Queens city food tour: The New York City borough that's an exotic food culture destination

If you've been to New York City, then you've probably been to Queens. The city's two main airports, John F Kennedy International and La Guardia International, are located there.

It is the largest of NYC's five boroughs. So large, in fact, that if Queens were an independent city, it would be the fourth-most populous in the United States, after LA, Chicago and Brooklyn. There's a lot to explore.

Three years ago, Lonely Planet named Queens the best place to visit in the US. Queens is famous for major sporting venues including the US Open tennis arena and Citi Field, it is home to the New York Mets baseball team, and it is also where you'll find cultural institutions such as MoMA PS 1 and the Museum of the Moving Image. Increasingly, the borough is also being recognised for its fabulous food, driven by the global influences and flavours that come with being the most ethnically diverse urban area in the US.

Almost one in two Queens residents are overseas-born. It's estimated that 138 languages are spoken, and more than 120 nationalities represented. Whether they've come from Colombia or China, Mexico or Ireland, the immigrants who season the special sauce of NYC bring their culinary traditions with them. Favourite foods create a feeling of home away from home for New York's immigrants, and a taste of the world for the visitors who increasingly come to Queens to eat and shop.

The diversity is one of the reasons Ansel Mullins chose to offer food tours in Queens through his company, Culinary Backstreets. Launched in 2009, the company was an instant success in exotic food-culture cities such as Istanbul, Lisbon and Tokyo. Tours are led by people who come from backgrounds as chefs, food writers and cookbook authors, and as such have a deep knowledge of and love for food.

The Queens tour, launched last year, is Culinary Backstreets's first in NYC, and indeed its first in North America.

"The opportunity to explore the diversity and magnitude of culinary influences in a dense area was the initial draw, like an around-the-world ticket with dozens of delicious stops," Mullins says. "But as we dug into the borough we found the human stories in Queens so compelling, so rooted in Queens and so accessible through food. Queens, as global as it is, is the ultimate American story and one that needs to be told these days."

I meet guide Esneider Arevalo for the start of the tour in Corona, now a predominantly Latin American neighbourhood. Fans of The King of Queens will recognise it from the opening montage, when Kevin James' character buys and then immediately drops an ice-cream from the Lemon Ice King of Corona.

Arevalo is a warm and well-informed ambassador for the borough, an immigrant success story who came to the US from Colombia more than 30 years ago, as a teenager. Starting out as a dishwasher, he went on to become head chef of Angelica Kitchen, an acclaimed vegan farm-to-table restaurant.

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He tells me we will be tasting our way around Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights for the next five or six hours, sampling food and drinks from pushcarts, food trucks and cafes.

Roosevelt Avenue, the bustling main thoroughfare that connects these neighbourhoods, runs underneath the elevated 7 train line. Nicknamed the "International Express", the 7 starts out on the west side of Manhattan at the new Hudson Yards development, and ends in Flushing, Queens. Underneath its rumbling tracks, the avenue is a feast of international street food. Follow Roosevelt, they say, and you taste the world.

Many immigrant cooks start out with a pushcart, or in some cases a shopping trolley, and from these modest digs serve up comfort food such as seasoned corn on the cob, tamales, quesadillas and juicy meat skewers. If they do well enough they eventually graduate to owning a food truck. The very lucky might end up with a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

The most famous Queens pushcart I can think of is the one formerly run by the Arepa Lady, a Colombian dynamo who was featured on Layover, the late Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel television show. I ask Arevalo if he knows her. "She's my mother," he says with a laugh.

The Lady, real name Maria Cano, famously hung up on the Food Network when they called to inquire about filming, because she was too busy making arepas, flat cornmeal cakes stuffed or topped with meat or cheese and fried to perfection. NYC residents are eagerly awaiting the unveil of her new restaurant in Jackson Heights.

Arepas are not on the menu today, but we hungrily tuck into Hainanese chicken and rice, a toasted cemita sandwich that oozes with hot oaxaca cheese over chorizo, onions and avocado, and pink-frosted Mexican sweet buns.

At a family-run Mexican tortilleria, I bite into scrumptious soft tortilla al pastor, a soft taco piled high with thin shavings of spit-roasted pork. Thoughtfully watching on is Hispanic Jesus, his all-seeing portrait above the cash register. A passionate telenovela plays out on the television.

Later, at Arevalo's favourite bakery, La Gran Uruguay, we taste hot, crispy empanadas (a not-so-distant cousin of the Aussie meat pie) and discuss the Uruguayan soccer team's chance of success in the upcoming World Cup.

We stop by the Hornado Ecuatoriano food truck to pick up cups of morocho, a chocolatey sweet-corn drink popular in Ecuador.

Shelves overflowing with exotic grocery items greet us at El Molino, a Corona bodega run harmoniously by four families from Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic and China. Cactus plants, hibiscus flowers, long green plantains, panela (unrefined cane sugar) and tender cuts of beef wait to be turned into family meals.

A few doors down, at a Cuban-owned botanica, love potions and herbal tinctures are stocked alongside a variety of candles that when burned with intent, are said to bring health, wealth, protection or passion.

By the time we reach the Tibetan momo shop, our bellies are almost too full for a round of fried dumplings and it's a relief to see the shutters down. Arevalo says there is sometimes an air of spontaneity at mom-and-pop operations like this, and it's not uncommon to arrive to a sign on the door that says, "Closed today – gone to the beach".

We plonk down in the sun in Moore Homestead Park, one of Elmhurst's busiest neighbourhood parks. Spreading our haul of leftovers out on the picnic table, we nibble at tortilla chips and a spicy chipotle dip, dipping chunks of the Colombian cornbread into the juice of the Hainanese chicken. Kids play around us as Asian grandmas practise tai chi.

Still full of energy after five hours of walking and talking, Arevalo keeps on suggesting places I have to add to my "must eat" list. I walk away with recommendations for where to buy Taiwanese pancakes, Vietnamese Banh mi sandwiches, Chinese burgers (from a restaurant called Chingers), Nepalese curry, Brazilian churrasco and Puerto Rican mofongo. I also walk away with a deeper appreciation of the culinary contributions immigrants make in this deliciously diverse place.

TRIP NOTES

Kristie Kellahan was a guest of Culinary Backstreets.

MORE

culinarybackstreets.com

nycgo.com

FLY

American Airlines flies to New York City from Sydney and Melbourne via Los Angeles. See americanairlines.com.au

STAY

Stylish new hotels are opening in Queens as the borough undergoes rapid development. Check the industrial-chic design of Paper Factory Hotel, housed in a century-old building on the border of Astoria and Long Island City, paperfactoryhotel.com. The sleek rooftop of Z NYC Hotel in Long Island City offers commanding Manhattan skyline views, zhotelny.com. Mid-century modern design fans are counting down the days until the retro TWA Hotel opens at JFK in 2019, twahotel.com.

TOUR

Queens Culinary Walks are a five- to six-hour deep dive into the diverse flavours and immigrant cooking styles of Corona, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and beyond. Tours meet every day at 10.30am; priced at $US150 per person, the fee includes all food and drink on the tour. Children welcome. Tastings can be tailored for vegetarian and pescatarian participants. A four-hour Saturday special covers Corona's culinary essentials and is priced at $US95 per person.

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