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Lunch on Flavors from Around the World

By Sara JohnsonMay 14 2021
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To find a concise way to describe the spirit of the Queens Night Market, you need look no further than the introduction to the cookbook co-created last year by the market’s founder: “It’s magic hour on a Saturday night: The summer heat melts away with the setting sun as a cross-section of the world gathers on a sliver of land tucked behind a science museum in Queens. Scents from Mauritius to Moldova to Mexico whet thousands of appetites.”

Queens Night Market founder John Wang, who together with his wife Storm Garner wrote “The World Eats Here: Amazing Food and the Inspiring People Who Make It at New York’s Queens Night Market” (The Experiment, 2020), launched the outdoor market in April 2015. Inspired by childhood summers spent in Taiwan among the country’s night markets, and after quitting his career as a lawyer, Wang decided to bring a similar event to New York City—but with caveats: “[One,] I wanted it to be New York’s most diverse public event, public space, and number two, given that I no longer had an income, having stopped being a lawyer, I wanted to make it as [a] most affordable sort of community space.”

In a city already known for its quality and diversity of cuisine, Wang’s approach took that culinary scene a step further. “The one thing we always tell food vendors especially is that what we’re looking for is traditional foods made by people who grew up eating it, and if it’s hard to find in New York, [all] the better,” Wang says. Many seasons later, the Queens Night Market has “represented over 90 countries through our vendors and their food,” Wang says.

  • Parantha Alley
  • Twister Cake Bakery
  • Treat Yourself Jerk
  • Nansense
  • Arepalicious

“There are other, more celebrated open-air food bazaars in town,” writes Ligaya Mishan in a June 2017 New York Times article. “But, for me, none is more surprising, thrilling and inspiring than the Queens Night Market. It runs Saturday nights from April to October (with brief breaks during the United States Open and Maker Faire), but in summer it has the most shimmer.”

“It’s kind of an anomaly in New York,” says Nicole DiLena, who co-owns DiLena's Dolcini with her sister, Carly. The duo—also known as the “cookie sisters”—first participated in the Queens Night Market in 2017.

Following several seasons in Queens, in 2019 the Queens Night Market and Rockefeller Center partnered to open a smaller curated offshoot, dubbed Queens Night Market Outpost at Rockefeller Center. Last year, while the original Queens Night Market didn’t open due to Covid-19, the Outpost was held last fall at the Center, serving up a variety of foods to New Yorkers into the early winter months. And this week, the 2021 season opened on the South Plaza, with seven vendors: Anda Café, Arepalicious, DiLena, Nansense, Parantha Alley, Treat Yourself Jerk, and Twister Cake Bakery.

The Outpost differs from its parent market in a few notable ways. First of all, it’s held in the daytime, from 12–6pm on weekdays, compared to Flushing’s Saturday nights (although Saturday expansion is on the horizon for the summer months). This year, Rockefeller Center has constructed wood kiosks with cream awnings to replace the tents of years prior, giving a more permanent home to the outdoor market that has become an annual fixture on the Plaza.

The original has a $5 price cap with “$6 exceptions,” Wang says, to encourage sampling from many vendors, while the Outpost is designed to serve more complete meals. (“We try to be in line [with,] if not cheaper than, the lunch options in Midtown in general, but there is no official price cap,” Wang says.) So vendors like Treat Yourself Jerk, which has participated in both the Queens Night Market and the Outpost at Rockefeller Center, offers not only the restaurant’s signature Jamaican jerk chicken and hard dough bread, but also rice and peas and steamed cabbage.

“We meet a lot of interesting people who come, then we have regulars that look forward to it,” says Ria Richardson, co-owner of Treat Yourself Jerk. “Last year I had this one gentleman from Saks Fifth Avenue, he used to come religiously, every Saturday, to get food from us, every single Saturday, and then he started bringing his friends over, his coworkers.”

Richardson also points to the community among the vendors themselves. “One of the good things about Queens Night Market that we noticed and that we really appreciate is that the vendors… all work together; if anyone runs out of containers, if anybody needs anything, we’re there for each other,” Richardson says.

This year at the Outpost, the DiLena “cookie sisters” are swapping sweet for savory, debuting items inspired by summers spent in Calabria, Italy, when they were children. Arrancini Bolognese, Potato Croquettes, and a panini with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and arugula are just a few of the new options available on the Plaza.

Danny Atehortua, manager and founder of Arepalicious, says he’s happy to be participating at the Outpost “because it’s at Rockefeller Center, it’s a place that everybody knows around the world.” Arepalicious will be serving up beef, chicken, and guacamole arepas (both as a mini sampler and full-sized) as well as Arepacones (rolled arepas) and Canoes (stuffed sweet plantains).

Some Outpost vendors expressed a desire to be part of the reawakening of New York City. “The city has been so quiet and slow because of the pandemic, so we’re just hoping that everybody goes back to work, everything starts opening again, and just [gets] back to business,” Atehortua says.

Rajeev Yerneni is the founder and chef of Parantha Alley, which serves paranthas with eight stuffing options from Keema (chicken) to vegan and vegetarian options like Aloo (potatoes) and Saag Paneer (spinach and cheese), with sides like cilantro chutney and fried green chilis. “I do hope as the city comes back, hopefully this summer, that we’ll be a part of that change where we can attract people back to Midtown and give more food options, and I hope we can be part of the process,” Yerneni says.

The Queens Night Market Outpost at Rockefeller Center is open Monday through Friday from 12–6pm on Rockefeller Center’s South Plaza, between 48th and 49th streets and 5th and 6th avenues.

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