The Flavors and Flair of Latin America, in One Queens Market

Corona Plaza, a rare hub created by neighborhood food vendors, teems with the aromas and colors of many cuisines. But its future is uncertain.

The Corona Plaza market in Queens is a vibrant destination for regional specialties from Latin American countries, with as many as 46 stalls.Credit…Video by Mohamed Sadek for The New York Times

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By Priya Krishna

Some of the best food in New York City can be found along the No. 7 train line in Queens: crisp-edged samosas in Jackson Heights, tart aguachile in Elmhurst and rice rolls slicked with chile oil in Flushing.

Now, directly below the 103rd Street-Corona Plaza station, you can find tripa mishqui from Ecuador, guisado from Guatemala and tlayudas from Oaxaca, Mexico. All these are among the riches at a sprawling market filled with as many as 46 vendors selling home-style food from across Latin America — the kind you won’t easily find in restaurants.

Aromas of just-fried poblanos and fresh masa waft up toward the train platform. Down on the plaza, vendors call out: “Carnitas!” “Esquites!” “Tortas!” Tortillas are embellished with shavings of beef and diced onions. Shrimp flecked with cilantro and garlic sizzle on a flattop. Pork skin crackles as lechon is sliced and laid over warm potatoes.

Corona Plaza isn’t just an exciting place to eat; it’s a significant achievement for the street vendors, most of whom live in the neighborhood. Last summer, they formally established their own organization, La Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes de Corona Plaza, to run the market — making this one of the only markets in New York spearheaded and operated by local vendors. (Many of the city’s markets are run by third-party groups that bring in vendors from outside the neighborhood.)

Street vendors in New York face a host of challenges, from hauling their wares to dealing with the police. Even here, their livelihoods are precarious. Most of the Corona Plaza vendors don’t have the permits the city requires, and many have been ticketed or told to leave by the police. They hope the association they created can build a better relationship with the authorities.

“If we organize, we can work with the city, and they can see what we are important,” said Mary Carmen Sevilla, an owner of a taco stall and the association’s secretary. “We can lift up our voices.”

On an unseasonably chilly Monday evening in April, the market was bustling. Children nibbled on churros emanating steam, their lips coated with cinnamon sugar. Adults strolled around balancing tortas overflowing with toppings, or gathered at tables to dig into bowls of salchipapas — a playful South American street food of French fries and sausages doused in a spicy salsa.

Ms. Sevilla stood outside her stall, Tacos Los Dos Compas, and greeted everyone who passed by. She runs the business with her husband, Miguel Angel Padilla, and her brother, Jairo Sevilla; they immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, at different times over the last two decades.

Their tacos are made to the family’s exacting standards. The trio and a few workers roll out the masa and cook the tortillas fresh for each order. For one of their most popular tacos, carnitas, they marinate the pork in citrus and warm spices for several hours, then gently sear it on the plancha. Other tacos get a coating of cheese that melts and crisps around the edges of the tortilla as it cooks. Mr. Padilla garnishes each taco himself with shingled white onions and cabbage, then advises diners on which of the salsas pairs best.

Like many of the vendors, Ms. Sevilla and Mr. Padilla started the stall after losing their jobs during the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Ms. Sevilla made wigs for cancer patients, and Mr. Padilla cooked at an Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Whenever he prepared Mexican food for the restaurant staff, it was a hit. “They said, ‘This is well-seasoned, why don’t you sell your own food?’ ” his wife said in Spanish.

The couple wanted customers to be able to sit and eat, so they set up a makeshift counter out front with a checkered tablecloth and stools. They know many of their regulars by name.

“The owners are friendly and respectful, and the food is flavorful,” said Javier Goes, a pastry chef for a Manhattan hotel who lives nearby and frequents Tacos Los Dos Compas. “It is familiar food. I am from Puebla.”

Corona Plaza wasn’t always this busy. The plaza was first carved out as a public space in 2012. It expanded in 2018 when the city Department of Transportation invested $7 million to remove asphalt and create a pedestrian zone that began to attract a smattering of vendors.

