A big part of my identity and those of the two companies I run, Epicenter-NYC and URL Media, is to lift others as we climb. And since we primarily cover, employ and center people of color, spending money on vendors and services that do the same is important to us. I recently wrote that the business case for this “is not rooted in largesse. The reason to support BIPOC brands and vendors is because they are at least twice as good as everyone else.”
And so I present this year’s gift guide (you can see last year’s here) with an eye toward local, independent, mostly POC-owned places to patronize year-round and ways to be more intentional about our consumption. I also weave in entertainment, lodging and catering options because we recently hosted fellow community media outlets from across the country, and sourced food and drink from BIPOC businesses that are equal parts rich in quality and backstory. Queens, it turns out, is one of the best bases to do this from. Where possible, I ordered directly from the businesses but due to time constraints, sometimes turned to third parties.
I was on my way to the White House earlier this year and I showed up at LaGuardia Airport for my flight when I saw the Diwali miracle: an empty MAC Cosmetics store. I headed over and met makeup artist Ashley Cordero and breathlessly said, “I umm am heading to the White House and was on Zoom calls till 5 seconds ago. Can you help fix me but make it look natural and like I’m real casual about this whole thing? Oh and in under 10 minutes please.” In the course of doing my makeup, Cordero told me about her soy-based, hand-poured candles. Within a few days, I placed an order for 100 of them — the chai cinnamon smells divine. Check them out and support her.
All of Eighth Generation’s blankets are designed by Native artists, and they range in price and size (a full blanket is above $200 while throws can be had for under $100). These are colorful, creative gifts that literally spread warmth, support Indigenous artists and preserve communities. The company is Seattle-based and owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe.
Meeting Lucy Yu changed how I buy books. Yu was a panelist at Epicenter-NYC’s recent event on the future of Asian American business. We’ve covered her entrepreneurial journey and community-building spirit (she handed out pepper spray during the peak of anti-Asian violence), and I’m in awe of both. I’ve made a real effort to place my orders and pre-orders through Yu’s site, and am pleased to report products arrive about as fast as that other site you might be using. Earlier this year, I asked Yu for some recommendations and she mentioned: Beautiful Country, All This Could Be Different, House of Sticks, See No Stranger, Which Side Are You On?, Our Missing Hearts, and Before the Coffee Gets Cold. I bought all of them, as gifts for myself and others.
Out-of-town guests? Offsite? People who can’t afford midtown Manhattan hotels? We put folks up at The Paper Factory in Long Island City and hosted two days of meetings there as well. It’s owned by Reza Merchant, the son of Indian immigrants to the UK and the founder of the Collective, a London-based community and co-living space. (Fun fact: Epicenter-NYC co-founder Nitin Mukul had his studio in this once-industrial building.)
Tickets to ALVIN AILEY American Dance Theater
I was looking for an uplifting night for out-of-town visitors and this did not disappoint. The beauty onstage and timeless classics were breathtaking, felt physically nourishing, and mentally relaxing. The shows are running till Christmas Eve at City Center. Highly recommend seats in the grand tier to take in a fuller view.
We mentioned these folks last year and do so again now. Dependable Queens-based organic coffee deserves all the shoutouts. This company also offers subscriptions and a variety of coffees. Browny Coffee Roasters’s 12oz Whole Bean retails for $18.95 and there are discounts for bulk orders.
Cortés is an old favorite in Puerto Rican and Dominican households. The first flight I took post-Covid vaccine was a girls weekend in Dorado. On the last day, we wandered into Chocobar Cortés in Old San Juan (chocolate grilled cheese, what’s not to love?) and brought home a bunch of chocolates to share with the family. Exactly a year ago, Chocobar opened in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. You can buy locally or order online.
Epicenter-NYC recently hosted an event at the NYC Economic Development Corp., and thanks to our co-hosts Tribal Business News and Native News Online, we learned about the possibilities of sourcing from Indigenous businesses across the country. I highly recommend Bedré; it’s Indigenous owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation in Davis, Oklahoma. I ordered the dark chocolate espresso melts and caramel pecan sensations. And at $5.99 for the latter, it’s affordable!
During the racial justice protests of 2020, a spreadsheet of Black-owned businesses to support in NYC made the rounds. We featured it in our very first issue of Epicenter, and also happened to call out Lloyd’s Carrot Cake (more like the cake called out to us but…). More than two years later, Lloyd’s is on Uber Eats and Goldbelly, the online food marketplace, and that’s where we put our order in for the carrot cake that arrived, fresh, wrapped in plastic. It was the only food item I served at a recent holiday gathering where I had no leftovers. It was literally inhaled.
