodside and Elmhurst might be the consummate spot in the entire city for surrounding yourself with the culinary magic of the world.

Parachute into the 74th Street transit hub on one of many trains or buses and options can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. Backtrack a few streets to the Filipino blocks of Woodside on Roosevelt Avenue. Explore one of many Bangladeshi strongholds right outside the train. Walk down to Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst for the city’s tightest bunch of good Thai restaurants. Stay under the 7 tracks and find the greatest concentration of Colombian and Ecuadorian fare in the city.

This last route will also bring you past all manner of Mexican-owned establishments catering to one of the city’s largest blocs of people, the sheer force of which always makes certain that options for good meals are never far away. Immigrants and children of immigrants have been turning into entrepreneurs since the sun started rising, and some of these businesses have expanded to cooking food. Many times a sidewalk stand or a weekend barbacoa stall will get so popular that tables are added and a sign goes up in the front. Word of these spread through the neighborhood from person to person, but non-Mexicans with a keen eye can also partake in these unique experiences. The deli or market might still exist, but in many cases the food becomes the big draw.

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Rules for vendors and restaurants are a bit more relaxed in México, so walking down any street in the country’s cities makes finding food easy. Taco shops have cauldrons of meats bubbling with all your options right in plain sight. The taquero constantly chopping meats on his wooden block and shoving them into a double tortilla is not hidden from passersby. To conform with codes here in New York City, places that replicate this experience usually have to slide to an indoor setting with some regulations, but the spirit is just the same. You can find these stands and stalls on almost every block in some parts of Jackson Heights and Corona, with high concentrations on Roosevelt and 37th avenues as well as Northern Boulevard.

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

A five-minute walk under the elevated tracks of the 7 line brings you to a very nondescript deli and La Esquina del Camarón Mexicano (80-02 Roosevelt Ave., open daily), born from a proprietor who got popular in the area making coctel de camarones at various locations during summer months. These shrimp cocktails in a tomato-based sauce full of clam juice and lime are staple foods back home, the rush of memories almost visible on the faces of people eating them here. The weekend stand churning these out during summer months still exists, but in 2014 a full kitchen and seating area requiring a bit of contortion to sit down was added to the back of the deli, along with a menu full of seafood antojitos. Fried fish and octopus tacos, fish empanadas and shark flautas are all delicious, but tops are the tostadas of both octopus and ceviche. The former is simple, fresh pieces of the mollusk, while the latter is a daily-made sea bass cooked in lime juice with touches of cilantro and tomato. As is the case for most of these spots, a trip late in the afternoon or evening might yield limited options after a busy day of sales.

5 de Mayo Food Market. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

The 5 de Mayo Food Market (81-06 Roosevelt Ave., open Sat.-Sun.) is one block farther east, and at first glance appears to be a fruit-and-vegetable stand. Piles of mangoes, pineapples and onions are being inspected by shoppers, but right above their heads is the key to discovering what lies within. A very limited amount of Spanish comprehension brings into focus what the neighborhood already knows: A wonderful taco stand sets up on weekends (fines de semana). The stand also doubles as a butcher of sorts; marinated and cooked meats can be purchased by weight to take home for parties or home cooking. The most popular type for both eating in and take away is its wonderful barbacoa, a type of preparation that traditionally takes place in an earthen pit but is adjusted for city life here in Queens. The market does both goat (chivo) and lamb (borrego), the latter being the absolute star of the show in all its fatty glory. Available year round but more enticing for the impending winter is a nice consomé de chivo, an oily, rich and spicy goat stew that is ordered by the gallon for take-away customers. A friendly seating area that holds 10 or 12 is just the right kind of place to make friends and hear stories.

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

San Antonio Farm & Grocery (85-25 37th Ave., Fri.-Sun.) has a slightly longer window for weekend tacos, again at the back of what appears to be a regular grocery store. The standout offerings here are the luscious pernil, slow-roasted pork shoulder; and the chile relleno, somewhat of an oddity for a regular taco. This consists of a poblano pepper stuffed with white cheese, breaded, fried and placed on the double tortillas with a dollop of guacamole on top. The chorizo here is also rave-worthy, so if your stomach can handle it, order one of each and enjoy some Spanish football with the other customers who sit down briefly to eat.

Pambazo from Horchata Deli. Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Farther east is Horchata Deli (90-02 37th Ave., open daily), home to an exterior stand cooking all manner of antojitos. Pambazos, named for the soft white bread they are made with, are sandwiches of potato and chorizo that get dipped whole into guajillo sauce. Along with quesadillas and tacos placeros, this seems to be what the chef here is known for, and it gets ordered often.

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

Continuing along north and east almost all the way to Citi Field, Carnicería Mexicana (105-09 Northern Blvd., open daily) has another kitchen that seems to be a bigger draw than the original function of the space. As the name suggests, this is also a meat market, but hand-drawn signs placed on every surface show an ever-expanding menu and confident kitchen. There are a few seats in the rear taking advantage of every sliver of space the tiny market has, but you can also walk up to the exterior window and place your order there. The women here have created house specialties (de la casa) for many of the antojitos, a great place to start your explorations. The quesadilla de la casa is unique, a riff on the classic squash-blossom version that adds crunchy chicharrón and the herb epazote.

Photo by Sasha Maslov for The Queens Tribune.

These five are by no means an exhaustive list; there are shops in between all of them in which to eat and explore. The neighborhood shifts and grows constantly, with stands popping up and shutting down, opening behind groceries, next to delis, and even under sports bars. While New York City has a deserved bad reputation for lacking regional Mexican foods, its antojitos are as good as can be found anywhere.

Various Locations

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