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For more than a decade, Pedro Rodriguez has earned a loyal following at La Esquina del Camarón Mexicano, currently in Jackson Heights, for his cócteles. Literally “cocktails” featuring shrimp or other seafood, Pedro’s are fashioned in the style of Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico.

He’s visited Veracruz just once, however, and only briefly, as an adult. Pedro’s defining encounter with that city’s cuisine was many years earlier, far from the coast.

Pedro was born in 1962 in Ciudad Nezahaulcóyotl, or “Neza” for short, a sprawling municipality immediately east of Mexico City. When he was 11, he tells us, he met a street vendor who sold cócteles – a lady who’d traveled from Veracruz to the capital in search of a larger customer base. Pedro began picking up a little cash by sweeping the street near her stand.

The lady would always shoo Pedro away, he continues, whenever she would prepare her sauce; worried that the recipe might fall into unfriendly hands, she guarded it carefully. But apparently she grew fond of her young helper. “One day she came to me,” Pedro tells us, with “a secret.” Except in broad strokes, the lady’s recipe for her cóctel sauce is still a secret, but now in Pedro’s hands.

Fast-forward to adulthood: Pedro married, had children, divorced. In 1989 he immigrated to California but almost immediately moved to New York, and to Queens.

“When I came here,” Pedro recounts, his dream was “to have a business on the street,” but he quickly realized that the regulation of mobile vendors was (and is) much stricter in NYC than in CDMX. He took up general construction work – tiling, plastering, painting – because “I gotta eat,” he says, and so he could send money home to Mexico. Pedro’s family still lives there, and he continues to send money, although now as a grandfather.

Construction work would be hard on anyone’s body, especially after 20 years, but ultimately Pedro was sidelined when he injured his leg during a recreational soccer match. In need of another source of income, he resolved to put that secret cóctel recipe to use.

On weekends, not far from his Elmhurst apartment, Pedro began renting a tiny stand outside a Korean-American deli-grocery, under one corner of the awning. We enjoyed our first cóckel at La Esquina del Camarón Mexicano – “The Mexican Shrimp Corner” – more than a decade ago. Like many customers, even before crossing to the park on the shady side of the street, we didn’t wait to dip our spoon.

Soon, however, Pedro fell victim to his own popularity. When so many customers lined up for cócteles that they began blocking access to the storefront, the owner of the deli-grocery asked Pedro to move along.

Eventually Pedro found another location to set up his stand, farther from his apartment but closer to much more foot traffic, under the elevated 7 train that runs along Roosevelt Ave. This new location was outside what was variously called a bodega and a deli, although the owner’s heritage was not Puerto Rican or Eastern European, but Indian.

La Esquina thrived here, too. When the owner of the shop saw how many of Pedro’s customers came inside to buy drinks, he proposed that Pedro expand his operation by opening a kitchen at the back of the premises. Although he didn’t have enough money to swing this himself, Pedro continues, the shop owner told him that they could “go half and half.”

The shop has since changed hands, and today it brands itself as an “E Smoke & Convenience” store, but the business arrangement is still the same: La Esquina sells food; the shop sells drinks. The physical setup is still much the same, too. Most customers order their food through a window on the side street and sit outdoors, on communal benches. Indoors – past the shopkeeper’s station, down an aisle lined with beverages on both sides and then up a pair of steps – is a single table and a snug kitchen. (Since we published our story, Pedro has walled off La Esquina from the convenience shop, but by entering through a door to one side, we still find a few seats next to the kitchen.)

Pedro, who ran his original stand as a solo operation, now has three full-time employees and, on busy weekends, two part-timers as well. He’s been able to expand his menu to offer the likes of seafood empanadas, flautas, tacos and tostadas. Many include avocado, too – on some, as a sporty crest; for the empanadas, as cool slivers tucked, just before serving, into the seams.

Pedro’s calling card, however, remains his cócteles, featuring shrimp, octopus or a mixture of the two. To be sure, a Veracruz-style cóctel de camarón bears little resemblance to the shrimp cocktail that was so popular on midcentury menus in the United States. The shrimp do not curl fetchingly around the rim of a glass, and the sauce they surround is not creamy, nor does it smack of ketchup and horseradish.

At La Esquina, the seafood is deposited at the bottom of a clear cup, then drowned in a runny red liquid. We do taste tomatoes – but we also taste oranges. On occasion, Pedro says, “I’ve got to pay more to get the right ones.” To some palates, the overall impression might be sweet, but for balance, saltine crackers and a few shakes of Valentina hot sauce are always near at hand.

Pedro works very hard to maintain the consistency of his sauce – whose precise recipe, to be clear, is a secret to us, too. He would, however, swap out one ingredient if he could: clam juice. “Oyster juice is much better,” he tells us, but it’s harder to source dependably in New York than in Mexico City, or in Veracruz. A bigger place, if not a place of his own, is highest on Pedro’s wish list. But a steady supply of oyster juice might run a close second. How better to conjure the flavor of childhood days back home? (And share it with us here in Queens.)

Dave Cook

Published on July 12, 2023

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