We asked Charlie Mitchell, NYC’s first Black chef with a Michelin star, to brainstorm a dish for our diverse crowd. He created an amazing southern French cassoulet, a medley of duck confit, sausage, collard greens, black-eyed peas. There are special tasting menus for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve at Clover Hill.
We also turned to Chintan Pandya (who runs Semma, among the few Indian restaurants with a Michelin star, and Masalawala & Sons in Brooklyn, which is the hottest reservation in town right now) for his recommendations. The Dilliwala butter chicken and Szechuan gobi were big hits.
This family-owned institution never disappoints. Owner Octavio Herrera used to work at the famous Veniero’s Italian bakery in Manhattan and opened this place in Jackson Heights and named it after his wife. Highly recommend the flan, pignoli cookies, pistachio and almond cheesecakes.
We also mentioned Tagmo last year for the beautiful, colorful trays of sweets and candies chef Surbhi Sahni assembles. This year, we ordered a tray of chocolate barfi (a milk-based sweet) and we toast the success of Sahni, a queer desi chef, who has been getting well-deserved recognition for her restaurant in South Street Seaport. You can ship sweets and cakes directly from the site.
STREET FOOD AND SNACKS
Longtime street vendor Maria Piedad Cano is a former lawyer and judge from Medellin, Colombia. She opened up this location in Jackson Heights. If you have folks who need gluten-free or vegetarian options, the Arepa Lady is great; we ordered corn arepa, arepa de rellena and cheese arepa.
Epicenter has written many stories about this Mexican street vendor that successfully opened up a brick-and-mortar bistro. We ordered a mix of chicken, pork and vegetable tamales. A platter of these are perfect for a holiday lunch or brunch.
I ordered the Korean fried chicken to have a low-carb (ish?) option and also because it is always a hit. We usually do the sweet and spicy flavor; soy garlic and buffalo are also favorites.
This holiday season, I am trying to source spirits from brands run by people of color. Here’s a list of what I ended up with for a recent gathering:
I also turned to my neighbors and restaurateurs, Francisco Diaz and Patrick Duong of ADDICTIVE Boutique Winery in East Elmhurst, and asked them for recommendations. I bought a case of small-batch wines off them that they curated. My favorites were a Georgian orange wine and Georges Duboeuf’s Beujolais Noveaux.
A few months ago, a Haitian contact of mine was battling cancer and I asked my friend Macollvie Neel, managing editor of the Haitian Times, what I could send that would invoke homeland comfort. She suggested Kremas. I bought them off this website. I turned to it again, recently buying three bottles (strawberry, coconut and coffee) for $75. It’s reminiscent of the coquito we drank during parranda in my childhood in Puerto Rico—but stronger. Dorty Delva founded the company in 2017, and upon receiving my order called me to discuss what I needed, made some suggestions, and sent along free samples.
One challenge with sourcing some BIPOC liquor brands is that they don’t deliver to certain states. Heritage Distillery crafts beverages made by the Chehalis Indian Tribe in Washington state. I could not figure out how to get it here but then I saw that I could get 50 ml bottles on the delivery site, Drizly. I served the Brown Sugar Bourbon (bonus: it fits in your pocket and served as impromptu party favors).
This whiskey is the brainchild of Steven Yeng, a Cambodian refugee who arrived in the U.S. and peanut butter became a staple of the food baskets his family received. He associates the taste with freedom and his adopted home, and so Skrewball whiskey was born.
Like the carrot cake, this was inhaled and the bottle empty by the end of the night. Culinary historian Tonya Hopkins was at my house watching the enthusiasm for it; she suggests mixing the whiskey with grape juice or rosé to make a spirited version of PB&J.
Some bottles at the bar I admittedly sourced from our homelands. Among them were Ron del BARRILITO Rum (Puerto Rico) and ILLEGAL Mezcal Joven (Mexico). We mixed the latter with HELLA Cocktail Margarita Cocktail Mixer (a Black-owned company).
I’ll end my efforts with gin, that versatile, adaptable spirit that takes on new identities, depending on what it’s mixed with: ROKU Gin from Japan. And my personal favorite of the evening and my new go-to host gift: BAYAB African Gin. Chris Frederick and Damola Timeyin source Bayab’s ingredients across the continent, then distill and bottle in South Africa. It’s all intentional, Frederick says: “we have made it our mission to connect the world to Africa through our spirits. Our brands not only increase diversity and challenge cultural bias in the sector, but being produced on the African continent allows us to show the world what Africans have always known about its culturally and resource rich continent, with products that compete on the world stage in taste and quality, as well as innovation.”