How This Fruit Vendor Turned a “Bad Time” Into a Business Plan
Roosevelt Avenue is a multicultural thoroughfare like no other in the United States. Under the rumbling 7 train is the proving ground for immigrant street vendors and the destination their fellow expatriates visit for a taste of home. On hot summer days, the fruit vendors are among the most popular.
For years, Sonia Díaz was one of these vendors. She remembers selling fruit in front of a diner and being pushed out of the way by surly restaurant-goers. Díaz started selling fruit dusted with chili powder on the streets of Roosevelt Avenue in 2000. She went from harvesting fruit as a child to honing her skills under one of the world’s busiest rush hours. Now, she’s responsible for some of the most awe-inspiring centerpieces in Queens.
Díaz calls those early days a “malquerida.” This roughly translates to “bad time” and is a reference to a song from her favorite musician, Jenny Rivera. It’s also the name of the fruit-art catering business she recently built and developed on her own; Malquerida operates out of the kitchen at Cevicheria El Rey on Roosevelt Avenue.
Díaz immigrated to the United States from Mexico City with her family when she was 12 years old, and the Díazes opened their restaurant, Mi Otra Casa (“My Other House”), in Elmhurst in 2014. Díaz’s brother saw potential in her designs and invited her to become the star of the show at the family restaurant.
The community gathers around Díaz’s fine works of fruit art at Mi Otra Casa—piled into hollowed out melons and pineapples. Though she no longer works at the restaurant, her recipes succeed her.
The best are those spiked with beer. Cervezas preparadas (prepared beers) such as the famous michelada could be considered the Mexican national drink. While common in Mexico City, it’s hard to find good ones in the United States, where micheladas are often made with Bloody Mary mix and a shrug. Díaz’s addition of an upended beer to her fruit creations takes cervezas preparadas to another level.
Mi Otra Casa’s menu calls her work bebidas locas (crazy drinks). They’re more like beer-soaked fruit salads than drinks to be gulped—the kind of specialty item you order on your birthday. Typically, “crazy” fruit botanas (snacks) like these are piled into their fruit shell haphazardly, like a plate of barroom nachos, but Díaz’s have a delicate aesthetic. They are ornate fruit sculptures with a beer cherry on top.
Díaz’s cerveza salad craft is based on fresh fruit and chamoy, the chili-lime paste that is a defining flavor of Mexican street food. You taste it in candies like mango-chili Chupa Chups, and in salty snacks like chili-lime Takis. Street fruit vendors in Mexico use chamoy to add a savory punch to tropical fruit. In the bebidas locas, it adds a tangy, spicy counterpoint to sweet fruit and bland lager.
While Mi Otra Casas’s menu contains many impressive, shareable snack trays, the most remarkable sights are these towers that give a new meaning to the term “fruit cocktails.” There are “crazy drinks” and fruit towers for every occasion. For lovers, there is the Piña Cupidos, featuring two red roses and decoratively draped strawberries.
The Chupitos is served in a hollowed-out pineapple jam-packed with its own meat, various cuts of melon, slices of pig ear and peanuts, all drowned in a chamoy-spiced beer. As if this weren’t enough, the pineapple features skewers of chili-spiced candy and cocktail shrimp. The beer is delicately balanced upside-down within the pineapple with half the liquid remaining in the bottle. Be careful when attempting to remove the beer or you’ll flood the pineapple. Eat some fruit first to make room. It’s good for you.
After experiencing a dramatic fruit and beer centerpiece, you can move on to simply seasoned beers. They still display Díaz’s genius for selecting a great product, seasoning it to heighten the natural flavors, and to showcase her artful presentation. The Michelada del Mango uses both fresh and candied mango, and chili to infuse complex flavors into a Mexican lager of your choice.
Díaz went from slicing fruit for hungry people on the go to creating lifelong memories through mango and melon in a warm house party environment alongside her family, and is now a business owner to boot. She’s no longer dodging diner customers, but Díaz still finds the inspiration to push the limits of what a “fruit cocktail” means. Her creations continue to get larger, more ornate and more boldly colorful. Her fruit sculptures aren’t just beautiful; they’re inspirational. They show that even the simplest snack can inspire wonder with big dreams and hard work.