Social Worker and community activist Maria Ortiz has lived in and around Hell’s Kitchen for most of her life so she’s certainly got a taste for the place — maybe that’s why she loves the food in the neighborhood so much! Here’s her West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born here at St Vincent’s Hospital in Chelsea — a place that no longer exists. I have lived in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen most of my life and have seen many changes, including losing the A&P supermarket on 55th Street where we would shop when I was little. I now live on that block.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I was conceived, born and raised on the west side! My grandmother lived in an Elliott-Chelsea New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) development since 1958, raising my mother and aunt there — and I lived there when I was an infant. When my brother, Chris, was born I was two years old and we were living at W50th Street by Park West High School. We attended Sacred Heart with a full scholarship.
Fast forward to me being ten years old, my mother thought moving to Florida was a good idea, but it was not! So we returned after a short time and lived in Chelsea and Queens in hotel family shelters before getting an apartment in the Amsterdam Houses on W61st Street on Amsterdam Avenue where my mother still lives.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
My absolute favorite thing about my neighborhood is all the food options; all kinds of cuisines! Also, my other most favorite thing is being able to talk to folks who have lived in this neighborhood for generations and can tell you about even more changes than I can!
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
My pet peeve about this neighborhood was the scaffolding on 57th and 9th Avenue that covered the Windermere there for nearly 30 years! However, I noticed some of it had come back the other day when I walked by!
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
I stayed put mostly, being afraid to escape. Then I got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore! I escaped! I left for one month to two hotspots and quarantined there.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
Pre-COVID, and currently, my job is as a Forensic Social Worker. I work with children and youth. I love being able to give them a voice in family court proceedings.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
The most interesting thing I learned was that I could actually tolerate being home more often! In March of 2020 I was thinking “I don’t know how I am going to live with being home all the time!” It reminds me of our ability to adapt.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
The kindness of others.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
That time when I briefly spoke with Malik Yoba at Tacuba during the pandemic, because we were standing in line on 9th Avenue to order as we could only get food to go!
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
Many instances. I worked in the theater as a Broadway usher for 10 years! This meant that I also attended opening night parties for shows and was part of the Broadway Show Bowling League — where I won a turkey once for getting a turkey!
What’s your superpower?
Can my superpower be that I am a woman?! Seriously, I would say my ability to listen, empathize, and get people’s stories.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
In the shower?! None! But I sing in the store when I’m shopping and a song comes on that I enjoy!
Which people inspire you the most?
Many. I have a tendency to be inspired by those who have struggled the most yet persevered. But I have also been inspired by women placed in my life who have a deep place in their hearts for others who struggle. Most recently was Wanda Gause, a Case Worker at a family shelter where I worked, and a Leadership Coach who also does DEI work, Tanya Odom.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ~ Helen Keller
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
I have mixed feelings about Times Square. There are lots of people usually and that can be good or bad, depending on my mood. I appreciate the changes made to improve the area.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
It’s nice and fancy but also touristy like Times Square. What I love most about Hudson Yards is Mercado Little Spain by Chef Jose Andres!
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
Personally, I miss Melanie “Bobsy” Lovette who died in 2016. Even though she was my boss when I worked in the theater, I called her my adoptive grandmother because we became close. She was raised in Hell’s Kitchen and told me stories about the elevated train (EL) that was 5 cents and ran along 9th Avenue, turning on W53rd Street where she lived.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
Two shameless plugs. I am an author being featured in a book about LatinX Social Workers who share stories to inspire and heal. I currently serve on Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) as Co-chair of Housing, Health, and Human Services. I have been a member of MCB4 since 2014.
Anything we missed?
Nope! I just want to also say that I am raising my 15-year-old son, Gabe, in Hell’s Kitchen. He attends Landmark High School, in the same building that I attended Humanities High School for two years.
HELL’S KITCHEN HAPPY PLACES
Sacco Pizza (9th Ave and W55th St). Neighborhood place that’s been around for over 50 years. The staff knows my son and me by name. My favorites there are grandma pizza, chicken rolls, homemade meat pie and gaucho pie. Delicious! Great to store in the freezer and pop in the oven when you don’t feel like cooking!
Guantanamera (8th Ave between W55/56th St). I loved the live Latin music pre-COVID. I also like the atmosphere and enjoy the food.
Empanada Mama (9th Ave and W51st St). Everything I have had has been good. I enjoyed the liveliness of the place pre-COVID. During the pandemic, it’s still been really great but just with fewer people — which I also like. The music there is just right for the spot!
Taboon (10th Ave and W52nd St). When I want to go a little fancy — and have delicious Mediterranean food — Taboon is the place. They have the most amazing bread made onsite as well as their hummus. El Guapo (that’s crispy avocado, black beans, tomatillo salsa, pico de gallo, hummus) is my favorite!
El Burrito Box (9th Ave between W57/58th St). This is a small place for grab and go. They have really good burritos, including vegetarian options. The prices are affordable.
Dim Sum Palace (W46th between 8/9th Ave). They have delicious dim sum and it’s on Restaurant Row, so nice to eat on a street that’s closed to traffic. My favorite is the crispy garlic spare ribs and sticky rice lotus leaf.
Pure Thai Cookhouse (9th Ave between W51/52nd St). Almost always has a wait, but the food is really good. If you love Thai, you have to try it!
Mee Noodle Shop (9th Ave and W53rd St). I love Asian food. I like many of their dishes but this is my favorite place in the neighborhood for their ribs and steamed vegetable dumplings (the best outside of Chinatown)!
Real Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen (8th Ave between W48/49th St). This small spot usually had a wait pre-COVID, but I would wait. The food was so good, especially the Ramen soup. The noodles are made onsite. They have a sister location on 8th Avenue near Times Square. Both also have delicious pork soup dumplings if you like those things.
The Marshal (10th Ave between W43/44th St). This place is farm to table. I love that! The service is great and all of the pizza I had was amazingly delicious. Even the one with kale was good!
Kausa (9th Ave between W50/51st St). I’ve just discovered the new Peruvian restaurant on 9th Avenue. I had Sangria and different kinds of appetizers. Everything was good and the service was excellent. I will definitely be returning!