You already know that Queens is incredibly diverse. Its 2.3 million residents from more than 120 countries contribute much from their various cultures, particularly in cuisine. The sheer variety lends itself well to deep dives into specific cuisines—via food, one can be immersed in a certain culture, and more easily pick up on the similarities between cultures.
My family is from India, but as my hometown is Queens, the richness of Latin American culture has drawn me in. During the pandemic, like many other people, I found myself with extra time, so decided to focus more fully on immersing myself in Latin America, via Queens. I visited many restaurants, neighborhoods, and even started learning Spanish. This Latin-South Asian blend is quite fitting for the area, especially for Jackson Heights, where my parents started their journey in the United States.
I especially love desserts, and learning their history and context (not to mention eating them!). One day it hit me: Have I tried desserts from every Latin American country in South America? I’d already enjoyed picarones from Peru, rainbow cookies from Argentina, and alfajores from Uruguay. I had easy access to sweets from many South American countries, right here in Queens. I quickly set out to gather what I was missing to complete my collection.
Introducing … Project Postre! Here’s what to try and where to go to sample some of the best South American desserts in Queens.
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Argentina: Rainbow Cookies
At first I was surprised to see rainbow cookies at Buenos Aires Bakery. I expected to come here for something very Argentine, like dulce de leche or alfajores (you’ll find plenty of both at this mainstay Jackson Heights bakery, as well as empanadas and pastries). However, more than half of all Argentines have some Italian ancestry, which is of course reflected in the cuisine. And who doesn’t love a pretty rainbow cookie? Get three of them for $1 here. Now that’s a deal!
Bolivia: Api con Pasteles, Api Ice Cream
Api con pasteles is an iconic breakfast pairing in Bolivia. Api morado is a drink made from purple corn, so the hue is natural. The corn meal gives the drink a slightly grainy texture, reminding me of red bean paste. However, this beverage also includes cinnamon and cloves, giving it a cider-like taste. It’s different and inviting at the same time! Pasteles are fried dough, kind of similar to American funnel cake—these had a little bit of cheese inside, which is typical.
After I tried the quintessential pairing of api morado with pasteles, I learned that Bolivian Llama Party in Sunnyside makes an api ice cream (pictured at top of post) based on the traditional drink. Api evokes nostalgia for many Bolivians, so this restaurant had the idea to reimagine it as another childhood favorite: ice cream! I bought a cone … and then a whole pint! Try this ice cream with salted peanuts for a savory, fall-spice experience.
Where to go: This api con pasteles came from Puerta del Sol in Woodside (which has since rebranded as Cevicheria NYC). For api ice cream, head to Bolivian Llama Party, 44-14 48th Ave., Sunnyside (map).
Brazil: Flan With Coconut (Pudim)
Since I started learning Spanish, I had been focusing more on the Spanish-speaking countries of South America. Apologies to Brazil! Flan is popular in several Latin American countries (also Europe) where either Spanish or Portuguese is spoken. In Brazil, flan is known as pudim. I was intrigued by this coconut version: smooth and custardy, with a tropical flavor imparted by the coconut scattered on top. More iconic to Brazil is the brigadeiro, or chocolate truffle. Both can be found at Aroma Brazil.
Chile: Alfajor Manjar
Besides dulce de leche, there are other caramelly Latin American sweets to know, and one is manjar, which translates to “delicacy” (Colombian arequipe is another that comes to mind). Cooked for a longer time than dulce de leche, manjar is firmer in texture and darker in color. While alfajores are popular cookies in several South American countries, the Chilean version, filled here with manjar, is different: The dough is lighter, crisp like a cracker, and the tops turns upward as they bake in the oven.
Colombia: Empanada de Bocadillo con Queso
One day I was wandering around and hungry and happened to stumble on this Colombian food truck. Not sure what to get, I decided to try this guava (the paste is known as bocadillo) and cheese empanada—Colombians are among those cultures that love to pair sweets with cheese. I am so glad I did! After I took a bite of the hot crispy exterior, the flavors of the tangy guava filling and savory cheese inside came through. This was so delicious. Run, don’t walk!
Other popular desserts to be found in this Colombian-heavy neighborhood include cholados (shaved ice with fruits and condensed milk), arroz con leche (rice pudding), salpicón de frutas (fruit cocktail), and street obleas (large wafers with arequipe).
While looking for an Ecuadorian dessert, I noticed something on Barzola’s menu that looked like prunes. When I asked my server about it, he remained silent. I knew he was trying to think of what to compare it to in English. I tried again. Is it raisin? “No, it’s not a raisin. It’s pechiche!”
Ecuador has wonderful biodiversity that includes a variety of fruits native to the region, including pechiche. This is a pitted fruit that is typically made into preserves. It has a sweet flavor that’s somewhat comparable to dates, and is served here with cheese.
Peru: Picarones, Lúcuma Ice Cream
These picarones are probably my favorite of all these wonderful South American desserts. They are Peruvian doughnuts made from a mix of sweet potato and squash (along with flour, sugar, and yeast). The origin of picarones is often traced to the buñuelos (fried dough balls) of Spanish colonial times, but the dish has evolved to use ingredients local to Peru.
Picarones come with a spicy, sultry syrup that is to die for! It is made with chancaca, a type of raw sugar that’s combined with orange, cinnamon, and clove.
Another good Peruvian dessert is helado de lúcuma—lúcuma is a fruit native to the region. I assumed it would taste like oranges, as the fruit is orange in color, but it has a unique flavor that some people compare to a mix of sweet potato and butterscotch. The most popular preparation for this fruit is to make ice cream with it. If you are lucky, you’ll eat it with picarones!
Where to go: The picarones are from the one-and-only Antojitos Doña Fela, 90th St. and Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights (map). (See our interview with the owners last year.) Find the lucuma ice cream at Warique, 90-04 37th Ave., Jackson Heights (map).
Paraguay: Pasta Frola
This Paraguayan dessert is another one demonstrating the influence of Italian immigration on South America. The name comes from the Italian pasta frolla, which is shortcrust pastry. The filling here is guava, bringing us straight back to Latin America. This dessert is popular in Argentina and Uruguay too, countries that likewise have seen a lot of Italian immigration.
Venezuela: Maduros con Queso, Quesillo
I admit these sweet plantains with cheese are listed on the “sides” menu rather than as a dessert. But they are sweet (and a little salty) and hit the spot. You’ll also find homemade tres leches and quesillo, or Venezuelan flan, here—they’re just not my favorite postres!
This dessert is a showstopper! Covered in meringue, it has sponge cake and dulce de leche in the middle, and is topped with syrupy peaches. It looks giant, but is deceptively light. The name was inspired by a native bird, the chajá (aka the Southern screamer). Like the cake, the chajá bird is said to be big in size but quite lightweight due to its hollow bones. The bird inhabits the Southern Cone, the southernmost region of South America.
And that’s Project Postre for now—eating the sweets of South America via Queens, New York! I hope you’ll be inspired to come visit Queens, stay for a few meals, try some of these wonderful desserts, and learn more about these beautiful cultures. Buen provecho!
About the author: Sue is a Queens native and wonders how she, an Indian lady, got so spellbound by South America. For more Queens food content, follow along with her on Instagram @snack.with.sue.