The 3+ mile stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens between Sunnyside and Flushing is home to some of the best food you can eat in New York, plenty of it right there on the street. $10 will buy you a meal (or two) (or three) from street vendors hailing from, well, everywhere. There are over 130 languages spoken in Queens, and each of those language groups—many along this street—cooks up something utterly wonderful.
At night, Roosevelt Avenue transforms. Daytime businesses shutter and bars pump their music into the streets. Hidden, often unexpected features of urban life become visible. Jackson Heights, for example—a bustling neighborhood of Indian, Hispanic, and Asian family life—emerges as the gay nightlife center for the entire borough. And all along the trundling 7 train, a good percentage of the city's workforce returns home from late nights of work—and they come hungry. You want to eat here.
You may need a guide to get the most out of your food crawl under the 7 train; English comes and goes in Queens, and there are plenty of mediocre food options among the exceptional. But that's where Jeff Orlick comes in.
Jeff offers by-appointment tours of Roosevelt Avenue's street food scene. For less than what I'd pay for lunch at some overpriced midtown spots, Jeff showed a small group and me some of the best street food that Queens has to offer in a gut-busting nine-stop tour that included food from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and elsewhere. He starts his tours where even more intrepid Queens adventurers end, around 90th Street in Elmhurst, and takes his guests out to around 111th Street in Corona.
I say guests deliberately. Jeff is proud to call Jackson Heights his home, and he works hard to make his tour groups realize that this is food embedded in and inseparable from the community around it. Walking the streets with Jeff feels more like visiting a friend in a foreign country than checking out a new spot for some cheap eats. "Almost all of them live in the neighborhood," he explains. "These vendors don't have twitter accounts, they don't look for places of interest for tourists. It's interesting because most residents don't know the breadth of vendors in the area, or possibly don't care."
That breadth is pretty astounding. A small sample of what you can expect on these tours: tacos, gorditas, mammoth tortas, tripe stews, esquites, tamales straight from the steamer, coconut drinks, and possibly the best carnitas in New York. Hungry yet?
Blame it on the lateness of the hour (tours typically run from around 9 PM to 1 AM), the daze of tacos, salsas, and freshly charred corn, or the shear epicurean pleasure of eating so damn much good food at once, but Jeff's tours will put some grand thoughts in your head. About halfway (and 8 kinds of tacos) through, it hit me that this amazing stretch of Roosevelt Avenue isn't just a road with some food trucks. In a way, it's the city's largest and most vibrant night market: a space as social as it is commercial and culinary. Sure, this is good, cheap street food. But it's also a network of connections for the community. Locals gather under the glow of sodium lamps to eat, chat, and catch up with the vendors they know intimately well.
In between bites of barbacoa and sips of tamarind juice, Jeff talked about the daily battles these vendors fight to keep their businesses going. Getting permits to legally sell food is hard enough, so much so that many risk the fines and sell without one. But even legal vendors have to deal with police harassment, which is often totally arbitrary. At least these neighborhoods have the benefit of loyal community followings, but there's nothing like watching an unpermitted tamale lady take out her wad of police tickets to make you realize what these vendors go through to sell good food at ridiculously low margins.
Though Jeff wants us to feel respect and admiration, not pity. "This is real food, in the For us, By us mentality. This is a way someone can make money for themselves without having to join a system or a corporation. Many of these people feel rejected by something, and this is their way of being independent."
It's easy for people active in the New York food scene to get jaded with the swarm of Korean taco trucks, jingoistic concept restaurants, and "artisan" everything all around us. A walk around this part of Queens is the perfect antidote to that. New York's greatest strength is its mindboggling diversity and its endlessly plucky human capital. At the very least, a food crawl through one of the city's most diverse stretches is a delicious way to spend an evening. But it's also an opportunity: to discover a side of the city wholly unknown to many of us, and to recharge the faith that New York delights and surprises you most when you least expect it.
Jeff's tours are offered mostly by appointment, usually Wednesday through Friday starting around 9 PM (there are also sometimes tours during the day starting at noon). For more details and up to date information, check out the tours page of Jeff's website and blog, Jeffrey Tastes.