Their ranks exploded during the pandemic, when many Corona residents lost their jobs and couldn’t apply for unemployment benefits because they were undocumented. At one point, Corona recorded the highest number of coronavirus deaths of any neighborhood in the city.

“I stayed here without work, without anything,” said Froilan Garcia, who had helped his sister, Cristina Garcia, with her tamale stand. “We were fighting to survive.” Once the lockdown ended, he set up his own stall.

In the evening light, Mr. Garcia stood grinning in front of colorful drink dispensers filled with all manner of hot and cold beverages.

“Nobody sells drinks like these here,” he said. His aguas frescas have distinctive flavors like cucumber, lemon and chia seed, and he uses only fresh produce and spring water. His atoles — a smooth, creamy Mexican beverage thickened with corn flour — are infused with ingredients like walnuts or peanuts, giving them a toasty depth. On a good day, he said, he’ll make $500.

A self-described extrovert, he said his favorite part of being a vendor is interacting with customers. “Everyone comes and visits me,” he said. “People come from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago.”

He waved to his sister, who, a few stalls down, was stuffing a chile poblano oozing with molten cheese into a tortilla lined with rice, her sweatshirt hood up to keep warm. For her, vending is simply a matter of necessity: “I support my grandchildren. I have kids.”

A small group of customers huddled around the flattop at Quesadillas Lola, which specializes in the food of Axochiapan, in the Mexican state of Morelos. A favorite is the quesadilla filled with stringy cheese and squash blossoms.

Gabriela Ramirez, a house cleaner who was picking up food, said she appreciated the affordability of the stalls. “It is cheaper than what I find in restaurants,” she said.

But that discrepancy has frustrated many restaurateurs in the surrounding streets. Rosaura Coello, an owner of El Rincón Naranjaleño, an Ecuadorean cafe just off the plaza, said her business has suffered because she can’t compete with the lower prices. The restaurant’s calentado, a traditional breakfast dish with rice, beans, chorizo and eggs, costs $14; at Corona Plaza, entrees of the same size can be found for under $10.

Diners “don’t realize all the costs that I have that vendors don’t,” Ms. Coello said. “There is a difference in quality and flavor. They are not the same.”

Yet these street vendors face obstacles that restaurant owners don’t, starting with the permits that most of them lack.

Mr. Padilla and Ms. Sevilla of Tacos Los Dos Compas said they had been ticketed by police officers, who once ordered them to leave the plaza. When the police confiscated Ms. Garcia’s equipment and food, she had to retrieve her belongings and buy new ingredients. The vendors said enforcement of the law has been uneven, and they fear their stalls could be shut down at any time.

In a city with an estimated 20,000 street vendors, the waiting list for a permit is 10 to 15 years long, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit that aids and lobbies for vendors.

A bewildering number of city agencies have held enforcement power over street vendors in recent years, including the Police Department, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and most recently the Department of Sanitation.

At least one agency, the Department of Transportation, sees value in Corona Plaza. The department’s commissioner, Ydanis Rodríguez, said the food it sells “is important for the culture and the city of New York.”

The department is working with Corona Plaza vendors’ association to bring in a market operator to manage the vendors in the plaza, so they wouldn’t need a permit for mobile food vending. The city also recently installed large trash bins in the plaza for commercial waste.

The vendors said they were optimistic that these shifts would attract more visitors, especially with warmer weather on the way. “Other people from other nationalities can come and learn about our culture,” Mr. Padilla said.

Catalina Cruz, who represents the area in the State Assembly, wants visitors, too. But what she doesn’t want, she said, “is for this to become the sort of gentrifiers’ haven where we could lose the sense of community.”

She sees Corona Plaza as a different kind of haven — a variation on a beloved thoroughfare of Italian food in the Bronx: “Arthur Avenue,” she said, “except with pupusas and chicharrón.”

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