It’s not rush hour, but Catalina Soriano Salas is busy wrapping tamales in foil and ladling cups of arroz con leche into styrofoam cups at her cart outside the 191 Street subway station in Washington Heights.
Closer to St. Nicholas Ave. is her husband, Juan Alejandro, who slices oranges and squeezes fresh juice for morir sonando — a sweet drink that consists of orange juice and evaporated milk over ice that is translated as “to die dreaming.”
Their son, Juan Jr., 10, keeps an eye out for bees, swats a few with a towel before retiring to the front seat of their Ford Explorer to watch a video on his phone.
For the last year or so, the 1 station has been home of Catalina’s Champurrado. Before that, Soriano, 43, would wake up at 3 a.m., cook, leave by 8:30 and push her carts through the streets until early afternoon, selling champurrado — a thick chocolate and corn drink — and other goods, and ducking back home again when she ran out to cook again.
“It was totally exhausting,” Soriano said, speaking through an interpreter. She did that for seven or eight years.
She now sets up camp outside the subway station, with a shopping cart full of coolers, plates and utensils to feed her hungry customers.
Soriano is one of about 2,000 street vendors that are members with the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for street vendor rights. She’s competing in next month’s Vendy Awards on Governor's Island. The annual street food competition, now in it’s 11th year, is holding a street drinks category for the first time.
Catalina’s Champurrado is up against four other street drink vendors that have websites and social media pages.
But Soriano Salas said she started her business beause she wants to spend more time with her five children, aged 6 to19, and give them the opportunity to go to school — an opportunity she didn't herself have growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Soriano Salas, who came to the U.S. 16 years ago, said her food is tailor-made to satisfy her regular customers' needs.
“If they don’t buy it, I don’t make it,” Soriano Salas.
Like many street vendors in the city, Soriano Salas is licensed to sell food but does not have a permit for a street cart. According to the Street Vendor Project, the number of permits given out are capped, and can sell for about $20,000 on the black market. Although she’s never gotten a ticket for not having a permit, she wants to eventually have her own cart to cook tacos and tortillas fresh on the street, so her clients can see her prepare their food fresh.
“It is a risk, and I ask God to take care of me when I go out,” Soriano Salas said.
Health Department spokesman Levi Fishman told Metro that the number of food cart permits are capped at 2,800, a number set by the city's administrative code and City Council, and not the health department.
"Our job is to issue permits to make sure everyone is following the law," Fishman said, adding both the police and health department give out tickets for food cart violations.
A number of year-to-date violations was not provided by deadline.