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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Red Hook'd: Ceron Colombian

Rainy dayz kid, just like the song, and The Porkchop Express got caught in a storm. Luckily, we were at a good spot: the Ceron Colombian food tent at the Redhook Soccer Fields.

Jolanda Ceron first set up shop over 20 years ago, making her one of the first to sell food at this storied location. And as her daughter Yezenia tells it, things were pretty different back then: far more casual, no mention of permits, ice cold beers, and a whole lot of Colombians and Puerto Ricans.

Then (as now), most of the clientele came from the Soccer teams playing at the adjacent field. So when the actual Leagues siwtched, so did the vendors. New food tents sprouted up, reflecting the changing composition of incoming players: Mexican, Guatemalan, and Honduran, to name a few.

At one point, even Jolanda herself called it a day. She left to to start a small Colombian restaurant in Brooklyn (37th & Fort Hamilton Parkway). The spot was open 24/7, which meant both long (read: rough) hours and a high-maintenance (read: drunk) late-night clientele. So the Cerons closed their doors about 7 or 8 years back, and made a welcomed return to the Soccer Fields.
3 generations deep: Jolanda with Yezenia and niece Carla

Jolanda now runs the Red Hook spot with her family, and on one grey day, they graced us with some fine Colombian.
Say hello to my little friend

We had trouble deciding so we pretty much ordered everything, starting with an arepa, a thick cornmeal cake cooked on a griddle. Venezuelans tend to stuff theirs with savory fillings, but Colombian style is a little different. They mix cheese right in to the cornmeal, so the patty itself is savory and dense. If you try one, make sure to top it with their delicious homemade salsa, a spicy concotion of green chilies, red onions, and cilantro.
Papa Reyena (L) and stewed pinto beans with white rice

The papa reyena seemed to be a crowd pleaser, so we gave that a taste. What is it, you ask? Coarse mashed potatoes wrapped around tender braised beef, coated with a flour mix, and deep-fried. The Cerons also coat their juicy fried chicken with the same seasoned flour that lends those potato cakes their golden hue. Both (and many other items on this menu) are cooked in a pot of fresh bubbling oil. This is the hardest working oil in Red Hook, I'd imagine.
2 skewers and a sausage

Given the remarkable assortments of chilies and spices at play around the Redhook Soccer Field, I usually end up with a serious case of hotmouth. But Colombian food is surprisingly mild. Even their chorizo proved far less fiery than its cousin, the spicy brick-red Mexican link. The Cerons score this smooth pork-beef sausage, fry it, and serve it with a boiled potato. Much to my enjoyment, I should add; this is one tasty link, and unlike what I typically associate with the word chorizo.
Ceron's fancy two-tiered grilled was probably the first thing that caught our eye, so we could hardly leave without trying one of those enticing skewers of chicken and beef. Although both hit the spot, we gave the chicken a slight nod: tender and softly marinated, with a nice grilled flavor.
Have some

Jolanda also serves Sobre Barriga (top flank steak cooked with her special onion-pepper sauce), Chicharron (meaty strips of pork skin, fried crisp: think a threesome between ribs, bacon and cracklin'), fried Yucca, and empanadas. The pinto beans, stewed with diced potatoes, were especially satisfying on such a gloomy day.

By now, astute reader, you should sense a theme: hearty, humble, well-prepared fare dished up with a smile. And while many of these dishes were new to The Porkchop Express, the Cerons keep a few familiars on tap for their less adventurous eaters. Take, for example, the young man who whispered something in Spanish. He looked content when Yezenia returned with a hot dog from the cooler, which she quickly fried and served on a bun with ketchup.

It's touches like these that illustrate the Cerons' warmth and place in the community, and I couldn't help but wonder why this was the last Colombian family standing at Redhook. Whatever the reason, we, for one, are glad these folks held tight.

Ceron Colombian
Bay Street side
(seventh tent from the corner)

I lost track of the pricing on this one, but we had a lot of food for $13.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Huarache Nice

What is a huarache, frisky reader? If you answered “the man-sandals Don Johnson wore in Miami Viceyou are correct. But if you also answered “a delicious Mexican snack, not unlike the burrito” then you have come to the right place.

This week, The Porkchop Express lambada'd back to Red Hook, Brooklyn to sample more culinary wonders at the Soccer Fields. In the spotlight? You guessed it! Wonderful, edible huaraches.

A tasty treat hailing from South-Central Mexico, this flat, oblong cake of masa (moist cornmeal dough) is rolled, pressed, stuffed with a thin layer of black bean, pressed again, and thrown on a griddle until nice and crisp. You can top them with a bit of salsa picante and grated queso anejo, or go the whole hog and pile on meats, chilies, onions, sour cream, and whatever else lies within reach. Guess what we did?

