This cart on the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 90th Street (map) is one of many nameless Ecuadorian vendors selling grilled, fried, and stewed meat as well as empanadas, sausages, corn, and other starchy goodies. They typically don't stay out late, so we caught this one before it closed up for the night around 9:30.
Meat and Potatoes, Queens-style
This massive plate of food included simmered pork chunks, crisp fried pork, yellow mashed potato balls called llapingacho, natural casing sausage, and—in the back—a comical attempt at salad. A promising start to the evening ahead.
Second Stop: Tia Julia Truck
There were several trucks parked on the corner of Benham Street and Roosevelt (map), but Jeff went straight for Tia Julia, a vendor known for its substantial tortas.
Torta Assembly Line
Silly me was taking photos while the rest of the group devoured the sandwiches, but at least I got to watch the construction in action. Sandwich chain Subway amusingly calls their employees "sandwich artists." But these guys are the real deal; they carefully assembled each torta with care.
Before I could register disappointment at the tortas' swift disappearance, these tacos appeared. The barbacoa was moist and intensely flavored; the supple tortillas screamed real corn. Generous slices of avocado and just the right amount of chile were nice touches.
Potato and Chorizo Tacos
More tacos! Soft, salty potato and potent chorizo tacos, no less. I could take one of these for breakfast any day.
Third Stop: El Coyote Dormilon
Roosevelt Avenue is home to an uncountable number of taco carts and trucks. How do you find the best? Jeff offered some tips: look for lots of salsas and fresh papalo leaves by the condiment section—it's a good sign of hospitality. But more importantly, look for fresh masa (the corn dough used for tortillas, tamales, sopes, and other snacks) on the premises. Pre-made tortillas, even if reheated on the griddle, just aren't the same.
El Coyote Dormilon, the taco cart on 92nd Street and Roosevelt (map) met these requirements nicely.
Gordita is Spanish for "little fat girl." Make of that what you will, so long as you down one of these in the process. It's an addictive snack made from two disks of griddled masa with chicharrones—fried pork skin—mixed into the dough. This one was stuffed with cheese.
Jeff points out that the vendors along Roosevelt nourish workers on their way home from work. There's a drunk food aspect to it, but it's really about comfort. A lot of people in this part of Queens work in restaurants all over the city. After making foreign food for others all day, it's nice to return to a taste of home.
This taco cart also sold tacos dorados: rolled, fried tacos also known as flautas. Jeff went for the vegetarian fillings here: mild, fruity squash blossoms and gamey huitlacoche, a corn-colonizing fungus admirably known as corn smut. Slightly soured crema, shreds of iceberg lettuce, thick slices of ripe avocado, and bits of salty cheese are common toppings around this part of town. Think of them as salad. Sort of.
Fourth Stop: The Stand Outside Rodriguez Grocery
Some vendors set up shop outside groceries and bodegas, blurring the line between inside and outside spaces. This one, on the corner of 94th Street and Roosevelt (map) sold a few items, including champurado, a masa-thickened hot chocolate heavy on the cinnamon. The texture's a little too viscous for me, but champurado certainly has its champions. It definitely warms your bones on a brisk evening.
For me, the real winner at this stop was a totally unique take on esquites, the street snack of corn with butter, mayo, and chile. Often the corn is grilled, rendering it more toothsome than tender, and lightly dressed. Here it swam in a rich, fatty corn broth. An island of mayo floated on top, dusted with ground chiles. I was starting to feel full at this point, but the sweet and awesomely savory corn was downright addictive, and I finished most of a cup by myself. The mayo may seem excessive, but it really did add the perfect creamy touch.
Fifth Stop: Pique Y Pase
The specialty at Pique Y Pase (Warren Street and Roosevelt; map) is guatita, a tripe and potato stew served with a hardboiled egg. This may not be the comfort food you grew up with, but it doesn't take much to become a convert.
Many of the food trucks we visited had televisions attached to the outside. The Roosevelt Avenue street food scene is about more than just good food. Loyal customers return to their favorite vendors time and time again to gather and socialize as well as eat. The food here isn't eat-and-run. It's more like eat, chat with the cook, watch some TV, chat with someone while they order, and head home...eventually.
This truck also sold two amazing refreshments: a coconut drink somewhere between coconut milk and coconut water, and a bracingly tart, just sweet enough tamarind juice. These drinks are some of the best expressions of tropical fruit I've ever had.
Sixth Stop: El Guayaquilena
Walk down Warren Street a little bit to 40th Road (map) and you'll find a truck serving...fish? Yup, and it's fish you really want to eat. This tuna and peanut soup was rich and earthy, but hardly heavy. The peanuts are firm, crisp, and light—completely unlike roasted or boiled versions. The fishiness of the broth may surprise you, but not in a bad way.
Tuna and Plaintain Tamale
The truck also sold a monster-sized mashed plantain tamale stuffed with more tuna.
Seventh Stop: Tamale Lady
Tamale ladies sell fresh, steaming tamales out of large pots and shopping carts. They're perhaps the purest expression of the earnest and delicious culture of the Roosevelt Avenue street food scene. Many of them stick to one location, but keep transient hours and move around as necessary,
They also frequently operate without permits, under the radar. This unpermitted vendor showed us her wad of ticket fines. In the economics of the city's street vending world, it's often cheaper to pay fines than apply for a permit. The fines aren't even enforced regularly. Jeff pointed out that some years the city spends more in giving out these fines than it receives in revenue.
Eigth Stop: Los Amigos Chimichurri
This Colombian truck on 111th Street and Roosevelt (map) was so packed with customers at midnight that the most we could grab was a mixed seafood and potato soup, which is only served on Saturdays. The truck also served all manners of grilled meat and starchy accompaniments—full plates for hearty dinners.
Ninth Stop: Tortas Neza
Jeff saved the best for last. On the opposite corner of 111th and Roosevelt (map) was Tortas Neza (you can read a profile about this truck from our very own James Boo, who was also on the tour.
The truck ran out of the bread for its signature tortas, so we had to make do with tacos (yes, pity us). Pictured here is the carnitas, which may be the finest carnitas I've ever had; it's certainly up there for best in the city. Neza may be a sandwich truck, but they get tacos dead right, from the double-stacked tortillas to the well-prepared meat to the vibrant condiments.
Chicken Tinga Taco
When was the last time you couldn't stop eating a chicken taco? As in, "if I stop I may drop dead and never experience another bite of this wonderful thing." That's how I felt about this superbly moist, beautifully spiced pulled chicken taco. Bravo, Neza, bravo.