JACKSON HEIGHTS — The family of the legendary Arepa Lady cart celebrated the grand opening of their first restaurant this past weekend — serving up their mother's famous sweet corn cakes to adoring fans in a sit-down setting.
Maria Cano has operated her arepa cart in Jackson Heights for around 30 years, serving up the treats to the late night crowd in the neighborhood, but this is her first brick-and-mortar location.
Her son Alejandro Osorio, 35, renovated the space, a former shipping store on 77th Street off Roosevelt Avenue, and opened Arepa Lady on Saturday — just in time for Colombia to defeat Uruguay in the World Cup round of 16.
"It's good, it's been great," he said. "We did this completely over, we started from scratch."
With help from friend Cristian Romero, 33, they built out the small kitchen, installed new plumbing and wiring, added a counter for eating and set up tables, he said.
The restaurant was a chance for Cano's family to help her out as she "gets up in age" and establish a year-round presence in the neighborhood, her son said.
"The main reason we opened is because the license is temporary," Osorio said, referring to his mom's cart, which is only open from April through October.
Osorio's wife, Nelly Klinger, 35, quit her job in medical billing to work at the restaurant, and Osorio hopes to leave his job working at Volkswagen to devote time to the restaurant.
The menu at the Arepa Lady restaurant is the same as the cart for now, but they hope to expand their offerings, including stuffed arepas.
"Everything is going to be arepas," he said. "Stick to what you know."
The best part so far has been the opportunity for fans, especially families, to try what had usually been a late-night treat.
The cart, which will continue to operate, is open from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, but now customers can come to the restaurant during more "family-friendly" hours — Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Osorio said.
"It's a totally different crowd with different hours," he said.
Having a restaurant has also been easier to manage, he said, since all of the ingredients are already there, and they don't get stuck in traffic or hindered by inclement weather.
But it does have its downsides.
"We don't have as much time to talk to customers," since they're in and out of the kitchen, Osorio said.
At the cart, people waiting got to watch their food get prepared, and they developed relationships with everyone.
"The customers are like our friends."