The Sainted Arepa Lady
Originally published in NY Press in 1993
....and she's still there and still great!
When people ask me to name my favorite food in New York, I inevitably answer--without hesitation--"arepas from the Arepa Lady." This saintly woman grills Colombian corn cakes on her street cart weekends after 10:30 p.m., and they are magical.
I don't know her name; such knowledge would detract from my appreciation of her as an archetype. While I speak pretty decent Spanish, I've never been able to fully follow her conversation, but it doesn't matter. I go when I'm feeling blue, stand under her umbrella, and feel a healing calm wash over me as she brushes the sizzling corn cakes with butter. Zen master-like in her complete absorption in the task, she grills the things with infinite patience and loving care.
Everyone adores the arepa lady. The people on the street treat her with reverence and respect; there's always a small entourage of hangers-on standing around her cart or sitting on folding chairs. Fast cars and smoke-billowing trucks zoom down the street, the 7 train crashes by overhead, partying Latinos cavort up and down the block, but the arepa lady's peacefulness absorbs it all, transforms it, and gives back...corn cakes.
The arepas themselves are snacks from heaven. Coarsely ground corn, fried in pancakes about six inches in diameter and an inch thick, slathered with butter and topped with shredded white cheese, they're brown and crunchy, chewy and a little bit sweet, the butter and cheese imbuing the whole with salty dairy meltiness.
Nearby, others grill arepas on street carts, but they are not The Arepa Lady (look for the tiny, ageless woman with the beatific smile). They all use the same ingredients and similar grills, but only her arepas have that certain cosmic expansiveness. You try one, and first reaction is "mmm, this is delicious." But before that thought can fully form, waves of progressively deeper feelings begin crashing, and you are finally left silently nodding your head. You understand things. You have been loved.
I've brought Malaysian designers, Russian cookbook authors, Catalan drummers, and German set-painters to the arepa lady on the way home from shamefully gluttonous food outings. Way too full to object very forcefully, clutching their sides in pain, I drag them there for the proverbial "one more bite." Her sanctified vibe somehow coaxes them to try a nibble, and suddenly eyes brighten and appetites rekindle. My guests invariably swoon over the things, even when sampled after binges so overindulgent that they had sworn never to eat again. The magic of the arepa lady gives them the strength to eat on.
She sets up on the northwest corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 79th street, and both she--and several taco trucks--are within walking distance of the E F train Roosevelt Avenue stop (at 74 St)--the third stop into Queens. For a shorter walk but a longer ride, take the 7-train to 82 Street.
Come along on an audio tour to visit the Arepa Lady!
Check out my my Google Map of Obscure Street food in Eastern Jackson Heights