Maria Piedad Cano, often called the Arep a Lady, in Jackson Heights in 2009.
Photo: Ben Stechschulte / Redux
I don’t remember exactly when I discovered Chowhound, the food website that started out as an unpolished series of Web 1.0 message boards in 1997 and will shut its virtual doors forever today. The moment is lost in a heady swirl of taco grease, banh-mi crumbs, soup-dumpling steam, and Sichuan chile oil, but it roughly coincided with my moving to Queens two years after the site was founded.
It wasn’t long before I became a regular on its outer-boroughs board, devoted to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, and, of course, Queens. At first, I dutifully tracked the scent of other hounds, including founder Jim Leff. I made my first visit to “the Sainted Arepa Lady” and, after, pored over a post that translated the Chinese-only menu of Chen Du Tian Fu in Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall. The latter resulted in my taking such luminaries as Fuchsia Dunlop, Anthony Bourdain, and Eric Ripert to that now-shuttered food court.
After an initial period of lurking, however, I joined the Chowhound pack and began posting under the moniker Canchito, derived from the toasted corn kernels called maiz cancha, which are served with ceviche. One of my favorite finds was the ceviche sold by a woman in front of a random Diamond District doorway. For just $ 5, you’d get a half-quart brimming with shrimp, fish, and chopped squid. In 2003, I posted about Bosna-Express’s pljeskavica – a hubcap-size beef-and-lamb patty that was better known as the Bosnian burger – and was happy when Leff excerpted the post in his 2005 book, The Chowhound’s Guide to The New York Tristate Area. (He inscribed my copy: “Canchito – Never settle for anything less than full deliciousness.”)
By then, the site had grown in popularity but had also, in the opinion of many lifers, started to degrade as a resource. The forums were filled less with tips and finds from food obsessives and more with recommendation requests from newbies asking, for example, where they should take their visiting aunts for lunch. The site was sold to CNET in 2006 and evolved into a more general food site, with its once-lively message boards relegated to a portion of the site called Community. CNET, in turn, was acquired by Red Ventures in 2020, which announced earlier this month that it would shut down the site for good.
Of course, Chowhound’s downfall and eventual end didn’t dampen the spirit of adventurousness among the city’s most fanatical food lovers, nor did it quell their desire to share tips and finds with one another on the internet. The most vibrant of these digital pockets, I think, is a Facebook group called Eat Something New in Queens, which is currently 8,500 hungry members strong. It got its start early last year, originally designed to be a discussion platform for people who participated in an email challenge, known by the same name, started by Laura Siciliano-Rosen, a writer who runs the food-travel site Eat Your World.
“Mid-pandemic I set out to create a discussion group that’s all about eating with curiosity and supporting local restaurants around Queens – that’s the spirit that’s long pervaded Chowhound,” Siciliano-Rosen says. “And then it grew. I didn’t realize how much people had craved this space, and it’s at least partly because the outer-boroughs board had faded from its original glory. “
Among the topics that have recently been discussed on Eat Something New in Queens: the lime-flavored Thai soda Schweppes Manao; 72-hour fermented pizza in Sunnyside; king cake – flavored beer in Astoria; Haitian cornmeal and spinach in St. Albans; and Rice & Spice, a new British-style Indian halal cuisine specialist in Jamaica. If that mix of ideas seems wide-ranging, they exemplify a common passion among the board’s users, exactly the energy that defined Chowhound in its earliest days. “The outer-boroughs board always felt like the cool place to be, where the best tips were shared,” Siciliano-Rosen tells me. “I’m honored that the Facebook group is even remotely compared to it by the former Chowhounds who have found it.”
During the pandemic, I moved to the border of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, a neighborhood that harbors a seemingly limitless array of restaurants from around the world. In the past two weeks alone I have eaten Nepalese goat momo, Isan Thai noodle salad, Tijuana-style seafood tacos, and Bengali fuchka. I am still trying to track down freshly baked Colombian buñuelos. I absolutely count myself among those former Chowhounds who are active on Eat Something New in Queens, but these days, when I want to explore a cuisine, I’m more inclined to simply head out my door or jump on the 7 train with an open mind and an empty stomach – an attitude that I learned to cultivate during those earliest days on Chowhound.