Results–from Hidalgo and Puebla–below!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Red Hook'd: Hernandez Huaraches


Several Red Hook regulars recommended the Hernandez tent as the spot for huaraches, so The Porkchop Express headed over to see what the big deal was. Our first impression? The line. It was long, snaking one full tent over, occupied by people patiently waiting to sample the homemade tortillas, savory meats, and melted cheeses flying off the Hernandez grill. Not wanting to be left out of all the fun, we joined the crowd, placed an order, grabbed a seat, and waited for the prize: one carne asada huarache con todos.We didn't wait long. These folks match heavy demand with quick turnover, and our huarache soon arrived fresh and piping hot on a paper plate several sizes too small, topped with lettuce, chopped tomato/onion/cilantro, crema, grated queso anejo and fresh grilled green onions. How did it look? To these uninitiated eyes, pretty damn good. I couldn't wait to dig in.

Unfortunately, haste made waste. This thing was literally bursting at the seams, and a modicum of strategy and/or patience was required. I sampled a few chunks of carne while plotting an attack, but this didn't help at all. The meat was too tasty: salty, crispy, juicy, and nigh-impossible to resist. So instead of self-denial I simply surrendered, and started tearing at the tortilla while experimenting with a few salsas they keep on tap. Be sure to try the surprisingly spicy, smooth guacamole and hot tomatillo, both wonderful compliments to the meat.
It all starts here: huaraches on the press

As for the huarache itself? Terrific. It had a truly homemade flavor: this was some richly-textured, sweet, soft masa. The bean layer was equally distinguished, standing out and saying hola without upsetting the balance or consistency.
And that meat: oh yeah. Their carne asada was so good that we decided to try an enchilada taco (spicy pork) for desert. This proved to be a delicious move: Hernandez serves some of the tastiest enchilada The Porkchop Express has had in quite some time. All-too-often, this meat is tough or excessively fatty; potential frequently outweighs execution. Not so here. Hernandez struck a sophisticated balance between tender and crispy, spicy and savory, that only comes of slow, fine marinades and careful two-step cooking. (To wit, check the multiple griddles in constant rotation.)
Happy Days: Margarita Hernandez spreads the culinary love

Margarita Hernandez is the brains behind this operation, so I stuck around until she had a moment to chat. Hailing from Hidalgo (a mountainous state north of Puebla named after the father of Mexican Independence), she arrived in NYC 19 years ago. At the time, she spoke no English and had no idea how she was going to make a living. Until, that is, a culinary inspiration struck.

You see good reader, Margarita missed a hometown favorite: the huarache. No one in the city was making them at the time, so she decided to blaze the trail herself. After nailing a recipe, she and her husband pitched tent at the Red Hook Soccer Fields and set up shop. This was about 14 years ago... and it is still going strong. Although her husband sadly passed away, Margarita continues to hold down the operation with stellar results. Things start on Thursday for the weekend run: slicing and marinating fresh meats, storing them in giant coolers, mixing tubs of guacamole, salsa verde and salsa picante, stuffing Jarritos in buckets of ice, mixing masa, grating cheeses and chopping veggies... all for you, huarache-loving reader. So if you haven't tried one yet... now is the time.
Tortillas for tacos...
... and slow-marinated meat, hot off the grill

Not only are these delicious treats, they come from good peoples. Margarita Hernandez is a class act who happens to cook what many consider the best huaraches in town. But don't take anyone else's word for it. Try one for yourself, friend; you wont be disappointed.

Hernandez Huaraches
Bay Street side
(second tent from the corner)

Huaraches/Quesadillas: $5.00
Tacos: $2.00

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Red Hook'd: Martinez Huaraches

Approach the Red Hook Soccer Fields at Clinton and Bay, and chances are you'll stumble across a long line of folks gawking over what look to be oblong, burrito-quesadilla hybrids. The commotion? Tantric tortillas with titilating toppings to tempt your tummy courtesy of two fine folks, Fernando Martinez and his wife Jolanda (above).

The Martinez family occupies the first stand at the intersection of Clinton and Bay; they run the second-oldest huarache tent in the area; and their lines often run double-digits. What does all this add up to? Not much, inquisitive reader, except some mighty good eats.
Every Martinez huarache starts with a pat: masa pressed flat, spread with a thin layer of black bean, pressed again, and thrown on the griddle. For such a simple process it's pretty mesmerizing stuff. I grew especially fond of watching quesadilla tortillas (huaraches without the bean layer) spring to life: when cooked, they puff right up like hot poori. And things like this pass for exciting times here at The Porkchop Express.

