Decades-Old Tamales Cart Finds New Life and Impossible Meat in Queens

In a corner of Queens still in shock in the first year of the pandemic, there is cause for celebration. Evelia Coyotzi, a decades-old street vendor in Corona, opened a brick-and-mortar storefront earlier this month, a home for her tamales, Mexican breakfast and dishes she couldn’t sell from his cart. He arrived at 96-09 Northern Boulevard, between 96th and 97th streets, on March 7.

It’s a historic moment for the Mexican leader, who was arrested and fined, stood on the front lines of street vending protests and held court at the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue at 4:30 a.m. most days for the past two decades. Few suppliers end up opening physical businesses. Those that do are success stories: Arepa Lady, along 37th Avenue. Latino Bites, further down Northern Boulevard.

Left to right, owners of Evelia’s Tamales, Delfino Garcia, Evelia Coyotzi and manager John Garcia.

Now at Evelia gets his turn, and for the open, Coyotzi bets on East Elmhurst. The Queens neighborhood was among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in New York City in the first year of the pandemic. Its residents, who are elderly and black, have endured a pandemic without a central bank or a hospital, said State Senator Jessica Ramos.

“Everyone has always ignored this neighborhood,” Ramos says. This is where former Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to build a now stopped $2 Billion Air-Train connecting LaGuardia Airport to New York City’s transit system. But instead, he gets a tamal shop worthy of a trip across town or a morning commute. “They are the vanguard of the coming renaissance,” she says. “These opportunities for joy are something that my neighbors and I cherish very much.”

An overhead photograph of huevos divorciados, eggs bathed in red and green salsas.

Divorciados huevos are bathed in red and green salsas accompanied by rice and beans.

On Junction Boulevard, where Coyotzi has operated a street cart for 20 years, the aroma of tamales mixes with the smells of nearby vendors and the roaring Train 7 above. In its new window, the flavors are easier to spot: puffs of hot atole, the handful of fresh corn tortillas and tamales mixed with everything from pineapple to pipian.

From the new restaurant, Coyotzi now cooks a full menu of Mexican breakfast foods — chilaquiles, eggs drenched in red and green salsas — as well as tacos, tortas and quesadillas. On weekends, when the lines are already stretching, the kitchen kicks into high gear, selling barbacoa and carnitas by the pound, as well as bowls of pancita (a ruddy stew with stomach of beef) and pozole.

Miraculously, the tamal production kept pace.

An overhead photograph of someone spooning salsa verde

Employees can make up to 900 tamales per day for Evelia’s restaurant and cart.

Downstairs, fingers fly as employees scoop masa from massive containers at lightning speed, spread it on a husk of corn, and toss tender, simmering chicharron, pipian (a pumpkin seed sauce) with pinto beans and a dozen other toppings. They assemble in seconds and workers produce up to 900 a day each.

Occasionally they pull out a bunch of banana leaves to make Oaxaqueños, a plumper, moister tamal that is tied with string like a gift. They are made with chicken and chicharron, but the steamed version with pork is not to be missed. It consists of a cut of rib meat, called punta de costilla, encased in masa, bones and all. It is not a hand tamal.

Yellow and red tamales, made with pineapple and raisins respectively, bask on a stainless steel tray.

Pineapple (top) and raisin tamales.

According to John Garcia, restaurant manager and son of Coyotzi, the best way to enjoy these tamales is to sandwich them between two slices of bread, which is called a torta de tamal and also a guajolota, as it is called. more commonly in Mexico City. The restaurant’s 50-cent crispy rolls aren’t made on the premises, but stuffed with two tamales on the menu, they feel like home.

For a great meal, pair one with a cup of atole. The Mexican drink, which can vary in consistency from frothy hot chocolate milk to a hair lighter than congee, is well represented here. It is made with oats (avena), rice (arroz con leche), chocolate (champurrado), masa in the restaurant’s tortillas and animal crackers (galleta).

A worker holds a colorful ceramic cup and pours a thick white drink, called an atole.

The restaurant makes its atoles from oats, chocolate, rice, masa and animal crackers.

Garcia attributed the changes to a tamal cart identity crisis: New Yorkers don’t know Evelia’s, he says, at least not by name. “Most of the time it was a metal cart with no label,” he says. “People in the community called it Los Tamales de Junction or Los Tamales de Roosevelt,” alluding to the cart cross streets in Corona, Queens. He may be slightly underestimating Evelia’s reputation.

The tamal maker appeared in an episode of Anthony Bourdain Unknown parts, and most recently, a review by Eater reviewer Ryan Sutton. State Senator Ramos, who has frequented the tamal cart for years, is also an outspoken fan. “I am in awe of her,” she said. Despite the thanks, the 24-year-old managing director says the East Elmhurst showcase is the start of something bigger for the tamal business.

Mole, rajas and tamales verde are arranged on a stainless steel tray.

A grilled quesadilla with a side of red salsa on a colorful background.

From top to bottom: Mole, raja and verde tamales; a chicken tinga quesadilla.

Garcia alludes to the viral success some restaurants have found on TikTok and Instagram. Could Evelia be next? “I don’t know anything about TikTok,” he admits before asking for advice, but he has ideas. Tamales filled with birria and impossible meat will soon join the menu, an effort to take advantage of two of the biggest food trends in town right now. A neon sign with the words “Live Love Eat Tamales” glows in front of the restaurant.

Despite all that is changing, the restaurant keeps many parts of the business the same. The recipe for Coyotzi’s tamales, whose sweetness Chef Eater’s reviewer compared to a bowl of cream of wheat, is unchanged. Last year, the restaurant replaced lard, a common tamal ingredient, with soybean oil in its recipes – first half, then all – but if anyone noticed, they didn’t. didn’t say anything, said Garcia.

An overhead photograph of a colorful table with chilaquiles, tortas, pancita and other Mexican dishes.

Clockwise: A picadita, huevos divorciados, pancita, a torta and chilaquiles.

The restaurant’s low prices — still competitive with street vendors at $1.50 for a tamal and $3 for a plumper Oaxaqueño — won’t change either, at least for now. In December, the company raised the price of its tamales by 50 cents and its Oaxaqueños by a dollar, its first price increase in 20 years. “We appreciate your support, we hope you understand and continue to support our business,” the restaurant said in its apology. job to Instagram.

The price of Evelia’s ingredients – like everything else – skyrocketed during the pandemic and that was before Coyotzi ran a restaurant. Garcia says the company considered adding taxes to its tamales after it opened in East Elmhurst, a move that doesn’t come lightly. For many of their clients, these changes do not go unnoticed.

The business relies on selling a lot for a little, says Garcia. If this cannot happen, the prices could change again. For now, Evelia’s is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

The exterior of Evelia's Tamales, painted yellow and red.

The exterior of Evelia’s Tamales in East Elmhurst.