Queens Walkabout: Tortilleria Nixtamal, Timmy O’s, Pollo Campero

by Zora O'Neill on July 7, 2009

On Sunday, Peter and I took a long walk in Queens. It happened to be our anniversary (cue: awwww!); otherwise, we would’ve just lounged around the house like slugs, as usual.

Ordinarily, we would’ve ridden our bikes, but since our Spain trip, walking seems more enjoyable. (And deep down, I know biking is the lazy option–I like it because it’s one of the few sports where you can sit on your ass.) Walking also makes it seem more like traveling. I may ride a bike at home, but hoofing it is standard whenever I go to another country.

Our destination, loosely, was Tortilleria Nixtamal (104-05 47th Ave.), in Corona. Peter happened to buzz by there a couple of weeks ago on his bike, saw the tortilla press in the window and remembered my chronic lament: Corn tortillas in this city suck. The only kind you can get are the ones made with preservatives. My dad still gets the pure corn, lime and water ones in Santa Cruz; Peter picked up the simple goods in Chicago a few weeks back; but New York, where Mexican culture is still relatively new, is a tortilla wasteland.

And ThingsSo, we set off a-walkin’. A little dull at first, since it’s just our same ol’ neighborhood. But we noticed that the Thai restaurant on 30th Ave. near Steinway (south side) has all-new miniature Thai food-stall dioramas in its window. Adorable–and for sale! And we noticed the newish Bistro Les Minots, where genuine French was being spoken, on the other side of Steinway. And we saw that a deli was having a special on “things.”

Spirograph String ArtWe trekked through Jackson Heights, where I happened to see a woman wearing a gauzy outfit in the exact same colors I just painted the dining room, so I felt like my Bollywood vision was based on something real. And we saw more odd art for sale–just $30 for the small ones! And that’s real black velvet as the background.

Jackson 123On 82nd Street, we got a shaved ice flavored with something mysterious and orange and creamy. We passed a movie theater I didn’t know existed, where all the Hollywood hits are subtitled in Spanish, and all shows before 5pm are $5. Maybe I’ll go next week, to practice up before my Mexico trip.

We were momentarily lost, as the street numbers suddenly skewed all wrong–and then we hit Broadway in Elmhurst, and walked past the Taiwanese place we like, with the duck tongues. Tempting–but we had a different goal.

The beauty of wandering aimlessly in Queens is that, except for a few awkward spots where the grid gets bent, you basically know where you are at all times, thanks to the genius numbering scheme known (among urban engineering cognoscenti, anyway) as “the Philadelphia system.” That’s the system that makes most non-Queens-residents have nervous breakdowns when they’re looking for an address like 30-30 30th Avenue. Duh–we know that’s 30th Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets. So, since we were going to 104-05 47th Avenue, we knew we had to go south-ish to 47th Ave, and east-ish as far as 104th Street, and it didn’t matter much how we got there.

Timmy O's Frozen CustardDue to our wandering approach, we wound up having dessert first. We first strolled past Timmy O’s (49-07 104th Street) without batting an eye, but the phrase “frozen custard” lodged in my brain. Half a block later, I said, “That might be good! Frozen custard is rare here.” Peter said, “And any place that sells just one thing is usually pretty good at that one thing.” I’d even seen the word “concrete” on the menu inside, indicating St. Louis-style thick shakes.

U-turn. Back to Timmy O’s, and whoa, we are glad we did! They’ve been open about a year, making just vanilla and chocolate fresh every day, plus an additional one or two special flavors. When we visited, they also had cannoli cream (with the wee chocolate chips) and really good strawberry. All rich and eggy, and served just a little soft, so you can really taste the flavors. Timmy even studied in St. Louis, and told us about an ice-cream-hut crawl he did with his class. He thinks the winner there is Fritz’s, not Ted Drewe’s. (I didn’t say it! He did! But now I’m curious…)

So when we got to Tortilleria Nixtamal, just a couple of blocks later, we were pretty full. Kids were playing out front, and invited us in, but we said we’d have to walk around the block first, to work up an appetite. We just managed it–passing Leo’s Latticini, one of those Queens food landmarks I’ve always heard about and have not quite been compelled to go to because it doesn’t involve anything really spicy. Fortunately it was closed, or we might’ve ruined our appetites again.

Tortilleria NixtamalSo, back to the tortilleria. They have an honest-to-God tortilla press, visible from the outside, so you could watch it like a Krispy Kreme production line. (Love that it’s made by Manufacturas Lenin!) Inside, the decor consists largely of empty Coca-Cola bottles. Mexican Coke, of course–the good stuff.

Fish Tacos at Tortilleria NixtamalWe got guacamole, and it is probably the finest I have had in a restaurant–it tasted like there were bits of roasted poblano in there, and the fresh-fried chips didn’t hurt either. A rajas tamale was super-tasty, even though the masa was dense. And a round of crispy-fried fish tacos, using the fresh tortillas…perfect. We took two pounds of tortillas to go (the machine runs every day at 11am–a little early for us, but the tortillas stay warm in coolers all day). They may not be as good as you can get in Mexico, but until they install a grandmother, patting each one out by hand and cooking them on a wood fire–well, these will certainly do.

