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Queens’ tastemaster leads Fiesta Crawl

Ecuadorian Andean fare is a savory gem in Jackson Heights. Photo by Suzanne Parker
TimesLedger Newspapers

Tasting tours, and other culinary events are more of a calling than a business proposition to Jeff Orlick.

It’s his way of giving back to the community that welcomed him when he was a newbie in Woodside and didn’t know a soul. When he first landed in the nabe about five years ago, he used ethnic food explorations as a way to meet his neighbors. He began blogging about what he discovered on his website and organizing food-centric meet-ups, at which he developed a network of like-minded friends.

He developed a “Food Ambassador Program,” which brought eager diners together with a native of the country of the cuisine being consumed. He scoured the five boroughs to discover, and document, via an iPhone app: “The Real Pizza of New York.” You can download his mobile app at Real Pizza of New York at slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/10/real-pizza-of-new-york-iphone-app-is-a-pizza-lovers-must-have.html.

A group of intrepid foodies followed Orlick on the Roosevelt Avenue Midnight Street Food Crawl. Most recently, he served as “Tastemaster” at the Queens Economic Development Corp.’s Taste of Queens.

But Orlick doesn’t regard himself as a conventional tour guide.

“I like to think of my tours more as like taking a walk with friends,” he confided. “We discuss rather than me giving a lecture. I share what I’ve learned from hanging out and asking questions.”

Indeed, on his latest endeavor, the Fiesta Crawl, an exploration of Latino food vendors running from Jackson Heights to Corona, we meandered, ambled and digressed as the whim took us.

The crawl commenced on 90th Street, where Orlick shmoozed with several Mexican tamale ladies. They sold their homemade delicacies out of shopping carts, which were frequently replenished from their nearby kitchens.

Orlick explained that the path to legal street food vending is elusive for most of them: “A street vendor’s license cost $250 if legally obtained, but the problem is that the number of licenses issued is severely restricted. As a result, an applicant can wait 14 years for a license. Most of these ladies hope to be doing something else by then. An alternative is to purchase a license from a third party, which can cost up to $15,000 on places like craigslist.”

Orlick has become something of a champion of the street vendors’ cause. He testified before the City Council, deploring the injustice of their situation.

“Queens isn’t like Manhattan,” he maintained. “Here, the vendors are mostly local people providing the tastes of home to their countrymen and neighbors. They aren’t taking business away from brick and mortar stores. They are keeping the money in the community.”

Last August, he conducted one of his tours for the Street Vendors Association, which contacted him because of his advocacy efforts.

Back on Roosevelt Avenue, we perused some more general Mexican food vendors, snarfing a huitlacoche — corn fungus — quesadilla along the way. The next planned stop on the tour was Susanna’s Mexican Products, but our first diversion of the day was when we spotted an intriguingly odd piece of apparatus in the window of a hardware store — sort of a meat grinder, but with a flat cylinder where the meat would have exited.

The aha-moment came when Orlick correctly identified it as a corn grinder for making masa for tortillas.

Along with a comprehensive collection of ingredients for Mexican cooks, Susanna’s yielded some interesting finds. Fruitta Secca falls somewhere between dried and candied fruits, but heftier and more exotic. They also sell their own mole sauce, ladled from a container — an effortless way to show off at home with Susanna’s version of this complicated sauce.

Then it was back to Roosevelt Avenue to check out the culinary delights of Ecuador. Vendors along the avenue specialize in the cuisine of the mountainous regions of Ecuador: fat juicy sausages in natural casing, pork, ears of jumbo corn called maíz chulpe, cancho (roasted kernels of same), llapingachos (potato patties, sometimes stuffed) and Ecuadorian tamales called Humitas.

Warren Street, a little further east off Roosevelt, plays host to some of the best-established Ecuadorian food trucks in the area. Some of them have been there for 15 years. One specializes in rich coastal seafood cuisine, while the other two stick with the more Andean fare. They offer complete meals and a few places to sit down.

Our progress was arrested by the sight of a bizarre clothing dummy on the street sporting a faja that could only be described as a “butt bra.” Orlick, ever the gracious host, noting my fascination, asked if I wanted to go in and check it out. But of course.

Jeans Colombianos is a treasure trove of all sorts of garments, both under and outer, designed to forcibly reshape the body and hoist the posterior.

Orlick noticed the owner was engrossed in a foreign language TV show.

“Is that Indian?” he asked.

“No, Arabic,” came the reply.

Orlick asked how the owner became involved in selling provocative clothing to Latin American women. The owner, seeming annoyed by the question, answered with a shrug.

We pressed onward, bypassing possible dessert like espumilla — ice cream cones filled with meringue instead of ice cream — or a nice salpicón de frutas — Colombian fruit salad swimming in Kool-aid laced pineapple juice.

The tour culminated at Orlick’s favorite “bonus stop”: the Tortas Neza truck on Roosevelt near 111th Street. He has brought Food Network personalities here to enjoy the ultimate Mexican sandwich. The Neza owner, who goes only by the name of “Torta,” began his sandwich-making career by hawking his creations in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Now that he has a truck, he makes everything fresh and to order in his kitchen on wheels. Orlick believes Torta’s tortas are of a caliber to attract foodies from Manhattan and beyond, once the word gets out.

It’s got him a little worried.

If you would like to masticate to a Latin beat with Jeff Orlick, visit iwantmorefood.com/tours. The fee is $58 per person and includes all food and drink. There is no minimum number of participants, but if you have a large group, contact him directly by e-mail at jeffsayyes@gmail.com and he will work out a group rate and customize the tour to match your interests.

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