Carne Asada huarache

Fernando Martinez has been around over 12 years, and his experience shows. He took particular pride in his carne asada, so we started there. Terrific stuff, cut in strips and piled high with the usual fixings and a spoonful of smooth guacamole. Don't forget to sample some of their homemade salsas, like the tasty jalepeno-based puree or chunky tomato-onion.

Puerco Adobado taco

Still hungry? Not in the slightest. But the smell of grilled meats stoked our courage, and we ordered a pork taco cooked with an adobado marinade. This is less spicy than the enchilada style, but nothing that a dash of red chilie sauce couldn't compensate for.

Chicken quesadilla

For reasons still unclear, we were so worked up that we ordered another intriguing item: one of their giant quesadillas, grilled with whole-milk mozzarella and stacked as high as the huarache. The main difference? When you replace beans with cheese, you get a crisper tortilla texture. Huaraches derive a toothsome quality from the inclusion of beans; in their absence, the quesadilla tortilla (made from the same masa, in the same manner) took on a bit more snap. They were both great, so it really is just a matter of mood, personal preference, or love of melted cheese. Though we should reiterate that if you've already had your way with a huarache and/or a taco, the quesadilla will make you uncomfortably full. Take a stand from the beginning, choose one, and stick to your guns.

Fernando sold his Sunset Park restaurant (Jirasoles) about 2 years ago, although he and his wife are considering a new venture. Until that time? Head to Redhook, soak in some Soccer field flavor, and enjoy all that the Martinez family has to offer.

Martinez Huaraches
Clinton Street side
(first tent at the corner)

Huaraches: $5.00
Quesadillas: $5.00
Tacos: $2.00

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I Won!

What do you think of “competitive eating,” sporty reader? The Porkchop Express can't decide. Sure, gorging is great; and racing is ok. But the combination? Sounds rough, friend: a recipe for pain and bloat.

It also sounds like one of those “only in America” things: as in, only in America would someone be crazy enough to eat as many hotdogs as they could, as quickly as possible, not out of hunger or the threat of violence.

For the past few years, a guy named Takeru Kobayashi has ruled the most famous eating competition in the entire U.S. of A. I'm talking, of course, about the annual Nathan's Hotdog Eating Contest. Staged in Coney Island, Brooklyn every 4th of July, this gleeful rejoinder to moderation and common sense gives combatants 12 minutes to devour as many garlicky, all-beef Nathan's dogs (and buns!) as is superhumanly possible. And year after year tubbies get taken down by a 5-foot 8-inch 20-something kid from Japan.

Kobayashi san!
You know he's #1, competition is none

Nathan's 2006 contest ended much like battles 2000 thru 2005: with another Kobayashi victory. He downed a world-record 53 ¾ weiners in less time than it takes me to choose a breakfast cereal. And whose record did he beat? His own.

It's hard not to admire the guy's chops, even if he does just turn out to be one of those “T3” super robots sent back in time to destroy and/or save the earth. But that's one of the funny things about competitive eating. You never know who's gonna be the last one standing. Let me show you what I mean.
Take a look at the picture above. Now imagine them eating hotdogs side-by-side. Now look again. Now get ready to laugh. The pretty, petite woman ate a whopping 14 more hot dogs than the handsome, petite big fat bald guy; she finished in 3rd place this year with 37 consumed.

Her name? Sonya Thomas, a/k/a The Black Widow, and she also holds the International Federation of Competitive Eating records for (amongst other things) Vienna Sausage, Baked Beans, Chicken Wings, Hard Boiled Eggs, Fruitcakes, Hamburgers, Lobsters, Meatballs, Oysters, Pulled Pork, and Turducken. And, as chance would have it, tacos.

Surely you've heard? September 29, 2004, that forever-infamous date? “Taco Wednesday,” as I like to call it: the day Miss Thomas polished off 48 soft chicken tacos in 11 heart-pounding minutes at the Zocalo Restaurant in New York City.

Aside from the obvious, what struck me about this was the location: Zocalo Restaurant in New York City. Not Los Angeles, not San Francisco, not Mexico. NYC. And if you believe the hype, NY doesn't have great tacos... or does it?

Rumors have been circulating of a magical park on the southern skirts of Redhook, Brooklyn, nestled somewhere near soccer fields and swimming pools and docks and projects. So we went down to check it out, and found a veritable cornucopia, a culinary tour of Latin America at the unlikely intersection of Clinton & Bay.

The Red Hook Soccer Field scene really is something of a phenomenon: a close-knit community of tents set up every Saturday and Sunday, morning til evening. From the second week of April thru the third week of October, you can take your pick of papusas, huaraches, ceviches, plantains, grilled meats, savory beans, fresh fruit drinks. And it's as good as it sounds. The only hitch? Many have heard the rumors, but far fewer have summoned the courage to check it out.