While we were there, we read some of their press coverage on the walls–turns out our random wander actually covered a well-trod chowhound trail before us–Columbus we ain’t.

We were fairly full, but seeing how our route home was headed right past El Pollo Campero, the Guatemalan chicken franchise, we couldn’t not stop. I know it’s fried fast food, but it’s fried fast food in Spanish–right down to the trash bins that say ‘Gracias’ on them. Plus, it was Fourth of July weekend, and it seemed like we should eat fried chicken at some point.

Digging InI get strangely patriotic and a little teary-eyed in places like El Pollo Campero. This is what the future of the US is–having our weird plastic-fast-cheap culture spread out in the world, then brought back to us and made a thousand times better by immigrants. Of course you want a salsa bar in your fast-food joint! And damn, the salsa was good–all smoky-hot with little burnt flecks in it. And the chicken wasn’t bad either–crispy, spicy, and almost certainly involving a dash of MSG, but nothin’ wrong with that.

Corona SkylineAfter our chicken break, it was just a long trek home in the dying light. Peter’s feet began to hurt–the knockoff 99-cent-store “Band-Ages” we’d bought hadn’t really helped. We passed a random street fight, involving the cops and a girl in a pink dress who was stuck holding the family groceries. We survived the long, dreary stretch of car dealerships on Northern Boulevard. We maximized the diagonal of Newtown Avenue, and it was still a good 10 miles all told.

But we felt like we’d been a whole lot further. And this has always been why I’ve lived in Queens in the first place–the travel-without-a-passport effect. In fact, it’s nearly my anniversary with Queens too (11 years–I moved in on the very first date!). Recently, I’ve been having the occasional twinge of longing for Brooklyn food culture and all its chumminess and farm-ness and we’re-making-stuff!-ness. But after the Sunday walkabout…I’m renewing my vows to Queens.

And to Peter too, of course–the only man I know who would enjoy a day like this as much as I did. Happy anniversary, sweets.

(A few other good photos from the walk are at this Flickr set.)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Naomi July 9, 2009 at 12:32 pm

What a fabulous anniversary. I’m glad you’ve found the charm of walking. It presents it’s own adventures without the risk of getting doored. Perhaps I could entice you to a Brooklyn walkabout at some point. And I promise you don’t have to like it better than Queens.

2 megc July 13, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Happy anniversary, Zora and Peter!

We went to Nixtamal and Timmy O’s on Saturday! Loved them both – it was our second time at Nixtamal and first at Timmy O’s. I also thought the guacamole was excellent but I think I loved even more the green salsa, so much so that I have a 16 oz container of it in my fridge (along with some tortillas). The chicken tacos were fantastic and light, and the carnitas was pretty incredible, too. Pork verde tamale, total yum. Shauna, the woman who served us and is part owner, is so lovely and we connected over having all lived in CA at one point in time. I wish them continued success, and I will be back soon.

Timmy O’s had delicious frozen custard – vanilla was my fave and T got strawberry. Timmy talked a lot about what he does and it was nice to chat about the now funny (and then crazy, if not dangerous) mistakes of our youth. Oh, they had a banana flavor that truly tasted like bananas! Not like the fake banana flavor crap. The strawberry was really good, but I can’t get the vanilla out of my mind. I can’t wait to go back.

A customer at Timmy O’s told us that the people at Leo’s Latticini can cop a fairly bad attitude, so I found the idea of stepping in there unpleasant. Of course, they could have been having a bad day but I didn’t want a potential pissy employee destroying the food bliss we were in. We headed home and napped a bit.

3 Jeff July 22, 2009 at 9:34 pm

wow, great adventure! I think Timmy O’s will forever be linked with tortilleria nixtamal. or at least they should be… How can I go to one without the other??

you should try Leo’s latticini! It’s great, and there’s some spicy meats in there and peppers if you wish. I bet if you said you wanted something spicy, mama could concoct something to make you sweat.

4 Maria March 17, 2011 at 6:29 am

Hi Zora!

I love your writing and especially your work in Mexico.

Just wondering if the tortillas at Nixtamal are made from fresh masa (from ground corn) or from maseca (the packaged, instant masa). If so, I may have to head down there (from Massachusetts).

Thanks for your work. Saludos.

5 Zora March 17, 2011 at 10:58 am

Yes, Maria, they are made with fresh masa! I actually visited the place again last year and took a bunch of photos of the process–they’re really proud of the fact that they’re the only place that starts with fresh corn and grinds it themselves. (I should post those photos!)

6 Julie June 30, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Hi Zora,

I am looking at my options and interests for a future career and stumbled upon your article when I was searching food writers and travel. You seem to have it made with the balance of culinary delight and travel! :) Just curious if you had any advice for someone who loves culinary arts but alos loves to travel and would certainly enjoy doing it as a profession? I’m weighing my options right now and could use some advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Thanks and happy travels!

7 Zora July 5, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Julie, nice of you to post! Drop me an email, and I’d be happy to share tips, etc. (Email link should be there under my pic on the home page.) Might take me a little while to reply, as I’m on the road again right now…

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