In a corner of Queens still reeling from the first year of the pandemic, there’s 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 her cart. It arrived at 96-09 Northern Boulevard, between 96th and 97th streets, on March 7.
It’s a historic moment for the Mexican chef, who’s been arrested and fined, stood on the front lines of street vending protests, and held court on the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue at 4:30 a.m. most days for the last two decades. Few vendors end up opening brick-and-mortar businesses. Those who do are success stories: Arepa Lady, along 37th Avenue. Latino Bites, further down Northern Boulevard.
Now Evelia’s gets its turn, and for the opening, Coyotzi is betting on East Elmhurst. The Queens neighborhood was among the hardest hit by coronavirus in New York City in the first year of the pandemic. Its residents, who lean elderly and Black, endured a pandemic without a central bank or hospital, state senator Jessica Ramos says.
“Everybody has always ignored this neighborhood,” Ramos says. It’s where former Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed constructing a now-halted $2 billion air-train connecting LaGuardia Airport with the New York transit system. But instead, it gets a tamal shop worthy of a trip across town or a morning commute. “They’re the vanguard of the renaissance that is coming,” she says. “Those opportunities for joy are something that my neighbors and I cherish greatly.”
On Junction Boulevard, where Coyotzi has operated a street cart for the last 20 years, the aroma of tamales is mixed with the smells of neighboring vendors and the roaring 7 train above. At her new storefront, the scents are easier to pick out: Wafts of warm atole, the grip of fresh corn tortillas, and tamales mixed with everything from pineapple to pipian.
From the new restaurant, Coyotzi is now making a full menu of Mexican breakfast dishes — chilaquiles, eggs bathed in red and green salsas — plus tacos, tortas, and quesadillas. On weekends, when the lines already stretch out the door, the kitchen kicks into high gear, selling barbacoa and carnitas by the pound, along with bowls of pancita (a ruddy stew bobbing with beef stomach) and pozole.
Miraculously, tamal production has kept pace.
Downstairs, fingers fly as employees scoop masa from massive containers at lighting speed, smear it onto a husk of corn, and throw on tender, stewy chicharron, pipian (a sauce made from pumpkin seeds) with pinto beans, and a dozen other fillings. They come together in seconds, and workers produce as many as 900 a day each.
Now and again they pull out a pile of banana leaves for making Oaxaqueños, a plumper, moister tamal that comes tied up with twine like the gift it is. They’re made with chicken and chicharron, but the version steamed 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. This is no hand-held tamal.
According to John Garcia, the restaurant’s manager and Coyotzi’s son, the best way to enjoy these tamales is sandwiched between two slices of bread, what’s known as a torta de tamal and also a guajolota, as it’s more commonly referred to in Mexico City. The restaurant’s crusty, 50-cent rolls aren’t made on premises, but stuffed with any two tamales on the menu, they feel right at home.
For a proper meal, pair one with a cup of atole. The Mexican beverage, which can range in consistency from frothy hot chocolate milk to a hair lighter than congee, is well-represented here. It comes made with oat (avena), rice (arroz con leche), chocolate (champurrado), the masa in the restaurant’s tortillas, and animal crackers (galleta).
Garcia attributed the changes to an identity crisis at the tamal cart: New Yorkers don’t know Evelia’s, he says, at least not by name. “For most of the time it was an unlabeled metal cart,” he says. “People in the community, they called it Los Tamales de Junction or Los Tamales de Roosevelt,” alluding to cart’s cross streets in Corona, Queens. He might be underselling Evelia’s reputation slightly.
The tamal maker appeared in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and more recently, a review from Eater critic Ryan Sutton. State senator Ramos, who’s been frequenting the tamal cart for years, is also an outspoken fan. “I’m in awe of her,” she says. Despite the acknowledgments, the 24-year-old general manager says the East Elmhurst storefront is the beginning of something bigger for the tamal business.
Garcia alludes to the viral success that some restaurants have found on TikTok and Instagram. Could Evelia’s be next? “I don’t know anything about TikTok,” he admits, before asking for advice, but he does have ideas. Tamales filled with birria and Impossible meat will soon join the menu, an effort to cash in on two of the city’s biggest food trends right now. A neon sign with the words “Live Love Eat Tamales” glows at the front of the restaurant.
For all that’s changing, the restaurant is keeping many parts of the business the same. The recipe for Coyotzi’s tamales, whose smoothness Eater chief’s critic likened 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 by half, then entirely — but if anyone noticed, they haven’t said anything, Garcia says.
The restaurant’s low prices — still competitive with street vendors at $1.50 for a tamal and $3 for a plumper Oaxaqueño — also won’t change, at least for now. In December, the business 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 shared in an apology posted to Instagram.
The price of Evelia’s ingredients — like everything else — soared during the pandemic and that was before Coyotzi was running a restaurant. Garcia says the business considered adding tax to its tamales after opening in East Elmhurst, a decision that doesn’t come lightly. For many of their customers, those changes don’t go unnoticed.
The business relies on selling a lot for a little, Garcia explains. If that can’t happen, the prices could change again. For now, Evelia’s is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.