For years, the only way to try Maria Piedad Cano’s famed arepas was to roam along Roosevelt Avenue well after dark and hope for good fortune. Cano was a lawyer and a judge in her homeland of Colombia, but after she fled to the United States, she turned to wielding a mobile griddle. In 1993, The New York Press dubbed her the “Saintly Arepa Lady” and the name stuck.
Like many of New York City’s street vendors, Cano lived a precarious existence for decades. From 1983 through 2021, the city enforced a strict cap on the number of street vendor permits, leaving vendors struggling to either dodge the police or pay as much as $20,000 for permits on the black market. Cano was finally able to set up a brick-and-mortar location in Elmhurst in 2014, only to be forced to move once again when a developer demolished her building to make way for apartments.
At long last, Cano was able to reopen in 2018, along with her son Alejandro Osorio, who runs the current iteration of the restaurant. Arepa Lady currently has three branches, but the Jackson Heights outpost feels closest to Cano’s roots.
The arepas are as good as ever, particularly when crowned with a tangle of carne desmechada, slow-braised beef, or fat slices of chorizo. Order an arepa de queso, a plump corn cake oozing cheese from the interior, of an arepa de choclo, which comes folded over fillings like a diner-style omelet. Although carnivorous toppings dominate the menu, don’t sleep on the vegetarian offering—the trifecta of black beans, avocado, and sticky sweet plantains showered with grated cheese is outstanding.
Know Before You Go
Come hungry, as portions here are generous. Better yet, bring a group to try as many combinations as possible.