As anyone who lives in New York and keeps abreast of food fads knows, the intersection of Clinton and Bay by the Red Hook soccer fields is the place to be if you’re a street grub aficionado, and are from Ecuador, Mexico, or 145 Street, or if you pretend to be a street grub aficionado, and are a hipster.
The dozen stands of Latino food, shrouded in blue tarps and baking under the sun every weekend from April through October for the last 30 years, have lately been knighted the final word in Real by New York Magazine and the New York Times. Despite these endorsements, they are. So the granola and aviator crowd has come to roost, and the fences are tricked out with a spanking new yellow sign welcoming you to “Red Hook!” in two languages, put up by something called the Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park, Inc., which used to be a bunch of folks frying up some chimichangas on a Sunday afternoon so they wouldn’t go hungry watching the game. Then the Department of Health got involved, Chuck Schumer got on board, and the ‘Hook stalls became a cultural movement that needed saving, like the whales back in ’77.
But all this matters little, because the Salvadoran pupusas, Columbian empanadas, Mexican tacos, Ecuadorian ceviche, and Peruvian tamales are still down-home good and greasy paper plate-staining fare, a culinary Latin American Free Trade Market that – Lord be praised – hasn’t caved in to the microgreens revolution. Not all the offerings are perfect, but most hold up pretty well against anything you’d get from a Quechua grandma serving heaven in a bowl from a frigid market stall in Urubamba. And the 4,000 people who reportedly visit the stands on any given dusty Sunday seem to agree, which gives me hope that my generation, officially converted to the gym cult, still unofficially believes in complex carbohydrates.
Merengue and Mexican rap play dueling banjos from boom boxes and car radios, and Janet Lainez rolls her hips as she rolls her dough before throwing it into her hell-raising vat of boiling oil. Most of the cooks are women with efficient hands and Yankee caps who chop and churn and yank and slap like compact Kung-fu masters you wouldn’t want to meet on the wrong side of some dark alley at night. Watching Maria Vaquero rip an ear of corn off the grill and, in rapid succession, impale it, douse it with lime, slather it in mayo, roll it in queso blanco, and grind paprika into its very soul is enough to give any man anal penetration nightmares for a week. But the brain-curdling sourness of the lime and the nasal sting of the spice balance the sweetness of the charred yet moist corn, and the cheese and lime sizzle off each other; the experience is akin to sticking a box of Pop Rocks down your throat. Only awesome. Lime and corn are the health nut’s answer to Sour Patch Kids and Coke.
After anchoring my ass to the horchata-stained benches three weekends in a row, I’ve decided that curried shrimp and pineapple can take a long walk off a short pier. The stalls by the dockyards have gustatory mixed marriages covered, and unlike a lot of the crossbreeding that goes down in conceptual kitchens these days, here it actually works. The platanos fritos are slightly resistant on the outside, creamy on the inside, their natural sugar content mellowed by the bland, chewy mozzarella oozing its white way through a slit down the banana’s midsection. The papusas – soft, doughy, Plain Jane comfort food – are best inhaled in concert with the paprika’ed elotes, soothing the stomach some before the next onslaught of salsa verde leaves your sinuses in a balled napkin on the ground.
The pork skins, however, are brittle and salty and taste like burnt tires, and you should get them if you go for that sort of thing, but the vulvic ceviche, lime-spiced, smooth, and cold, is a hell of a lot more fun. To kill your weekly calorie count off in an afternoon, I’d suggest pulpous mango dappled with salt, like Eve’s apple in sea brine; it’s reason enough to make the trek.
And then I’d suggest rolling on over to the bleachers, catching 40 winks in the sun, and screaming at the soccer players with jobless old men whose teeth are rotting.