Neighborhoods

Corona Is Queens’ Cultural Smorgasbord

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Get off the 7 train at 103rd Street to find yourself in the heart of Corona.
Get off the 7 train at 103rd Street to find yourself in the heart of Corona.

The neighborhood now called Corona was originally christened “West Flushing” in the mid 1800s, after a new Long Island Rail Road line opened between the then-farmland towns of Elmhurst and Flushing. In 1868 a real estate developer named Thomas Waite Howard suggested the neighborhood be renamed “Corona,” since it was the crown jewel of Queens County. While some theorized that he took the name from an emblem used by a local development company, corona fittingly means “crown” in Italian and Spanish, languages that later became common in the neighborhood.

Italians settled the neighborhood in the early twentieth century, but residents are now mostly more recent arrivals from Mexico, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic. Early buildings from the neighborhood still stand, including intact Victorian houses and churches from the late 1800s, which now often share block space with multifamily brick houses, Latino grocery stores, meat markets, and flower shops.

It’s impossible to name every good restaurant in Corona, but you can find every kind: grab-and-go taco joints or family-style restaurants that invite hours-long sit-downs. In the warmer months, one can head over from the neighborhood’s spindly network of streets to enjoy Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, home to some of New York’s grandest museums and monuments.

Empanadas Café

People start lining up at this tiny spot as early as 7 a.m. The café sells the usual cheese, beef, and pork varieties, of course, but also spinach, broccoli, pineapple, and even Nutella. The treats are all fried to order. The irresistible smell fills the small room, the narrow outdoor patio, and the surrounding street corner. The owners could have expanded to a larger space, but have opted instead to preserve the cramped, boisterous feeling of a family kitchen. 56-27 Van Doren Street, empanadascafe.com

Tortilleria Nixtamal

The corn tortillas, soaked in lime and ground in-house via a process that takes more than half a day to complete, are the stars of this sit-down Mexican eatery. Tacos of all the usual varieties are served on double shells that are still hot to the touch and brown around the edges. For more creative types, the restaurant offers a build-your-own option where a stack of sizzling tortillas, a slew of ingredients, and a personal molcajete are delivered to your table. Even at half past noon, servers will offer you a margarita. But if you have things to do later (I did), the horchata is not bad either. 104-05 47th Avenue, tortillerianixtamal.com

Lemon Ice King of Corona

This Italian ice joint — featured in Zagat, Hidden New York, The King of Queens, and countless Instagram posts — is the undisputed king of Corona attractions. It’s worth the hype: The Benfaremo family has had more than sixty years to fine-tune the (admittedly rather simple) formula behind these iced treats. The menu now includes varieties like rum raisin and cantaloupe (no acai, last we checked). The main event, however, is still the classic lemon — a blinding white scoop of joy that gets slammed down in front of you on a metal counter. The place is open all year, too, which will prove convenient as climate change continues to confuse winter with spring and vice versa. 52-02 108th Street, thelemonicekingofcorona.com

Iglesia Amanecer de la Esperanza

Presently home to the Iglesia Amanecer de la Esperanza congregation on National Street, the church is the oldest surviving building in the neighborhood. Endowed by money from landowner Charles Leverich, the structure was erected in 1870 to house the Union Evangelical Church. The church’s white clapboard facade and oblong stained glass panels above the main porch recall not just a different era, but a different society altogether. In a testament to how fully New York, and Corona, has changed, the church now shares a block with a Jehovah’s Witnesses temple and one of the neighborhood’s biggest mosques, Masjid al-Falah. 41-16 National Street, amanecerdequeens.org

Bocce court in William F. Moore Park

Once you get your frozen treat from Lemon Ice King, you’ll want to find somewhere to eat it. The tiny triangle of nearby William F. Moore Park offers ample benches and plenty of shade under birch and maple trees. But the park also offers a bocce court. If, like most Voice readers, you don’t play bocce yourself, watching them play can be amusing and relaxing, especially when the weather’s nice. W. Between 108th Street and Corona Avenue, and 51st and 52nd avenues, nycgovparks.org/parks/william-f-moore-park

Rio de la Plata Bakery

This small bakery offers sweet and savory treats, ranging from croissants to chicken empanadas to a variety of dulce de leche pastries. The specialty — listed on the store’s awning — is the sandwiches de miga, which roughly translates to “crumb sandwiches.” The exact genealogy of this dish is unclear, but many believe the sandwiches are originally Argentine, although they resemble thin-bread cucumber sandwiches often served as hors d’oeuvres or the tramezzini served in Italian corner bakeries. The bakery has only five chairs, so there’s not a ton of space to eat your sandwich de miga. But they keep well, so order a haul and take them home. 94-65 Corona Avenue, paradero.com/riodelaplata

Leo’s Latticini (Mama’s)

First off, nobody calls it Leo’s Latticini. Everyone, except Google Maps, calls this sandwich shop Mama’s. The titular “Mama” was Nancy DeBenedittis (née Leo), a neighborhood matriarch who presided over the store, founded by her parents in the 1930s, for decades until her death, in 2009. Her daughters now mostly run the show, serving up gigantic heroes stuffed with salami, soppressata, and sweet peppers — a sort of overstuffed version of the traditional “deli sandwich” that’s native to so many bodegas. The Mama’s Special ($8) is the best, but those who build their own sandwich should make sure to order the store’s nonpareil fresh mozzarella. 46-02 104th Street, places.singleplatform.com/leos-latticini

Congregation Tifereth Israel

Believed to be the oldest synagogue in Queens (and Estée Lauder’s sometime place of worship), this gorgeous two-story wood building was named a New York City landmark in 2008 after a decade-long $1.6 million restoration. The synagogue had a remarkable revival story. The building — beset by termites and rot — went into disrepair in the twentieth century until a charismatic butcher-rabbi from Central Asia began holding services there for a local community of Bukhori-speaking Jews who had emigrated from the Soviet Union. The synagogue’s longtime Ashkenazi congregation rebelled at first, locking Rabbi Khaimov out of the building at one point. But Khaimov and his wife were instrumental in securing more than $1 million for the restoration of the building. Now its sky-blue paint and unique crown fixtures have been restored to their former glory. 109-20 54th Avenue, 718-592-6254

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Jazz giant Louis Armstrong moved to Corona in the 1940s with his wife, Lucille, and his house still stands on a residential block in the north end of the neighborhood. Armstrong eschewed the suburbs and chose to live in Corona so that he could be amongthe rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats.” He lived there for the rest of his life. Visitors to the small but informative museum can see Armstrong’s kitchen, den, and truly unbelievable mirror-walled bathroom. The museum also houses Satchmo memorabilia that will eventually be put on display in a $20-million-plus education center that broke ground last year. 34-56 107th Street, louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo

The owners of this Cuban mainstay, located literally steps from the Junction Boulevard stop on the 7 train, formerly owned a restaurant of the same name in Cuba. The Acosta brothers built the original location on the outskirts of Havana with their bare hands. But they left the island after the revolution and eventually set up shop in New York in May 1976, where they still serve ropa vieja, roasted suckling pig, and massive seafood dishes. For dessert, customers can order a doncellita — a traditional shot of crème de cacao liqueur mixed with evaporated milk and topped with a maraschino cherry. The prices aren’t modest, but neither are the portions. 40-09 Junction Boulevard, rincon-criollo.com

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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