Late on a weekend afternoon, the clamor that greets us is intense, even for Queens. As we descend from the elevated 7 train to Junction Blvd., on the border between the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Corona, dozens of street vendors make themselves known by the display of their wares and by their come-ons, spoken mostly in Spanish, to passersby.
During a half-block walk north, on the eastern, sunnier, side of the boulevard, we find sidewalk vendors selling perfume and jewelry, wallets and mobile phone cases, masks arrayed like a collection of pinned butterflies and a yapping, battery-powered Dalmatian puppy. There’s plenty to snack on, too: meat-laden skewers, roasted nuts, tamales, ices on a stick and by the scoop.
We also notice, as we pass the storefronts, a self-identified “Mexican-inspired fast-food chain.” It doesn’t even slow us down, not with the promise of outdoor cooking just ahead, at Chalupas Poblanas El Tlecuile.
Chalupas, generally, are fried tortillas with various toppings, which vary according to where the person cooking them comes from. In southern Mexico they’re considered antojitos – snacks, or appetizers – and a single chalupa could never be a gut-busting meal in itself. At this roadside stand, the chalupas are prepared in the style of the Mexican state of Puebla – corn tortillas shallow-fried in lard, dappled with green and red salsas and topped only with a scattering of onion and shredded beef.
Central to the operation is a tlecuile – the word is Nahuatl, an Indigenous Mexican language – a type of hearth or brazier, often one that burns wood. This one is fueled by charcoal and, when need be, fanned by hand. Atop it is a broad circular comal; a depression at its center, regularly replenished with lard, is where the chalupas are actually fried.
Cleotilde Juarez Ramirez presides over the principal tlecuile. Although she calls out, from time to time, to potential customers, it is less an entreaty than an explanation – who has seen this sort of cooking in New York City? (Not us.) “This is the primer puesto [the first food stand] that makes authentic chalupas in Queens,” she told us proudly, through the translation of her son Liam.
“This is the primer puesto [the first food stand] that makes authentic chalupas in Queens,” she told us proudly.
“When I was 18, in Mexico, I wanted to cook like this,” Cleotilde continued, “but I never had the confidence.” For a time Cleotilde and her then-new husband, Alejandro, cooked together at street fairs in their native San Pedro Cholula, a municipality located just outside of the city of Puebla. But not long after they left Mexico for the United States, their home now for two decades. Today they live in the Queens neighborhood of East Elmhurst, where, depending on the prevailing winds, jetliners from nearby LaGuardia Airport might stream overhead at all hours of day and night.
In early 2020, before Covid came to Queens, Alejandro was selling mobile phone accessories not far from the location of the food stand; Cleotilde’s younger brother Calixtro was working at a restaurant in Manhattan; and Cleotilde was at home taking care of her children. But after both Alejandro and Calixtro lost their jobs during the pandemic, chalupas came to mind once again. For Cleotilde, who launched her new business last summer, cooking chalupas was not only a supplement to the family finances, it was a revival of the “cocina ancestral,” of one small part of her homeland’s food heritage.
Another is café de olla, which Calixtro ladled for us from the traditional earthenware pot kept warm on a tlecuile. This Mexican coffee “tastes much better” from an earthenware mug than from a paper to-go cup, Calixtro asserted. (We’ve tried both, and we agree.) His wife, Sergia Muñoz, noted that their café de olla draws a richness of flavor – caramel comes to mind – from unrefined cane sugar.
All the ingredients for the café, the chalupas and the few additional items on the menu – we’re fond of the polvorones, shortbread-like cookies in a variety of forms – come from “Mexican tiendas,” Cleotilde told us. Even though she sells chalupas only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, “toda la semana” she is “busy, busy, busy” shopping for ingredients and preparing her salsas. The red is made from tomatoes and chipotles, the green, from tomatillos and jalapeños; garlic invigorates both.
Besides being cooked outdoors over charcoal, there is one further, very important distinction to what Cleotilde cooks up: “Crispy” is a word that affixes itself to many descriptions of chalupas, especially from restaurants that load lettuce and tomato into a shaped, deep-fried “shell.” On our first visit to Chalupas Poblanas El Tlecuile, where we watched our order prepared from start to finish, the supple texture of the fried tortillas surprised us. Our chalupas reminded us of pancakes – not quite as fluffy, true, but nearly as flexible. We could fold them, or even roll them, with fork or fingers. A fitting label for our half-order, a half-dozen sauced red and green in equal measure, could have been a “short stack.”
To be sure, on further visits we noted that Cleotilde fried a few batches of tortillas in advance, and then set them aside. Some customers, she told us, insist on “doraditas,” tortillas fried a little longer until golden, as the platform for their chalupas. They’re still flexible, but they also offer a little more bite.
This new insight called for a full order of chalupas – doraditas, this time – and a mug of café de olla, too.