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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Everything you always wanted to know about SEX Red Hook, but were afraid to ask

Do you remember Highlander, friend? There can be only one? The Red Hook Soccer Field food scene gets our vote: this past month, it's been numero uno at The Porkchop Express.
But it's the last lap, and we're ready to wrap things up photo-finish style, with one final swansong to all things tasty at the corner of Clinton and Bay in Red Hook, USA.

Our time here began as a mild curiosity and morphed into a monthlong obsession, a prolonged search for delicious©®™ that took us from Puebla to Ecuador and many points in-between. And in the end, after sampling just about everything, we got to wondering about the background. So for you, historically-minded reader, a few parting details.The Red Hook Food Tent scene started with a soccer game. Some 4 decades back (500,000 in “taco years”), a Guatemalan liga began playing on a set of semi-remote fields in Brooklyn near NYC's oldest and largest housing projects. Nothing was organized; families and friends simply brought food so they wouldn’t go hungry watching people play ball. Informal was the operative word: home-cooked meals, barbecued meats, and cold beers. Laid back.
Things unfolded like good old-fashioned slow cooking. The soccer caught on, and new leagues arrived with new players from new countries, who brought new families, fans, and (most importantly) food. The number and diversity of the vendors grew, and folks began selling their eats under pitched tents.

So it went until the mid-90s (Giuliani time) when two landscape-altering changes occured: the City banned the open sale of liquor and started issuing paid permits. Long story short, things got a bit more uptight overnight... but also more “professional.” Vendors gave the venerable Guatemalan league money to represent them, maintain a loose coalition, rent space from the city (technically 40 yards around each of the tents), and generally keep things koshero.
This worked until the year 2000, when the Department of Health threatened to shut shop(s) down. The liga didn't do much to intervene, and the vendors themselves (for whom English was, at best, a second language) were ill-equipped to defend their businesses from a full-fledged NYC bureaucratic attack.

Enter Cesar Fuentes.

Cesar got his start working summers at the Soler Dominican Tent for his step-dad Rafael. When the DoH crisis ensued, he was asked to step in. It was a natural fit: he had the language skills, wherewithal and passion needed to push for a mutually satisfactory compromise between vendors and borough officials... which is exactly what happened. He met with officials, visited neighborhood police precincts, and sat down with Brooklyn Parks’ Commissioner Julius Spiegel. Spiegel liked what he saw, and agreed to renew the Food Tent permits on the condition that Cesar stay on as intermediary and chief of operations. Lucky for all, he did.

During one conversation Cesar described his position as a crusade, and he does speak like a man on a mission. For the past 6 years he's kept things game-tight, instituting a culture of congenial professionalism with an eye towards future prosperity. Part business manager, part liaison, part community activist, he collects fees, holds monthly meetings, pays recycling (over $24,000 a year), and keeps everything and everyone on point.
The block on lock: Josh Fuentes holds it down at Clinton & Bay

He enlisted the services of his half-brother Josh, a preschool teacher, personal trainer and 80s metal fan who is sub-contracted on weekends to keep things “clean and legal” on-site. Like everyone else associated with this operation, Josh is an extremely hard worker. He sometimes stays at the fields until 3am and, even more shockingly, rarely finds time to eat.

To be sure, the Fuentes lads are two big reasons behind the area's growing success. After all, for the first time in their 40-year history vendors have advocates who actually represent them, who understand that their work is as much about building community as it is about making money. The love is pretty evident: love of the Latin experience, of the New York immigrant experience, of the sadly-dwindling block party experience, of flavorful rituals shared with fellow city-dwellers.Such was Cesar's vision, and it's clearly bearing fruits. The number of non-Latinos descending upon the fields, ordering huaraches and agua fresca and asking about masa and baleadas, has noticeably ballooned over the summer. Add to this an eclectic assortment of folks–from Law students to German filmmakers–who have come to both eat and research, and you're left with a pretty dynamic scene.

All of which raises a logistical problem: how to maintain what makes this such a great spot (Latin flavor, low-key familiarity, under-the-radar appeal), while encorporating new patrons into the fold. Josh expressed mild (and justifiable) concern with a possible turista effect, an over-saturation of folks jumping on a new fad. But at the same time, he (like even the most skeptical of vendors I spoke with) welcomed the growth, and relished the untapped potential of an exciting future.

And no matter what, how fluffy can this place get? It's never going to be a strip mall food court. Cesar put it best: this is “real street food” served by common folks who have undergone their share of discrimination, toughing out a living in a foreign land while giving something back to their peoples.
All of which is to say, respect. Respect the traditions, the scene, the time and effort, the struggles and stories behind these terrific eats. Respect the fact that, in an area where the bells of gentrification have begun to toll loudly, where Fairway has arrived and Ikea is not far off, a scene like this refuses to be anything but what it is.

