Some of the best food in New York City can be found along the No. 7 Railroad in Queens: crispy samosas in Jackson Heights, tart aguachile in Elmhurst, and rice rolls smeared with chili oil in Flushing.
Now, right below the 103rd Street-Corona Plaza station, you’ll find tripa mishqui from Ecuador, guisado from Guatemala, and tlayudas from Oaxaca, Mexico. All this is among the riches in a sprawling market filled with as many as 46 vendors selling home-cooked food from all over Latin America – the kind you won’t easily find in restaurants.
Aromas of freshly baked poblanos and fresh masa rise to the platform. Down in the plaza, vendors yell, “Carnitas!” “Esquites!” “Tortas!” Tortillas are decorated with beef shavings and diced onions. Shrimp mottled with coriander and garlic sizzling on a flattop. Pork sizzles when lechon is sliced and placed over warm potatoes.
Corona Plaza isn’t just an exciting place to eat; it is a major achievement for the street vendors, most of whom live nearby. Last summer, they formally formed their own organization, La Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes de Corona Plaza, to run the market – making this one of the few markets in New York that is run and operated by local vendors. (Many of the city’s markets are run by third-party groups that bring in vendors from outside the neighborhood.)
Street vendors in New York face numerous challenges, from transporting their wares to dealing with the police. Even here their livelihood is precarious. Most of the Corona Plaza vendors do not have the permits required by the city, and many have been ticketed or told by police to leave. They hope that the association they set up can build a better relationship with the authorities.
“If we organize, we can work with the city and they can see what we care about,” said Mary Carmen Sevilla, owner of a taco stand and secretary of the association. “We can raise our voice.”
On an unusually cold Monday evening in April, the market was busy. Children nibbled on churros that exuded steam, their lips coated in cinnamon sugar. Adults strolled around balancing tortas loaded with toppings, or gathered at tables to dig into bowls of salchipapas—a playful South American street food of French fries and sausages topped with a spicy salsa.
Mrs. Sevilla stood outside her stall, Tacos Los Dos Compas, and greeted everyone who passed by. She runs the business with her husband, Miguel Angel Padilla, and her brother, Jairo Sevilla; they have emigrated from Puebla, Mexico at various times over the past two decades.
Their tacos are made to the family’s strict standards. The trio and a few workers roll out the masa and cook the tortillas fresh for each order. For one of their most popular tacos, carnitas, they marinate the pork in citrus fruits and warm spices for several hours, then sear it gently on the plancha. Other tacos have a layer of cheese that melts during cooking and crisps up around the edges of the tortilla. Mr. Padilla himself garnishes each taco with shingled white onions and cabbage, then advises guests which of the salsas would go best.
Like many of the vendors, Ms. Seville and Mr. Padilla started the stall after losing their jobs during the early months of the 2020 pandemic. Ms. Seville made wigs for cancer patients and Mr. Padilla cooked at an Italian restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Whenever he prepared Mexican food for the restaurant staff, it was a hit. “They said, ‘This is well seasoned, why don’t you sell your own food?’ his wife said in Spanish.
The pair wanted customers to sit and eat, so they set up a makeshift counter outside the door with a checkered tablecloth and stools. They know many of their regulars by name.
“The owners are friendly and respectful, and the food is flavorful,” says Javier Goes, a pastry chef for a Manhattan hotel who lives nearby and frequents Tacos Los Dos Compas. “It’s familiar food. I am from Puebla.”
Corona Plaza wasn’t always this busy. The square was first carved out as a public space in 2012. It expanded in 2018 when the city’s Department of Transportation invested $7 million to remove asphalt and create a pedestrian zone that began to attract a few vendors.
Their ranks exploded during the pandemic, as many Corona residents lost their jobs and were unable to claim unemployment benefits because they were undocumented. At one point, Corona recorded the highest number of coronavirus deaths of any neighborhood in the city.
“I was left here with no job, with nothing,” said Froilan Garcia, who had been helping his sister, Cristina Garcia, with her tamale stand. “We fought to survive.” When the lockdown was over, he set up his own stall.
In the evening light, Mr. Garcia stood grinning in front of colorful vending machines filled with a variety of hot and cold drinks.
“Nobody sells drinks like that here,” he said. His aguas frescas have distinctive 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 — are infused with ingredients like walnuts or peanuts, giving them a toasty depth. One day, he said, he will make $500.
Describing himself as an outgoing person, he said interacting with customers is his favorite part of being a salesperson. “Everyone comes to visit me,” he said. “People come from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Chicago.”
He waved to his sister, who was stuffing a rice-covered tortilla a few stalls away, a chile poblano full of melted cheese, her hooded sweatshirt pulled up to keep warm. For her, vending is simply a matter of necessity: “I support my grandchildren. I have children.”
A small group of customers huddled around the flattop at Quesadillas Lola, which specializes in Axochiapan food, in the Mexican state of Morelos. A favorite is the quesadilla filled with stringy cheese and pumpkin blossoms.
Gabriela Ramirez, a cleaner who picked up food, said she appreciated the affordability of the stalls. “It’s cheaper than what I find in restaurants,” she said.
But that discrepancy has frustrated many restaurateurs in the surrounding streets. Rosaura Coello, an owner of El Rincón Naranjaleño, an Ecuadorian café near the square, said her business is suffering because she cannot compete with the lower prices. The restaurant’s calentado, a traditional breakfast dish of rice, beans, chorizo, and eggs, costs $14; at Corona Plaza, entrees of the same size can be found for less than $10.
Diners “have no sense of all the expenses I have and vendors don’t,” Ms Coello said. “There is a difference in quality and taste. They are not the same.”
Yet these street vendors face obstacles that restaurant owners don’t have, starting with the permits that most of them don’t have.
Mr. Padilla and Ms. Sevilla of Tacos Los Dos Compas said they had been ticketed by police officers, who once ordered them to leave the square. When the police confiscated Ms. Garcia’s equipment and food, she had to recover her belongings and buy new ingredients. The vendors said enforcement of the law has been uneven and they fear their stalls could close at any time.
In a city with an estimated 20,000 street vendors, the waiting list for a permit is 10 to 15 years long, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit that helps and lobbies vendors.
A bewildering number of city agencies have had enforcement powers over street vendors in recent years, including the police, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, and most recently the Department of Sanitation.
At least one agency, the Department of Transportation, sees value in Corona Plaza. The department’s commissioner, Ydanis Rodríguez, said the food it sells is “important to the culture and the city of New York.”
The department is working with the Corona Plaza Vendor Association to bring in a market operator to manage the plaza vendors so they don’t need a permit for mobile food sales. The city also recently placed large trash cans on the square for industrial waste.
The sellers said they were optimistic these shifts would attract more visitors, especially with warmer weather on the way. “Other people of other nationalities can come and learn about our culture,” said Mr Padilla.
Catalina Cruz, who represents the area in the state assembly, also wants visitors. But what she doesn’t want, she said, “is for this to become the kind of haven for gentrifiers where we can lose the sense of community.”
She sees Corona Plaza as a different kind of haven—a variation on a beloved thoroughfare of Italian food in the Bronx: “Arthur Avenue,” she said, “except with pupusas and chicharrón.”
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