I’m pretty clumsy, so I’m really not a fan of fine china, crystal glassware, or fancy silverware. I’m also half-Greek: when we’re really happy about something, we smash plates and glasses on the floor.
So if you pull my food out of a Tupperware and stick it on a paper plate, I’m pretty stoked. If you serve it on a stick, that’s perfectly cool, especially if the stick has some deep-fried butter on it. And if you serve me meat out of a garbage bag… I guess that’s cool too, as long as the meat is served with tasty refried beans.
Heh, you think I’m making this up? No way: I ate grilled steak from a garbage bag. With tasty refried beans. And fresh tortillas. And some lard and sour cream and cheese.
The Central American Parade and Festival in Crotona Park was a fun scene: several hundred Garifuna women (the Garifuna are descendants of African slaves who shipwrecked in St. Vincent in 1675; most Garifuna migrated to the Honduran coast a century or two later) in beautiful blue and white dresses; a few friendly gangs of Garifuna dancers; a Guatemalan marching band, complete with silly white tassels on their hats; and plenty of happy, mellow, non-violent Central Americans, flanked by far more cops than were necessary. (Unfortunately, the Caribbean Day Parade in Crown Heights turned into a bloodbath during Labor Day weekend, and the NYPD was being slightly paranoid… and that’s probably better than being not paranoid enough. Thank you, NYPD!)
At the end of the parade route, about a dozen vendors had set up tables, most of which were adorned with Honduran flags and handwritten signs made with paper plates. It was beautifully non-professional, homemade street-festival food at its finest.
We started with Honduran tamales (beef, pork, or chicken, $3 each), which were much larger and lighter than their Mexican counterparts. Often, tamales are packed incredibly tightly; the Honduran/Garifuna versions were large and loose, with a chaotic mix of meat, bone, and vegetable wedged inside the cornmeal. The tamales had a beautifully buttery finish, and the flavor of the grilled meat was stellar. I’ll never object to tamales in any form, but these were as good as any you’ll find.
As a second appetizer, one of my companions snagged some boiled corn on the cob ($3). And that sounds pretty boring, except that the corn was white hominy, featuring much larger, coarser kernels than a standard ear of corn. I love the stuff in posole (Mexican stew) or alongside a nice Peruvian ceviche, but it’s a little bit bland by itself; we shoulda added lime, chile, and/or salt, as recommended by the vendor. Oops, our bad.
For our main courses, we ordered baleadas ($4 each), the national dish of Honduras. Nearly every vendor offered baleadas, but I was drawn to a tent with two grills: on one, a man was grilling large chunks of cow. In front of the other, an elderly woman was hand-pressing balls of dough into flat pancakes, and then grilling them. Awesome.
I asked for a carne asada (grilled cow) baleada, and was transfixed by the woman making fresh the fresh flour tortillas—she would pull balls of dough from a lard-smeared bowl, press them into flat pancakes, throw them on the grill, pull them off with her bare hands and flip them over to finish cooking them. She would then pass the tortilla over to a younger woman, who would slather the baleada with refried beans, meat, sour cream, and something resembling parmesan cheese.
In my excitement over the freshly grilled tortilla and meat, I failed to notice where the grilled meat was stored after it came off the grill. As the three of us munched our baleadas, my friend wiped some of the creamy beans off of his face and said, “Damn, that meat is awfully good for something that came out of a trash bag.”
Trash bag meat? Sure, why not? It tasted amazing, and I was one happy half-Greek. And I think the vendors were probably pretty happy that they gave me a paper plate and served me from a trash bag… otherwise, I might have smashed something on the sidewalk in a fit of baleada-induced joy.
Central American Day Parade and Festival
Crotona Park, Bronx
Subway: 174th Street (2, 5 trains)