During his 6 years at the helm, Cesar has tried to spread awareness of the Latin American experience, to remind people of their childhoods, to give a slice of comfort to homesick ex-patriots, to share a new experience with non-Latinos, to watch soccer and give people an “anti-restaurant” where just about anyone can kick back and enjoy. And although he can't say if they’ll survive the next 10 yrs, history seems to be on their side. With future plans including a website and possible incorporation, things are looking bright, and The Porkchop Express salutes.

In the end, this was a delicious trip, one about community and unity over 40 years in the making, a genial atmosphere of young and old, rich and poor, folks from all walks of life, speaking different languages and enjoying great Latin food at a sunny Brooklyn park.

If that isn't flavor, friend, I don't know what is.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

The Red Hook Soccer Field Food Stands
  • Dates: Mid-April to late-October, rain or shine (follows the Soccer schedule)
  • Official Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 9am till 10pm (tho some pack up early)
  • For The Official Porkchop Express Map, click here
  • The (future) website: www.redhooklatino.org
  • Remember: September 16, the date of Mexico's Independence and an historically great night at the Red Hook Fields. League quarterfinals are in session, school is starting up, and the vendors give folks a fiesta to remember. Check the fields on the nearest Saturday.
Fast Facts
  • Currently, Cesar's Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park consists of all 13 stands and the Ice Cream Guy.
  • Per city regulations, permits allow for a maximum of 15 vendors.
  • Cesar receives 25-30 offers every year from hopeful would-be vendors.
  • He has no current plans for expansion, but aired thoughts of adding a new South American tent to better “reflect the culinary wonders of Latin America as a whole.”
  • About half of the vendors have started their own restaurants.
  • The Soccer league is “semi-professional.” Some of the players are paid, the uniforms are pretty sharp, and the teams have even been known to rent out Giants Stadium for the finals.
  • The nearby Baseball Field food stands are not in any way affiliated. (Tho this may change.)
  • In 2004, the vendors received an official proclamation and tribute from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.
Cesar's List
  • Asking Cesar to pick his favorite food stand is like pressing a parent to tell you which is their favorite kid. But we did anyways. And while he insisted he loved everything, we still wrangled a few informal picks. Cesar nominated Soler Dominican for most innovative, citing Rafael's creative approach to delicious pupusa combinations (like jalepeno and cheese). He also noted the Salvadoran pupusas, ceviches, and cecina tacos. But the “king of red hook”? Huaraches: visitors should definitely sample one or two.
The Porkchop Express found the general quality level to be remarkably high, and what we liked best really depended on the mood. That being said, here are some final nominations:
  • The Freshest: Sosa Fruit Stand. Sosa keeps it fresh on so many levels, I can't begin to do this spot justice. So I wont. Every Red Hook expedition we made began here.
  • Nicest smile: A tie between Suyapa Cruz (Honduran) and Janet Lainez (Salvadoran), both of whom spread the cheer.
  • Best pork: This is a tough one to call, but we're going with Hernandez Huaraches and their super-tasty Señor Al Pastor.
  • Meatiest taco: The Perez family, in an either/or situation: either their giant slice of steak perched precariously on corn tortillas, or their generously high-piled barbacoa.
  • Must-try: Ecuadoran ceviche. Unless, of course, you're allergic to seafood or utterly contrary. Otherwise, get on down there, and order some of their Tuna stew while you're at it.
Special Thanks
  • To Cesar & Josh Fuentes, and all the vendors, for reasons that should be obvious by now.

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Blogger alizinha said...

thank you so much for all this history on the food stalls that I never knew. makes me appreciate them all the more.

6:25 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

tks for stopping by, alizinha... re: the history, i had the same reaction...

2:43 PM  
Anonymous who walk in brooklyn said...

doesn't QB-- six blocks, 96 buildings-- get the acclamation NYC's largest pj? i love Shabazz the Disciple & Hell Razah (Red Hook represent) myself but i'm pretty sure QB takes it. if i had to guess, i'd also say the OLDEST pj is Williamsburg Houses...


lastly, it seems there's a small part of the story missing the DOH problems; i am almost certain the vendors got NO public attn then so their few, scattered gringo fans were stuck asking... whuh? Rudy was of course the prime culprit but i heard other rumors too... anyone, none of this is to detract from yr efforts, good work talking to those who aren't often spoken to/of.


6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is the real deal. I absolutely love Sundays at the soccer fields. The food is authentic.
Thank you for the history of the soccer tacos.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Great history. Thanks for putting it together. What happened this weekend? Did they get shut down?

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i need directions, preferably driving ones, from the BQE/Manahattan Bridge & or starting from a Williamsburg Surface street; PLEASE!!! I am a Southern Calif Transplant & this food is as standard around town to us gringos as a slice of pizza is to New Yorkers. Thanks!

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

are they open for 2008 yet?

6:06 PM  
Blogger John-Paul said...

Does anyone know if it's open for 2008 yet, and if so, whether the vendors will be operating on Memorial Day itself?

2:56 PM  
Blogger John-Paul said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:56 PM  
Blogger SkeeterNYC said...

So enjoyed this post and your expert coverage. I know it's an oldie, but it's a timeless goodie :)
Thanks so much!

10:05 AM  

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