At the average New York street fair, one tends to encounter the same stalls, hawking knock-off handbags or churning out questionable hot dogs. At Saturday’s Viva La Comida!, however, held for the third year in the heart of Jackson Heights, there was a near hour-long line of hungry visitors waiting at the unmarked cart of a street food legend: the arepa lady, whose butter-soaked corn and cheese concoctions are famous throughout the borough and beyond. The festival, organized by the 82nd Street Partnership and Queens food ambassador Jeff Orlick, had other unusual offerings, too — Tibetan momos, Ecuadorian espumillas, Nepali curries — that reflected the multiple waves of immigrants who have enriched the community with their cooking.
Orlick, who leads food tours of the neighborhood, said that the event was about opening up ethnic enclaves. The beauty of Jackson Heights, he said, is that “there is no majority. We are all outsiders. Here you can cross the street and cross continents.” We caught up with Orlick to talk about the origins of the festival, and what makes the Queens food scene so unique.
How did you come to develop such a close relationship with the many diverse restaurants around Roosevelt Avenue?
I used to write about food in the area and touch on restaurants every now and again, but the tours vaulted my integration into the cultures of the neighborhood. Not only do they bring in curious, paying guests, the tours have also given me an excuse to walk into places I normally wouldn’t, ask questions, and develop relationships. The tours exercise my integration here; each one makes me visit at least eight different businesses. Most importantly, though, food is the universal communicator; common language is great, but it’s apparently not exactly necessary.
How did Viva La Comida come about, and how do you select participating vendors?
I had been floating the idea of a food truck festival around to political figures, but I mostly got back responses saying, “We personally like street food, but it’s too controversial an issue to touch.” 82nd Street Partnership was the organization who had the courage to help put it together. Seth Taylor and Sofia Davila from the Partnership co-organized this, to create an awesome event entirely from scratch, promoting the culture and businesses of the area.
Look around the neighborhood, and you see so much potential for expression. There was no need, or want, to have a festival filled with what you see in almost every other festival in the city. We have incredibly talented people coming here from all over the world. Why would we want or need the typical street fair food and accessories?
What has the response from the community been like to the various programs you’ve instituted?
I see what I do as being an ambassador for cultures in Queens to the rest of the city and the world. Even though I live here, I’m an outsider, and with the tours taken by people from all over the world, I’ve learned how we are different and what makes this area awesome. I never exoticize or create a spectacle of people that are different; I create paths to relate to their way of life. I don’t try to shock people, I lure them in. I think people have been encouraging because they see that the concepts of what I do are ultimately centered on respect and educational entertainment — even though on the surface it’s all about the food.
How have you seen the neighborhood change over the years? Do you anticipate any particular changes for the near future?
Queens has taken over as a major destination for new immigrants to live. The future will be more expensive and newer, with wealthier immigrants coming in from South America and Asia. Many cultures coming in are more appreciative of the new than the historic. I see Elmhurst and Corona seeing major changes within the next 10 years.
People are lamenting the hipsters for gentrification, but real estate prices are going up from the demand and command of immigrants. Watch the number of Peruvian restaurants popping up in Corona and Jackson Heights. Watch all the variations of Chinese and South American businesses opening up. Follow the entrepreneurs from Nepal, Tibet, and Bangladesh coming in — this is business in overdrive. The beginning of the last century saw Italians, Jews, Irish, and Germans coming in, living in the ghettos of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn — look who runs the city now. This will all change again.
Where would you suggest a curious, but uninitiated visitor begin when it comes to exploring Queens’ culinary landscape?
First of all, time your trip. In the time it takes to decide where to go for brunch, you could have already arrived at Taiwanese breakfast. Take the 7 train to the end, and you’ve arrived in arguably the biggest Chinatown in NYC. Go to the New World Mall, and you will be at the center of a cacophony of Asian food. On another day, take the 7 train to Junction Boulevard, and get absorbed in all the Ecuadorian street food as you walk a block to Warren Street. Take an express to Jackson Heights and you’ll have Little India, Little Bangladesh, and Thai Town at your fingertips. I suggest you bring some friends, and aim to eat small at many locations. There are new places opening up all the time, so don’t be afraid to do some trailblazing.