By Juan Soto
“Arepa Lady” is as famous among her customers as Wonder Woman is among comic book fans.
She began flipping the Colombian arepas back in the 1990s out of her street-food cart. She was always there, rain or shine, at 79th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, serving the flatbread cornflour to foodies.
But underneath the No. 7 train, Colombian native Maria Piedad Cano had a problem. Because of a temporary food license, she was only allowed to grill arepas in her cart six months a year, from April through October.
“The other six months of the year, the customers did not get their arepas, and we did not make any money,” the revered street vendor said in an interview this week.
That is why her sons came up with the crazy idea of opening a restaurant during these difficult economic times.
It seems the bet is paying off.
On June 29, the doors opened for Arepa Lady, a small and warm place, at 77th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, just a few blocks away from where she operated her food cart.
“We are all very happy,” added “Arepa Lady, who arrived in New York some 35 years ago.
Back home, she was a lawyer, worked as a judge and was even the mayor of a town in Antioquia Department, in the central-northwestern part of the South American nation. Leaving her native country behind meant a move from arguing the law to grilling arepas.
It took Cano, her three sons and her daughter-in-law basically a year to find a place, get all necessary permits and construct the eatery.
“This is such beautiful place,” she said about Jackson Heights as she watched Germany destroy Colombia in the 2014 World Cup semifinals on the TV in her new restaurant. “A lot of Colombians want Germany to win because of what happened to the game between Colombia and Brazil,”
Colombian fans were upset with some of the calls made by the referee favoring Brazil.
Customers are coming in and the street foodies are also enjoying the $4 arepa de queso (cornflour with mozzarella served with cheese and butter on top) and the arepa de chocolo (ground-up fresh corn served with cheese and butter).
Arepa Lady, at 77-02AA Roosevelt Ave., is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
“This is an excellent restaurant,” said her daughter-in-law, Nelly Klinger, who helped Cano with the street cart as well. “It’s a great place.”
Cano’s arepas became well-known back in the ’90s when Jimm Leff wrote about the inch-thick fine food for a Manhattan community newspaper.
And after decades grilling the corn cakes, the arepa ritual was passed from one generation to another.
“I serve arepas to kids who came with their parents,” she said, as she looked around the cozy eatery. “Then, they came as college students, with their wives, and now they come with their kids.”
There are some restaurants along Roosevelt that also serve arepas, but Cano knows she will make it.
“My arepas are simply the best,” she said. “I put all my passion into my cooking.”
Reach reporter Juan Soto by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4564.