After a week-plus on jury duty to say I was psyched for last Friday’s Viva La Comida festival is the height of understatement. The night be before I was like a child on Christmas Eve. Visions of street food—Peruvian tamales, Mexican sandwiches and tacos, Puerto Rican lechin, Tibetan dumplings, Indian chaat, Colombian arepas, Filpino BBQ, and Irish drunk food—danced in my head. The festival which took place on 82nd St. between Baxter and Roosevelt in Jackson Heights was curated by my fellow fresser, Jeff Orlick who knows a thing or two about street food in the Heights and elsewhere.
And just like Christmas morning I arrived early, at around 5 p.m. I knew I’d have to pace myself as my friend Kaori and my pal Max Falkowitz from Serious Eats wouldn’t arrive for some two hours. Even at that early hour a line was forming in front of the Arepa Lady. I stopped by to say hi to her family—Familiarepa if you will—who were churning out the corn cakes in her absence. And I said hello to Tortas Neza the purveyor of ginormous Mexican sandwiches. As much as I love his sandwiches there was no way I could eat one by myself. Finally I could take it no more and pregamed with a lovely stick of Filipino pork BBQ from Ray’s Famous,a newish outfit that can usually be found around the corner near Elmhurst Hospital.
After searching in vain for Lechonera La Piraña, I decided it would be a good idea to get on line for an arepa. The last time I waited on a line anywhere near that long was for a Ramen Burger that I did not get to eat. I hate lines. The only foods I have ever waited on line for are M. Wells Diner and Pearl Oyster Bar.
“The only crazy line was at the Arepa Lady,” Orlick told me afterwards. “Those people did it to themselves. People like to wait in line” Apparently I am one of those people, at least when it comes to arepas. Even though I can get one of the delicious corn cakes—either a sweet tasting arepa de choclo or the saltier arepa de queso—any weekend night on the corner of 79th and Roosevelt, I chose to wait and.wait. The festival is only in its second year, but waiting on the arepa is something of a tradition. Get in line with a friend or two and then send them over to Tortas Neza, like the couple who were queued up behind me.
After about 30 minutes of waiting I noticed people eating smallish tacos and gushing about their tastiness. Turns out they were $1 tacos de canasta,or basket tacos. Soon my new friend in line was holding my place. There between Filipino BBQ and the Potala momo cart was a table with a basket. I handed over a buck and was soon enjoying the best three bite taco with some amazing salsa verde. Orlick has sworn me to secrecy as to the location of this vendor, but if you ever see a gent on a bike selling tacos on Roosevelt in the early evening, get one!
Around 7 Kaori showed up. When I told her I was on line for corn cakes with cheese she didn’t seem enthused. “I guess I’ll have a bite of yours,” she said. Spoken like someone who has never supped upon the cheesy manna from heaven of the Sainted Arepa Lady. Kaori went off to check out the rest of the festival. And then Max showed up. “God bless you Joe DiStefano,” he said when I agreed to purchase two arepas de choclo for him without him bringing me a taco or some other foodstuff.
Kaori saw the cheesy sweet, maize-infused light when she tried the arepa de choclo. We also had some pupusas from the this years’s Vendy Award winner, El Olomega. And we split a wonderfully refreshing chaat from Mysttik Masaala. We opted not to have one of Tortas Neza’s gutbombs, but marvelled as some happy eaters devoured the gigantic Torta Puma in a matter of minutes.
I didn’t get a chance to stop by but I’m told Taqueria Coatzingo, one of my favorite spots was doing a brisk business that night. “I liked how the brick and mortar businesses participated this year,” Orlick said. “The ones who sold food outside did very well and realized that they can coexist with the street vendors. Together it creates an awesome experience.”
If he can get the sponorship together Orlick would like to have this street food fiesta span two days next year. Now that would be truly awesome.