By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Evelia Coyotzi’s longtime dream of owning a restaurant finally became a reality on March 7 when she opened her first restaurant on Northern Boulevard in Queens, Evelia’s Tamales. There, she sells a variety of Mexican dishes like tamales, quesadillas and tortas. When you walk into Evelia’s, one of the first things you see is a bright yellow bicycle food cart painted on one of the restaurant’s red walls — an homage to the restaurant’s humble beginning.
Coyotzi is originally from Tlaxcala, in central Mexico, but when her mother got sick she and her husband, Delfino García, left for the United States in order to make more money to help with medical expenses. At 27, she crossed the border illegally and made her way to New York City in hopes of working here for a few years before returning to her hometown where she had left her two-year-old son behind with her mother. The decision was painful, but she knew the move would be worth it.
“You always suffer [when you come here]. You come with ideas and dreams. You think that life is easy here, but when you get here it is always difficult and different,” she says. “I thought I was going to come, get to work, save some money and go back, but it was not like that.”
Coyotzi began working as a nanny but didn’t have the heart to continue caring for someone else’s child when she had left her own behind. Coyotzi then began working at a sewing factory in Brooklyn followed by a job at a McDonald’s near the World Trade Center. Then 9/11 happened and the location was shut down.
“I thought, I have to find another way to start sending money to my mom and my son, and I began to sell tamales,” Coyotzi recalls. Without a permit or a license to sell, Coyotzi began preparing the tamales at home and selling them from a food cart parked on the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.
Street vending proved to be difficult for Coyotzi and her husband. They would start selling tamales as early as 5 a.m. in the morning, and would brave the cold New York winters and hot, steamy summers. And they were often hassled by the police.
“The police continually harassed us, they would arrest us and give us tickets,” she says. “They arrested us more than they gave us tickets — I was arrested about 15 to 18 times [in the past 20 years].”
Coyotzi has tried to legalize her street vending business but hasn’t been successful.
She currently has a Mobile Food Vendor License, which gives her permission to prepare and serve food in compliance with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, but needs a Food Vendor Permit to actually sell the food.
Since the late 1900s permits for street vendors have been capped at 853. However, New York City will issue 4,000 more permits in the upcoming decade due to a bill that passed in January, which will add 400 permits per year for 10 years.
Coyotzi submitted an application for a permit in 2005. She has been told that all applications submitted before 2007 would go on a waiting list, and those would be the first to receive permits once the city lifted its cap, but when she last checked the status of her permit there was no information found. Coyotzi wants to keep the cart to continue to serve her long-time customers and hopes she can legalize that part of her business soon.
“It feels bad because it’s been so long, so many fights, so many marches and I’m not on the list,” she says.
The food cart, which opens at 4:30 a.m., mostly serves people on their way to work. The Junction Boulevard station is where the 7 train goes express to Manhattan, and hundreds of workers pass by to get tamales and tortas for breakfast. Given that most of her customers stay in Manhattan for the rest of the day, she packs up at 1 p.m.
Coyotzi decided to open her restaurant so that customers would have a physical space to go to after work as well. She signed the lease for the restaurant in January 2020, however, the pandemic effectively pressed pause on the grand opening. Luckily, she still had her food cart, which she used to stay afloat. It wasn’t until October 2021 that she was able to get the gas working on the restaurant and finally make plans to open. Her mother recovered from her illness and Coyotzi is able to visit her.
Her son, now 24, with whom she reunited in 2013, helped her with the restaurant’s design and logo. There Coyotzi sells Mexican breakfast all day, like picaditas, (a fried dough base with cotija cheese and cream), huevos divorciados (eggs placed on fried tortillas and separated by a salsa roja and a salsa verde) and of course, her famous tamales.
Customers love Coyotzi’s food because of its unique taste. Rather than using store-bought dough or masa, she makes her own, which gives her food an authentic taste. Marissa Getti goes to Evelia’s for its homemade-feel.
“I’m from Texas, so we sometimes have them bring the homemade [tamales from Mexico], these are on par,” she says. “I love their green tamales.”
Customers are also thrilled to see Coyotzi go from being a street vendor to being a restaurateur. Alan Mendel first came to Coyotzi’s cart years ago and recently found out about her restaurant.
“It’s very exciting. I mean, I am pro cart but it’s really nice to see people who are really good at what they do and succeed,” he says. “The food is delicious and the people working here are very nice.”
Coyotzi still operates her food cart, but hired other employees to help maintain it.
“I consider myself as a worker just like everyone else. If I have to go to work at Roosevelt, I think of it as having to cover a shift, or cover a shift at the restaurant, if someone is missing at night then I come and cover their shift,” she says.
She hopes to see more street vendors like her open up brick-and-mortar businesses, and advises them to keep going even if it seems like an impossible dream.
“If you really want it, you have to be very persistent,” she advises. “Sometimes we give up easily and say, ‘Why would I do this? Is it really worth it? It’s a lot to sacrifice.’ But at the end of the day it is worth having a place of your own. To let people know this is the place where you will be for a long time.”
Visit Evelia’s Tamales at 96-09 Northern Blvd, in Corona, Queens, or the food cart location on Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue from 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Use code EPICENTER10 to receive 10% off your online order via Evelia’s website; show this article when you order in-person at the Northern Boulevard location to get 10% off.