So yeah… I went to Red Hook ball fields for Latin food, and I’m at least seven years too late to be cool. If you’re familiar with the NYC food scene, you’re either licking your chops right now in expectation of awesome Latin food porn, or else you’re rolling your eyes at me for being such a NYC food blog cliché.
If you’re not rolling your eyes, here’s a little bit of background: since sometime in the 1970s, a fleet of Latin American food vendors have descended on the Red Hook ball fields to provide sustenance for the sweaty dudes playing soccer and baseball in the park. For the first few decades, the Red Hook vendors were an informal thing–they would set up folding tables, and sell whatever they felt like selling. The Red Hook vendors became legendary among both Latin American immigrants and non-Latinos who were lucky enough to stumble upon the place.
And then somebody in the New York City bureaucracy got a corncob stuck up his ass a few years ago, and decided that all food vendors needed to be licensed and inspected. No more food sold on folding tables; vendors were now required to have some sort of food truck. Many of the original vendors survived the policy change, but others went out of business. Sad.
I made a point of getting to Red Hook before noon on a recent Sunday to avoid the worst of the crowds. There were nine vendors, hawking food from Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. I only have one stomach, so I only ate three meals from two nations.
I started with a Guatemalan pacaya from the Antojitos Chapines cart. I ordered it because I had no idea what a pacaya was. It turns out that pacaya is a type of forest palm, found only in parts of Central America, and the flower of the pacaya has tentacles that vaguely resemble long, slender fingers of baby corn. And you’ll never believe this, but the tentacles actually taste like… tentacles of baby corn. And the tentacles are loaded with calcium and vitamin C, apparently.
At Antojitos Chapines, pacaya tentacles are coated in flour and deep-fried, then served in a corn tortilla with a mild red salsa, reminiscent of a Mexican ranchero sauce. The pacaya was pretty interesting—at first, I thought I was biting into a breaded egg patty, and then realized that it had a bitter, tentacle-ish aftertaste and just a hint of crunch to it. Nope… not an egg.
I can’t say that I was wild about the pacaya, but it was interesting, and tasted healthy… if we conveniently ignore the part about deep-frying. I also munched a chicken tamale as part of the Guatemalan portion of my meal. The tamale was about twice the size of a standard Mexican tamale, stuffed with stewed chicken and a strip of seared bell pepper, and topped with just a hint of that same mellow red salsa. It was a much larger, softer, butterier tamale than I’d ever eaten in, say, Mexico. It was arguably better than any tamale I’d ever eaten in Mexico or in a Mexican restaurant—and them’s fighting words, ‘cuz I love tamales.
As the crowds started to thicken at the ball fields, I noticed that by far the longest line was at El Olomega, a vendor of Salvadoran pupusas. El Olomega had one of the largest food trucks at Red Hook, and the company appears to be a pretty serious pupusa empire: they have two huge food trucks, a twitter feed, and a website. Apparently, things have changed since the days of unlicensed food vendors on folding tables.
Pupusas are thick grilled corn patties, stuffed with some combination of meat, cheese, beans, and vegetables. Since I’d already eaten lunch at Antojitos Chapines, I thought it would make sense to order the hugest and most gruesomely decadent item on El Olomega’s menu: a super pupusa ($8). I watched as one of the friendly Salvadoran cooks washed her hands, grabbed a ridiculously massive glob of cornmeal dough, and started grilling.
I ended up with a beast of a meal: a thick, round patty of dough (8” in diameter… that’s $1 per inch, if you’re into measuring that sort of thing), stuffed with cheese, chicken, refried beans, zucchini, spinach, and finely diced loroco flowers, which tasted like a cross between squash blossoms and asparagus. The pupusa beast was topped with spicy marinated cabbage and as much red salsa, sour cream, and marinated jalapenos as you wanted. The super pupusa might have been the best thing I’ve ever eaten from a food truck in NYC, besides maybe the Cambodian awesomeness served by Jerry Ley.
And the best part is that the transportation from Manhattan to the Red Hook ball fields is free on the weekend Ikea ferry. A few nights ago, I sat on one of our three-year-old Ikea kitchen chairs, and it snapped like a really fresh pickle. So I think Ikea owes me something. A free ferry ride to Red Hook so that I can wedge 3000 calories of Central American food into my gullet… and then I can get fatter and break more chairs? Sounds fair to me!