Lately I have been so torn between various extremes that I might as well recalibrate to zero and call it “grounded” rather than continue in this stomach-churning state. While not the bulk of what contributes to the churn, deciding whether to apply myself to cooking or to seeking out the fine cooking of others is one quandary that makes up the grand recipe of unrest. Often the factors of time and wallet plumpness make the decision for me, but both of those fail me when it comes to fast food. Street food can be purchased and eaten in a hurry for a fair price, just as a bowl of quinoa and onions can be whipped up in a few minutes flat and leaves some change for a dessert of candied ginger discs. Luckily my itchy invetigation foot usually kicks in to give me that deciding boot out of the kitchen and typically lands me far from my home. Call it martyrdom or self-punishment or misplaced reward syndrome, but the sorer the feet, the damper the brow, the tastier the reward. An invetigation that combines food with the exploration of new terrain is the best one there is.
A few weeks ago I experienced premature Red Hook withdrawal. Though the ballfields vendors were safe for another month or so I still felt the impending onset of pupusa tremors. I have a few Sunset Park destinations staked out for snowy late night fixes, but suddenly even those seemed tinged with potential disaster. What if Ine’s closes? What if Rico’s gets snowed under? I need further back-up. Having found my first torta of New York after doing some stealth recon in Astoria (the foolproof equation of [observed passing torta - amount of torta consumed by consumer = possible distance from torta vendor] led me straight to Atlixico and a middling but welcome chorizo infusion), Queens seemed to be the way to go. After consulting the internet, Taster Matt and I set out for Jackson Heights with a tentative list of vendors who, unbeknownst to them, would soon be auditioning for the roles of Team Red Hook alternates.
First on the menu was a beverage at Aqui Colombian. “Beverage” turned out to be a misnomer, these colossuses were meals. While Taster Matt went for the cholado, I went for the supposedly less rich champus. I’m not sure what part of two cups of sweet corn kernels immersed in what is best described as an icy cinnamon gazpacho translates into “light,” but all of it translated into delicious. The champus isn’t as much of a looker as its cholado companion, whose fruit-studded condensed milk-drenched shredded coconut self required both fork, spoon and straw, but both performed equally well.
We walked from 37th to Roosevelt to get started with savory. I was hell-bent on pupusas, which for some reason I insisted would be sold at the “two ladies taco cart” mentioned in a fantastic map posted to Chowhound**. I can only ascribe this conviction to brain fever or hunger-induced daftness because there was nothing in our research to indicate that this was so. In the spot designated to the two ladies, we found a cart manned by one lady with a sign indicating both sopes and pupusas were imminent. I approached the cart with gusto but was thrown by said lady’s deflated preemptory order confirmation: “tacos? SIGH!”. Her countenance shifted dramatically upon my rejoining with “No! Pupusas!” Our ensuing chat revealed that, though she is Salvadorian and a confirmed whiz at pupusa production, her most common request (which she attributed to the ethnic make-up of the neighborhood) is for tacos. The resultant pupusa was resplendent and topped with shredded lettuce, crema and cojita rather than pickled cabbage or onions. Its pancake-like appearance was deceptive and hid an impressive quantity of beans in its crispy folds. After Taster Matt bowed to my needling and tried the sopes (practically identical to the pupusa except with the beans outside instead of inside the masa patty), we moved on.At this point we encountered the nadir of our invetigation in which I was brought to the edges of a despair felicitously dispelled by our happening on a jolly arepa cart.*** I wish I could give a more accurate address for the arepa cart but all I remember is that it was on 37th and came equipped with a cooler full of seven different unmarked sauces hanging off the grill. We were lucky to even get a picture of this one considering how quickly it went. It by no means quelled my determination to make a trek out to the famed Arepa Lady one of these weekends, but it was crisp and plump with meats.Next Taster Matt was thirsty and decided on a Malta Paisa, “a non alcoholic cereal beverage.” I’d like to say that this purchase was the product of impetuousness but honestly it was the result of much deliberation and ultimately won out over other offerings by virtue of its containing no high fructose corn syrup. I think my expression says enough.
Still addled from the lack of fine dessert offerings and a fruitless search for a coffee that met my high standards for purchasing, we settled on a chalupa of all things for “dessert.” The mob surrounding the cart at the base of the stairs to the 82nd St. stop was promising, but as is often the case with such foodstuffs the quality of the chalupa was somewhat unevaluatable because of the overwhelming qualities of heat and fry. Neither of these are ever cause for quibble or woe, and the chalupa was deemed an innocuous but satisfying end to the invetigation. And so concluded the journey to Jackson Heights: while not a Red Hook equal, certainly deserving of the title of “understudy.”
***A brief word on the despair: it was brought about by a niggling feeling that there existed some tarte tatin-eclipsing Central/South American dessert or pastry that I just hadn’t yet laid eyes or hands on. Dutifully scoping out every bakery on my list, I still didn’t find anything that even piqued interest in my tastebuds let alone promised to topple my existent hierarchy of pastries. Dismayed at my complete disinterest in trying any of the alternately desiccated or oleaginous offerings I began to think that my stomach was either racist or cowardly. Patient in the face of this utterly ridiculous parody of a quandary, Taster Matt gently suggested that maybe I just don’t have a taste for the most ubiquitous Central/South American desserts. I added conchas to the short list of desserts I no longer bother insisting on liking (see glutinous rice) and resigned myself to concentrating my searches to the savory.