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Queen’s Corona Plaza is a haven for Latin American food vendors

Some of the best food in New York City can be found on the 7 train line in Queens: crispy-edged samosas at Jackson Heights, egg tarts at Elmhurst and rice rolls with chili oil in Flushing.

Right now, just below the 103rd Street-Plaça Corona station, you’ll find tripa mishqui from Ecuador, guisado from Guatemala, and tlayudas from Oaxaca, Mexico. All of this is one of the riches in a sprawling market of as many as 46 vendors selling home-cooked food from all over Latin America—the kind that aren’t easy to find in restaurants.

Aromas of freshly fried white wine and fresh masa wafted to the train platform. In the piazza, vendors shout: “Carnitas!” Shrimp garnished with cilantro and garlic sizzled on the pan. The pork skin crackled as it was sliced ​​and served over warm potatoes.

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

Street vendors in New York face an array of challenges, from hauling merchandise to dealing with the police. Even here, their livelihoods are precarious. Most of the vendors in Corona Plaza did not have the permits required by the city, and many were ticketed by police or told to leave. They want the association they created to have better relations with the authorities.

“If we get organized, we can work with the city government and they will see that we matter,” said Mary Carmen Sevilla, a taco stand owner and secretary of the association. “We can raise our voices.”

On an unseasonably cold Monday night in April, the market was bustling. Children nibble on steaming fritters with cinnamon sugar on their lips. Grown-ups hang out around balanced tortillas loaded with toppings, or gather around the table for a bowl of salchipapas—a fun South American street food made of french fries and sausage dipped in a spicy salsa.

The Seville lady stands outside her Tacos Los Dos Compas booth, greeting everyone who passes by. She runs the company with her husband, Miguel Angel Padilla, and brother Jairo Sevilla; they immigrated from Puebla, Mexico at various times over the past two decades.

Their tacos are made to the family’s exacting standards. The trio and several workers roll out tortillas and cook fresh tortillas for each order. For one of their most popular tacos, carnitas, they marinate pork in citrus and warm spices for hours, then grill lightly on plancha. Other tacos coat the edges of the tortilla with a layer of cheese that melts and crisps as it cooks. Mr. Padilla himself garnishes each taco with chopped white onion and cabbage, before advising diners on which salsa goes best with it.

Like many vendors, Ms. Sevilla and Mr. Padilla started setting up the stall after losing their jobs in the early months of the 2020 pandemic. Ms. Sevilla makes wigs for cancer patients, and Mr. Padilla cooks Manhattans at an Italian restaurant in midtown. Whenever he prepared Mexican food for the restaurant staff, it was a hit. “They said, ‘This seasoning is good, 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 built a makeshift counter in front with a checkered tablecloth and stools. They know the names of many of the regulars.

“The owner is friendly and courteous and the food is delicious,” said Javier Goes, a pastry chef at a hotel in Manhattan who lives nearby and frequents Tacos Los Dos Compas. “It’s familiar food. I’m from Puebla.”

Corona Plaza wasn’t always this busy. The square was zoned as public space for the first time in 2012. In 2018, the city’s Department of Transportation invested $7 million to remove asphalt and create a pedestrian zone that has begun to attract a handful of vendors.

Their ranks have swelled during the pandemic, when many Corona residents lost their jobs and were unable to 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 stay here without a job, without anything,” said Floylan Garcia, who had helped his sister Cristina Garcia stand her tamales. “We fought to survive.” After the lockdown ended, he set up his stall.

In the evening light, Mr. Garcia grinned as he stood in front of the colorful vending machines, filled with an assortment of hot and cold beverages.

“Nobody here sells the drink,” he said. His aguas frescas feature unique flavors like cucumber, lemon and chia seeds, and he uses only fresh produce and spring water. His atoles—a smooth, creamy Mexican drink thickened with cornmeal—infused ingredients like walnuts or peanuts to give them toasty depth. He said he could make $500 if the weather was nice.

A self-described extrovert, he says his favorite part of being a supplier is interacting with customers. “Everyone comes to see me,” he said. “People were coming from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago.”

He waves to his sister, who, a few booths down, is stuffing chile poblanos oozing melted cheese into a rice-lined tortilla, her sweatshirt hooded for warmth. For her, selling is just a necessity: “I provide for my grandchildren. I have children.”

At Quesadillas Lola in the Mexican state of Morelos, which specializes in Axochiapan food, a small group of customers crowds around the flat-roofed restaurant. A favorite is the quesadilla filled with shredded cheese and squash blossoms.

Gabriela Ramirez, the house cleaner who picks up the food, said she appreciates how affordable the stands are. “It’s cheaper than what I can find in restaurants,” she said.

But the discrepancy has frustrated many restaurateurs in the surrounding streets. Rosaura Coello, owner of El Rincón Naranjaleño, an Ecuadorian café near the plaza, said her business has suffered because she can’t compete with lower prices. The restaurant’s calentado, a traditional breakfast of rice, beans, sausage and eggs, costs $14; at Corona Plaza, a similarly sized entrée costs less than $10.

Diners “didn’t realize all the costs that I had and the vendors didn’t,” Ms Coelo said. “There’s a difference in quality and flavor. They’re not the same.”

However, these street vendors face hurdles that restaurateurs do not, starting with the fact that most of them do not have licenses.

Mr. Padilla and Ms. Seville, of Tacos Los Dos Compas, said they had been ticketed by police who had ordered them to leave the plaza. When police confiscated Ms. Garcia’s equipment and food, she had to retrieve her belongings and buy new ingredients. Vendors said enforcement was spotty and they feared their stalls could be closed at any moment.

In a city of an estimated 20,000 street vendors, waiting lists for permits run 10 to 15 years, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of The Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit that helps and lobbyes for vendors.

A dizzying number of city agencies have had enforcement powers against street vendors in recent years, including the police department, the departments of health and mental hygiene, the departments of consumer and worker protection and, most recently, the department of health.

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

The department is working with the Corona Plaza Vendors Association to bring in market operators to manage vendors in the plaza so they don’t need a license for mobile food vending. The city also recently installed large bins in the plaza for commercial waste.

Vendors said they were optimistic the shift would attract more tourists, especially as the weather warmed up. “Other people from other countries can come and learn about our culture,” Mr Padilla said.

Catalina Cruz, who represents the district in the state legislature, also wants visitors. But what she doesn’t want, she said, “is to become a gentlemen’s haven where we risk losing our sense of community.”

She sees Corona Plaza as a different kind of haven—a variation on the Bronx’s beloved Italian food drive: “Arthur Avenue,” she says, “except for pupusas and chicharrón.”

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