For more than a decade, New York City-based social enterprise Turnstile Tours has been sharing the stories and flavors of Manhattan’s street food, and now they are coming to Queens. This new guided tasting tour of Jackson Heights builds on the company’s knowledge, experience, and partnerships working with street vendors, and brings visitors to one of the best food destinations — street food or otherwise — in the city.
Like Turnstile’s Food Cart Tours in Midtown and the Financial District, which they have been offering since 2010, the Jackson Heights installment will give visitors the chance to not only taste a wide diversity of foods, but also meet the vendors themselves and learn about their communities. Tastings will come from a rotating assortment of street vendors, including Tibetan momo, Colombian arepas, Mexican al pastor tacos, and much more.
“The food was great, sort of like a world tour in seven blocks. Colombia to Bangladesh to Nepal to Tibet to Mexico. Imagine how many frequent flyer miles that would be!” said Howard Weber, a participant in a sneak preview tour earlier this year.
Another staple of the tour is Bangladeshi fushka, served from America’s very first fushka food cart. Though fuchkawalas have long been a mainstay on the streets of Bangladesh, Tong was the first to bring them to New York, and many more have since popped up. Founder Naeem Khandaker took a lifelong dream to make space for his culture and cuisine in an industry with a huge number of Bangladeshi vendors, but few were serving authentic Bengali food, and he has since turned that dream into one of the fastest growing street vending businesses in Queens.
“It’s my pleasure to be part of a tour from a company who is dedicated to promoting the diversity, food, and people of New York City — the most diverse city in the country,” Khandaker told us. “I’m proud to be working with Turnstile Tours, and will continue to do so as long as the tours run.”
While most of the tour stops are food carts and trucks, the tour kicks off at an iconic Queens street vendor who now occupies a brick-and-mortar restaurant: The Arepa Lady. A family business and cornerstone of the neighborhood, it was started in 1986 by former judge and Colombian immigrant Maria Piedad Cano. Now run by her youngest son Alejandro Osorio, they opened their first restaurant in 2014 after decades of struggling with the city’s arcane and punitive permitting system for street vendors.
And sharing the challenges of being a street vendor in New York City is an important part of the tour. Visitors will understand the rules and regulations of running one of these demanding businesses, and the maze of laws and arbitrary enforcement the city’s 20,000+ street vendors must navigate. Turnstile Tours is a longtime supporter of the Street Vendor Project, a member-led organization of more than 2,000 street vendors that provide aid and support to the community and advocate for change. At least 5% of all ticket sales of the Jackson Heights tour and all of the other Food Cart Tours goes directly to the Street Vendor Project, and Turnstile Tours has donated more than $20,000 to the organization since 2012.
“The food is incredible, but it’s really a hook to bring people in and get them to engage with and support this community, to think about the challenges vendors face, and how vital they are to our city. It’s hard to imagine a neighborhood like Jackson Heights without its street vendors,” said Cindy VandenBosch, Turnstile founder and president and member of the Street Vendor Project’s Advisory Board.
“Having spent the better part of the pandemic years working on this tour, I couldn’t be more excited to finally bring this experience to life. To be able to collaborate with and share the stories of these street vendors, whom I’ve come to know so well, in the midst of this diverse, vibrant community is a dream come true,” said Amanda Adler Brennan, lead tour developer and guide for the Jackson Heights Food Cart Tour and the former host of the Tenement Museum podcast.
Public tours launch November 17 and will be offered on Thursday evenings at 6pm, and private small group tours are available most days of the week for either dinner or lunchtime experiences. Each tour is limited to eight people to allow for an experience that is intimate, conversational, and allows the group to move easily through the neighborhood’s bustling streetscape. The tour is two hours and tickets are $75 per person, with discounts available for seniors (age 65+), children (11 and under), and Jackson Heights residents. The tour includes at least five generous tastings, which more than substitute a full meal.. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit turnstiletours.com or our Jackson Heights Food cart Tour page.