NEW YORK (Reuters) - This round-the-world trip can be completed in an afternoon, costs less than $100 and comes with hot sauce.
From Tibetan momos (dumplings) to Uruguayan alfajors (cookies), the food consumed on New York’s Eat The Street tours offers a taste of immigrant life in the world’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood - the borough of Queens, where more than 160 languages are spoken.
“You could find a nibble of anything here,” said Andrew Silverstein, who guides the food cart-noshing tours in conjunction with Feet in Two Worlds, a non-profit organization focused on immigrants in America.
A quick subway ride from the glitz of Manhattan, the bustling thoroughfare of Roosevelt Avenue in the Jackson Heights section of Queens provides a gritty mix of Indian groceries, South American travel agencies and immigration lawyers’ offices under a lacelike canopy of elevated train tracks.
Sidewalks are dotted with coppery stains left by South Asian men who chew betel nut and are crammed with a virtual United Nations of food carts run by immigrants cooking up a taste of home.
First stop on a recent tour was the momo cart run by Kunchock “Rodney” Rebgee, 32, who emigrated from Tibet four years ago.
“This is what is eaten by the nomadic people because they have animals,” said Rebgee of the meat dumplings that were a staple of his childhood.
Silverstein put the role of the food cart into perspective. “One of the first steps for an immigrant community to take hold is to be able to get their native food,” he said to his four followers as they chewed their momos.
Most food carts along Roosevelt Avenue are only large enough to hold two workers but can create more than a dozen jobs, as the food is typically prepared by a crew in an apartment or garage and then flash-cooked on the street, said Silverstein.
One Mexican cart, Silverstein pointed out, brought in enough money to send the owner’s daughter to college to become an accountant and to buy a house.
As he spoke, the group devoured Mexican tacos carnitas, filled with fried pork, although the cart’s owner had recommended the tacos legua y oreja - pig ears and cow tongue.
At a quesadilla cart run by several generations of the Gonzalez family, Monica Gonzalez, 34, said her three sons had other interests that would spare them from the tough life of facing the public from inside an aluminum cart.
“It’s the street. You’re not protected. It’s not easy,” said Gonzalez, who was born in Colombia. The cart has been lucrative enough to send her oldest son to New York University to study science in hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
“For now, it’s a good business,” Gonzalez said.
One of the most eye-opening parts of the tour was what the group didn’t see - unlicensed carts that are regularly part of the tour when police are not patrolling.
The city issues just 3,100 year-round permits for food carts, and more than 2,000 people are on a waitlist to get one, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Demand is so high that vendors run a black market where permits are resold for as much as $20,000 by people now living as far away as Arizona, the newspaper reported.
Even legitimate license holders engage in subterfuge just to hold on to prized locations. A purple truck that sells Ecuadorian coastal treats such as fresh tuna with plantain and peanuts leaves its spot only when a van pulls up nightly to illegally hold its parking space until the vendor returns in the morning.
Eat The Street tours, which opened to the public in May, leave from Grand Central Station at 11:30 a.m., lasts three hours and cost $79. They can be booked at streetwisenewyork.com.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and David Brunnstrom