Restaurant Review: Evelia’s Tamales, a Sidewalk Standby, Comes in From the Streets

By 7 a.m. on most weekdays, when Evelia’s Tamales in North Corona, Queens, is in the thick of the morning rush, there is a good chance that all the tables will be empty.

The dining room is inviting enough, with space for about two dozen diners. Papel picado flags stenciled with the restaurant’s name and logo — a steaming pot of tamales — are strung across the ceiling. By the front door, script written in LED neon over a patch of artificial greenery spells out, “live love eat tamales.”

Yet almost all of Evelia’s customers at that hour make straight for the takeout counter, as they do more or less the minute the doors open at 5 a.m. Many of them are men dressed in work clothes and steel-toed boots powdered with construction dust. They arrive in pickups and cargo vans that they parked outside on Northern Boulevard, dodging the dented cars that weave in and out of the bays of the auto-body shop across the road in a ballet of crumpled metal. Within a few minutes they climb back into their vehicles carrying bags loaded with breakfast and, chances are, lunch.

A guajillo-chile adobo saturates the tamal and bleeds through the corn-husk wrapper.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
Even in summer, cups of hot chocolate called champurrado are in demand.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Mole tamales and other standard varieties sell for $1.50 each.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

They stock up on tortas, both full-scale sandwiches that barely hold their fillings as well as half-size tortitas carrying a more manageable load: soft potatoes mashed with pink crumbles of chorizo, say, or a small chicken cutlet. They hit the refrigerator case for aguas frescas of hibiscus or tamarind. They buy coffee, of course, and even in the summer they ask for a cup of Evelia’s steaming atole de masa or its hot-chocolate variant, champurrado, sweet and fragrant with cinnamon.

More than any other item, though, the bags the morning crowd takes away are heavy with tamales, plucked at finger-scalding temperatures from large stockpots where they steam inside tightly rolled corn husks.

Evelia’s Tamales opened recently on Northern Boulevard, not far from La Guardia Airport.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
The restaurant is the first storefront business for Evelia Coyotzi, who has sold tamales on the sidewalks for Queens for two decades.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Evelia’s Tamales is the first storefront outlet for Evelia Coyotzi, who for many years has run, about half a mile south on Roosevelt Avenue, the city’s most celebrated tamal cart. The cart begins its business day seven mornings a week promptly at 4, a more regular schedule than the one kept by the No. 7 train that thumps along the elevated tracks overhead and that many of Ms. Coyotzi’s customers ride to work once they are adequately armed with tamales.

The basic, husk-wrapped model cost a dollar a piece until December, when it went up to $1.50. (The prices are the same at the cart and the restaurant, both owned by Ms. Coyotzi and her husband, Delfino García.) Are they the best tamales in town? When a business locks in on an audience as specific and local as Evelia’s, the question may not be of paramount importance. But they are very good tamales, especially by New York standards. The dough is firm and creamy, and Evelia’s employs a formidable kitchen crew to make a profusion of varieties that few of its sidewalk competitors can rival.

Tamales are plucked straight from the stockpots where they steam.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
A new tamal is filled with birria, which is sold by the pound on weekends.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
Evelia’s cooks, old hands at masa dough for tamales, now make fresh tortillas, too.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

A few new ones have been devised with an eye on the current food scene and a slightly higher price of $2 each. One is filled with deeply flavorful shreds of beef birria. A fake-meat Impossible tamal also exists, though it wasn’t available when I wanted to try it. Vegans will want to know that Evelia’s recently began mixing the masa harina for tamales with vegetable oil instead of lard. As far as I can tell, the flavor has not suffered.

There are more traditional tamales, of course. Stewed pork is memorably suffused with adobo made from guajillo and pulla chiles, smoky and carrying a hint of sour cherries. There are chicken-filled tamales: One variety is steamed with salsa verde; another is punctuated by dots of salsa roja and strips of jalapeño rajas; a third is encased in its wrapper with enough mole poblano that it is nearly black from husk to core.

One of the sweet tamales, studded with raisins, is dyed the red of maraschino cherries. Another, filled with chopped pineapple, is the color of Mountain Dew. Either would be suitable for breakfast or a birthday party.

Tamales Oaxaqueños, taller and fluffier than standard tamales, are wrapped in banana leaves.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

I think, though, that the most fun you can have at Evelia’s is to eat one or more tamales Oaxaqueños. The dough for these is heaped into small mounds around the fillings and then wrapped in banana leaves, loosely, so the masa stays fluffy; the little green parcels are then tied with a string, like a box from an old-fashioned pastry shop. Evelia’s uses a spicy, smoky morita chile salsa to moisten big chunks of stewed pork ribs or chicken wings. The meat is left on the bone, so eating these two requires more caution than you need with a corn-husk tamal. No extra care is needed for what may be the best of the Oaxacan tamales, the one that contains fried bands of pork skin that emerge soft and sticky after they are steamed in tomatillo salsa.

Evelia’s cart has long sold tortas alongside its tamales. These have made the move to the restaurant; several make enthusiastic use of skinned, split, cold hot dogs, and one, the Supreme, incorporates a layer of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. They are not quite as exciting as they sound.

But the kitchen space at the restaurant gives Ms. Coyotzi and her cooks the chance to travel down new roads, many of which are paved with masa bought from a nearby tortilleria. Shaped into small, rimmed ovals, the masa makes the simple snack called a picadita. In its purest form, a picadita is dressed only with salsa, raw onions crema and warm cheese. On request, the kitchen can also top yours with carne asada, chicken or chorizo.

Besides tamales, the restaurant also makes quesadillas with fillings such as huitlacoche.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
Picaditas are small rimmed ovals spread with salsa, cheese and onions.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Evelia’s tortillas have a deep corn flavor that tells you they are freshly made. Smaller ones are for tacos. Larger ones are crisped on the griddle to make quesadillas folded over fresh zucchini flowers or inky huitlacoche.

These dishes make a case for staying in the dining room for a while. (No quesadilla has ever improved after being wrapped for takeout.) And if you come to Evelia’s after the morning rush, you may find tables occupied by couples snapping close-ups of the Torta Supreme, groups of friends demolishing a couple of pounds of barbacoa, maybe a family dressed for church having spicy bowls of pancita, the tripe soup, on a Sunday afternoon. None of this would be likely without Evelia’s bigger menu.

Still, it is hard to imagine walking back out to Northern Boulevard without eating tamales, or at least stowing some away for later.

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