1. THE AREPA LADY
Roosevelt Ave. nr. 78th St., Jackson Heights
Maria Piedad Cano might be New York’s most revered street vendor. She’s a Chowhound cult favorite, a former lawyer and judge, she says, and, most telling, the subject of a MySpace page that forecasts the likelihood that she’ll be appearing at her regular spot each weekend. Her presence is iffy and weather-dependent; she winters in her native Colombia and reassumes her curbside position in spring, but only on Friday and Saturday nights and generally after ten o’clock. And for a former officer of the court, the once-permit-challenged corn-cake specialist hasn’t always been a stickler for the letter of the law: When asked by Chow.com why she works the graveyard shift, she replied, “Because there are fewer police walking around.” Still, faithful fans make the pilgrimage for her specialty: two types of ethereal Colombian arepas, brushed with margarine and griddled until brown and crispy. The arepa de queso is thicker and smaller, its soft insides infiltrated with melted cheese. The flatter, wider one, arepa de choclo, is made with a different corn batter and folded over salty grated cheese. There are skewered sausages and denser, smaller arepitas, too, but they’re not what’s earned the mild-mannered sidewalk chef her infatuated following, or the nickname “Sainted Arepa Lady.”
2. ANTOJITOS MEXICANOS
Roosevelt Ave. nr. 61st St., Woodside
You don’t expect to find culinary bliss amid the cacophony of this Woodside hub, where the LIRR and the elevated 7 train crisscross and every three minutes or so a jet thunders overhead on its descent into La Guardia. Yet there it is, ensconced below the tracks—an unassuming bastion of Mexican tamales worthy of an interborough expedition or a pit stop en route to anywhere else. Like a gift, the Oaxaqueño tamale comes wrapped with string: Peel open the banana leaves to reveal a hot, steamy mass of fluffy corn masa riddled with hefty chunks of ineluctably fatty pork and dripping with enough greasy red-chile oil to make a magnificent mess. More portable are the smaller corn-husk-wrapped varieties, in which morsels of chicken are dispersed sparingly, like condiments. Another version combines stringy melted cheese enlivened with red and green peppers. But it’s the masa that haunts you, with its moist, springy texture, toasty corn aroma, and earthy, mouth-filling flavor.
3. SAMMY’S HALAL
73rd St. at Broadway, Jackson Heights
“Money doesn’t really matter to me,” says former taxi driver Samiul Haque Noor of Sammy’s Halal. “I love to serve.” What he serves is mainly marinated dark-meat chicken, chopped up on the griddle and plopped down over a pile of fragrant Afghan-style long-grain rice with a side salad, for $3.99. Order it with the works, in this case a trio of sauces—one hot (red), one mild (white), and one somewhere deliciously in between (green). The red and white are toothsome, but some say that Sammy’s isn’t Sammy’s without the green sauce. If you persist, Sammy will tell you the green sauce is a mixture of garlic, cilantro, lemon, a little jalapeño, some yogurt, and, of course, various secret spices. That Sammy yields to no one in the spice-procurement department is a point of pride: “I go far, far away to get my spices; if it’s not right, I go farther; even if I have to go to Jersey, I go to Jersey,” he says. Sammy’s is so popular that the business has grown in six years from the Jackson Heights flagship to a five-cart mini-empire, with three downtown, one in Astoria, and plans to invade midtown any day now.
73rd St. at Broadway, Jackson Heights
If you ever thought that the chicken-and-rice platter at this unassuming cart parked next door to the wildly popular Sammy’s Halal tasted suspiciously similar to its neighbor’s, you would be correct. As it turns out, Sammy himself has taken Khan’s owner Parvez Zaman under his wing, and you might as well consider Khan’s the sixth branch of Sammy’s. Not only does Sammy share his suppliers and secret spice mix with Khan’s, but he occasionally drops by for a friendly chat. The proof, however, is in the platter, and a side-by-side chicken-and-rice taste test showed the two to be virtually indistinguishable: Sammy’s had more cilantro in the salad and perhaps a surplus of onion, but Khan’s was a tad more fiery overall. Nor did Khan’s splatter us with furiously chopped chicken parts while we waited in line. But as far as the chicken-and-rices go, call it a tie.
5. TACOS GUICHO
Roosevelt Ave. at Gleane St., Jackson Heights
It’s a party every night at this popular stand, where Alejandra Gonzalez and Pilar Juarez feed what seems to be half the neighborhood—some making quick taco pit stops, others pulling up a folding chair and settling in for a spell. Even though tacos of chorizo and carnitas get the most local love, we recommend the carefully constructed tortas, or the sporadically available sopes, those thick rafts of masa flour piled high with beans, lettuce, crema, salsa, cotija, and the meat of your choice. For a meatless repast, two dollars buys a luscious quadruple-decker chalupa, each crispily griddled corn tortilla slicked with red or green salsa and garnished with diced onion, cotija, and crema. The combination sounds simple, but the cheesy, salty, crunchy whole far exceeds the sum of its seemingly humble parts.