It’s a humble little cake of sorts. Golden in color, forged out of a thick cornmeal dough, typically cooked on a griddle, then stuffed with fillings or piled with toppings. Upon sinking your teeth into one, it’s easy to see why an arepa is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Originating long, long ago in the indigenous cuisines of Venezuela and Colombia, it’s still an intensely popular food in both countries, mainly served as snacks from street-side vendors. And now, thanks to The Arepa Lady, they’re carving out a long-time home in New York City.
Though there are arguably other places around the five boroughs to eat one of these buttery patties, Maria Piedad Cano is undoubtedly the master of the trade. When she gained the famous nickname, which would later become the name of her business, it was clear where some of the best arepas were sizzling in our food-obsessed metropolis. For decades now, she’s been hand-making batch after batch of the famous corn cakes in Jackson Heights out of a small cart underneath the clacking and clanking of the 7 train. During the warmer months, late on Friday and Saturday nights, folks can spot her on the corner of 79th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, just as the alcohol begins to flow and stomachs begin to rumble. Hungry passersby and returning customers line up on these tepid weekend nights just for a taste.
Maria’s story wasn’t always set in a kitchen though. Before moving to New York, she served as a judge in her hometown of Medellín. She was forced to flee in 1984, when drug wars made it too dangerous to continue working and living there. Two years later, she found herself in Queens, finding ways to get by in her new city. It was then that she turned to the arepa, which she had never made on a large scale back home. Though she couldn’t afford the expensive license to become a street vendor, she began selling the grilled patties out of a makeshift stand in 1990. The city confiscated the whole set-up multiple times, citing health regulations, before she was able to get a seasonal permit — but that didn’t stop her from firing up the grill.
The arepas themselves were simple enough to make, but difficult to perfect. Over the years, she created her own recipe, portioning out just the right amounts of cornmeal, water, oil and fresh cheese, then slapping them straight onto the flattop. It wasn’t long before the treat had a devout following. As news of the grub spread by mouth and online, The Arepa Lady’s reputation grew. In 2004, her face and her golden arepas made it into the New York Times, where she spoke to a reporter about her cooking through a translator. Ten years after that, and her humble street cart has grown into a permanent fixture. That’s right: The Arepa Lady finally has her own storefront.
The new restaurant opened its doors this June at 77-02AA Roosevelt, where Maria and her family have turned the modest 300 square foot space into arepa heaven. With more room and a permanent kitchen, they’re hard at work expanding the menu beyond the traditional fare, including new vegetable and meat fillings for the arepas.
The best part? Though she says she will still operate the cart on Friday and Saturday nights, as the weather allows, the brick-and-mortar cafe will be open year round. Her stand was previously only permitted to operate from April through October, so a perennial location means we can all get an arepa fix even in the dead of winter. Thank you, Street Food Gods. We’ll be counting our blessings with each brutal February trip to The Arepa Lady.
To stay up to date on what she does next, we recommend following The Arepa Lady over at her oft-updated Twitter account.