Streetwise Food Tours: Immigrant Cuisine in Queens

| May 16, 2012 4:00 AM
Diners enjoy food in Astoria on a prototype food tour that Streetwise led in March. Photo courtesy of Tori Ritchie
Food Tours in New York’s Immigrant Neighborhoods
Cost: $79
Jackson Heights Tour: May 19 and June 16, 11:30 a.m.
Leaves from Grand Central Terminal
Astoria Tour: June 2 and June 16, 11:30 a.m.
Leaves from Grand Central Terminal

Every New York food lover worth their weight in sea salt knows Queens is where it’s at for the best immigrant cuisine, but few know what really goes on behind the scenes of their favorite restaurant or food truck.

“We’re going to a quesadilla cart on Roosevelt Avenue. Less than ten years ago this was a Colombian food cart, but the neighborhood became more Mexican so the owner allowed his employees to take over and make Mexican food,” said Andrew Silverstein, a resident of Jackson Heights and tour guide for Streetwise New York.

In May and June, Streetwise is teaming up with MetroFocus‘ friends at Feet in Two Worlds and cookbook author Kathy Gunst for two special food tours through Astoria and Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights, where they’ll introduce you to some of the borough’s best eats and the people who prepare them.

After the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) approached Streetwise about doing an immigrant food tour earlier this year, they teamed up with their partners to build narratives around the history and current situations of the food, its creators and their surrounding geography. The tour created for the IACP conference on March 29 was so successful, said Silverstein, that they decided to open it to the public.

A woman makes fresh tortillas out of a truck on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Many immigrant food vendors, particularly women, face stiff fines and even confiscation of their equipment, since they often can't afford to buy permits off what tour guide Andrew Silverstein calls the "grey market." Photo courtesy of Streetwise New York.

The first public tour, on May 19, will explore the tastes, economics and politics of the many food carts that line Roosevelt Avenue, where tour guide Silverstein has lived and dined for eight years.  Most carts serve Latin American food. One stop will be at the cart of a Mexican woman who makes elotes (corn covered in cheese and chili powder). She says her largest expense is fines and equipment confiscations from the city.

Because the city issues a very limited number of mobile food vendor permits, said Silverstein, most cart owners end up buying their permits off the “grey market” — from another vendor who’s leaving the business — which is actually illegal, though isn’t usually punished. However, many recent immigrants can’t afford the permit, so they’re cooking at their own risk.

“She and many women who do this are credit constrained and time constrained, especially time constrained,” said Silverstein. “This job allows her to work during the day and still pick up her kids from school, which she couldn’t do before when she was working in a factory.”

The second tour, on June 2, will explore Astoria, where Silverstein’s business partner, Dan Shaki, lives.

“People generally think of Astoria as a Greek neighborhood, but at this point it’s become really diverse,” said Silverstein. “You have people from all across the Mediterranean, so we try to express that on the tour.”

While the Jackson Heights tour is largely centered around mobile vendors and the experiences of recent immigrants, the Astoria tour will look at the culinary confluence of older immigrant groups and newcomers. One stop is a trip to a Spanish social club.

“In Astoria there’s a lot of social clubs. Although they were more popular 30 years ago than they are today, they’re still important places where communities get together. And one big thing communities do when they get together is eat,” said Silverstein.

On June 16, the Jackson Heights tour and Astoria tour will be combined into one. You may want to preface the trip with a fast. All tours leave from, and return to, Grand Central Terminal at 11:30 a.m. and last about three hours. Spaces are limited, so if you’d like to attend purchase tickets soon at Streetwise New York.

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