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Colombia native Maria Cano is a former judge, but she’s better known to late night Queens diners as the Arepa Lady. Her food cart under the 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue is famous for the golden, cheesy, salty-sweet arepas it has been doling out since 1990. But the arepas haven’t always been easy to come by: the cart is open only on particular nights, from about 10:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., and only in warm weather.
Until now: Cano and several family members who help out with the business are opening a brick-and-mortar store, due to debut at Roosevelt Avenue and 77th Street next month. We spoke with Cano’s son, Alejandro, about the transition to restaurant ownership, and how Maria came to be one of the most beloved vendors in the city.
Tell me a bit about how your mom went from working in law in Colombia to running a food cart here.
Her story is like any immigrant’s. Because of the political situation in Colombia, we had to leave. It was dangerous in the 80s because of the narcoterrorism down there. She didn’t want to have us mixed up with that, so we migrated to the States. So for her it was hard, going from being a professional to being out on the streets trying to sell something. But she had to put food on the table and pay the rent.
What are some of the challenges of opening a restaurant?
Since we’re not mobile and everything is permanent, there are different requirements from the city for types of equipment. We have to work with the fire department and get inspections. It’s very different, and we’re learning as we go.
What made you decide, after all this time, to make the transition?
My mom started the food cart, but as she gets older, she’s not going to be able to be on the street so much. So we felt it was better to open something a little more permanent. We only have a seasonal license for the cart, from April to October, so with a brick-and-mortar store, we can be open year round.
We’re going to try to do both [the cart and restaurant]. If people want to sit down for a little bit they can do that. The food cart will be operated close to where the brick-and-mortar store is.
What can we expect to see on the restaurant’s menu?
We plan to expand the menu and to make it more vegetarian-friendly.
Did you ever imagine your mom would become so well-known for her cooking?
It’s a little bit surprising. She tries to do everything with love. It’s the love that she puts into her food that makes it special.
What’s it like working such late hours with the food cart?
She got used to those hours, but it’s a little hard. The rest of us who help out do have regular jobs and then we have to switch gears. But for my mom, the hours allowed her to spend time with us when we were growing up. She would work at night so she could pick us up from school during the day.
Do you see anything interesting in the neighborhood, working the night shift?
There’s a different vibe in the neighborhood, a totally different set of people who are out. You get to see some things you wouldn’t normally see during the day. The neighborhood has a great gay Latino nightlife, so there are a lot of customers who are gay and transgender who come and enjoy my mom’s food. Unfortunately, sometimes you see fights. But I think the neighborhood has mellowed a bit over the years.
What are your goals for the restaurant?
Just that people will come and enjoy it. In the rest of the city nowadays, you see a lot of mom and pop stores closing up. So hopefully we can endure.