BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. And I’m even luckier to be a tastemaker for the World’s Fare, a celebration of global cuisine and culture, which will be held on May 18 and 19 at Citi Field. In the weeks leading up to the Fare, I’ll be profiling some of my favorite vendors from Queens and beyond. Today, a look at the Arepa Lady, the crown jewel of Colombian street food, which is returning for the second year.
Back in the day, it was quite a quest to find the Arepa Lady, a smiling angel serving up gooey Colombian corn cakes enriched with salty quesillo cheese.
I usually started my mission around 10 p.m. My fellow Queens food adventurers and I knew she’d be under the rumbling 7 train on Roosevelt Avenue in the vicinity of 82nd Street, often in front of a nightclub, but were never quite sure which one. For there were other vendors selling this classic Colombian street food, and we wanted to be sure we were at the stand run by what Jim Leff, founder of the foodie internet message board Chowhound, called the Sainted Arepa Lady.
The now septuagenarian Arepa Lady wasn’t always known by that moniker.
Maria Piedad Cano immigrated to the United States in the 1980s from Medellin, Colombia, where she served as an administrative judge. Seeking a way to support her family, she learned how to make the griddled corn cakes from a friend.
For 30 years this O.G. — which in this case stands for original grandma — sold her salty, sweet, cheesy treats to revelers and food nerds alike. The stand was once even nominated for a Vendy Award.
In the summer of 2014, the Arepa Lady’s family, spearheaded by her son Alejandro Osorio, returned the favor by opening a restaurant — Areperia Arepa Lady — on 77th Street, not far from her original food cart.
Osorio and his crew expanded the menu beyond the two classic corn cakes: the golden yellow corn arepa de choclo, made with fresh kernels, a semicircle enclosing salty quesillo cheese, and the white arepa de queso made with corn flour, to include varieties stuffed with various meats. Some might argue that such additions are gilding the griddled lily.
After all, there’s a whole roster of sauces to add to the corn cakes, including pineapple; green-tinged garlic; and leche condensada, a thick, sweet condensed milk that’s perfect for the rich arepa de queso.
For a short time, the family closed Areperia Arepa Lady, but thankfully they found a new location on 37th Avenue, where the walls are decorated with pictures of this beatific patron saint of Colombian street food plying her wares on Roosevelt Avenue.
Although Cano is semi-retired, “she comes at, like, 5 in the morning to make arepas,” says Osorio, and sometimes she returns in the evening. “I can’t tell her no. Her name is on the door.”
I’m so glad that this classic Colombian Queens street food will be featured at the World’s Fare. It’s one of many international flavors to be found in Queens that turned me into the food writer that I am today. See you at the Fare!
Joe DiStefano, a Queens-based food writer, culinary tour guide, and author of the bestselling guidebook “111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss.”
Catch the Arepa Lady at the World’s Fare at Citi Field (123-01 Roosevelt Ave. in Queens, https://theworldsfare.nyc) on May 18 and 19 from 12 to 8 p.m. Tickets from $19 to $199 (children under 10, $5).