Have no fear, good reader! For the next few, we'll be reporting back with the goods offered at this amazing little nexus. Soon, you too will be sampling deliciousness served up from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic (just to name a few).

And the best part? No matter how much you eat, everyone's a winner!

Round one (tasty tacos and fruity goodness from Puebla) below.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Red Hook'd: Perez Tacos

If you find yourself at the intersection of Clinton and Bay Streets in Brooklyn, hungry reader, consider yourself lucky. This is the entrance to a world of delicious: the Red Hook Soccer Field food tents. Stands stretch in two directions (south and east), but the Clinton strip looked far less congested. So The Porkchop Express decided to check it our first in hopes of getting our taco on.
The last tent on the block had a healthy line, so we jumped in, waited, and observed: a hot griddle on which corn tortillas were flipped, a smokey grill cooking big rounds of thin steak, the small pan overflowing with tacquitos, the pot simmering above a bed of grey coals, and tubs of homemade goodness: fresh salsas (spicy tomatillo and crimson chipotle), marinated jalepenos, grilled hot chilies with onions (and what smelled like oregano), and sweet cinnamon horchata.

The stand is run by Eleazar Perez and her family. Ellie holds court, tending to the meats while overseeing the entire operation. Entranced by her grill skills, I ordered a carne asada taco con todos ($2.50)... and was surprised to receive one of those healthy steak slices whole, resting confidently on two corn tortillas. The meat–trimmed and seasoned long before it hits the coals–had a nice char and great smokey flavor, and was topped with pico de gallo, lettuce, onion, and hot salsa. I also added some of their delicious grilled chilies and onions, notoriously painful to prepare and a perfect complement to this robust asada.
One Big Taco!

Even better? Their truly delicious barbacoa taco. As it turns out, this was the mystery meat from the pot: shredded, moist, slow-cooked, fork-tender goat piled generously onto a pair of corn tortillas. It went great with chopped onion and cilantro, and a single, plump home-marinated jalepeno. Not a big fan of goat? To be honest, me neither... but it doesn't matter. This is the star of the show, unique and flavorful, and the type of thing you find yourself craving a few weeks down the line. (They also make a soup with the braising liquid, which would probably be great in the cooler months.)

A big part of the Red Hook experience is the community vibe, and Ellie's son Fabian made me feel right at home. He also shared some family history.

Originally from Puebla, Mexico, his mom started selling tacos in Park Slope, Brooklyn, from the back of her car. Demand grew, and soon after (some 19 years ago) she set up shop at the Red Hook fields. 9 years after that she opened a restaurant: La Ascencion on Fort Hamilton Parkway, tho (thankfully) the family still graces the park every Saturday and Sunday.
Flavor Historian: Fabian Perez dropping science with his boys Geovanny and Donovan (L-R)

Fabian's not much older than the stand he grew up in and around, but he's a true flavor historian, and kindly schooled us on the scene. He talked about 1996 (Giuliani time), when beer was banned and permits became mandatory (at $3 a week; they now cost $300 a month). He described the lively soccer community that lies at the heart of these tents, filled with former pros from Central America who stop by after games to chow down; the neighborhood, an eclectic mix of recreation centers, fields, public schools (3), and housing projects; and creeping signs of gentrification. And when all was said and done, I got the sense that no matter the times, Fabian and the rest of the Perez fam will always do things their same great way.

This is a rock-solid operation, inviting on many levels, and a worthy start to any Red Hook expedition.

Perez Tacos

Clinton Street side
(third tent from the corner)

Tacos: $2.50
Horchata: $1.50

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Red Hook'd: Sosa Fresca

I speak "burrito" but not Spanish which is, inconveniently, the sole language used at Sosa's fresh fruit stand. But no worries, gringo! Even in this day and age love finds a way: love of delicious Mexican fresh fruit drinks, that is.

I first discovered agua fresca at El Farolito in San Francisco, when my buddy and I rolled almost daily to the Mission for burritos, beverages, and Latin Freeze popsicles. It was love at first taste: light, fresh fruit drinks pair perfectly with spicy pork and melted cheese.

Delicious memories like these gave The Porkchop Express courage and incentive. Drawing upon a lexicon of international stutters, points and nods, and some half-witted Italian, we managed to order everything we wanted. Which, as it turned out, was everything.

Decisions, decisions!

Fresh squeezed limonata: an invigorating blend of sweet and tart. Melon (a personal favorite): bursting with ripe cantaloupe goodness. Lime: never you mind that noxious green color, the flavor is au naturel. And there's more: pineapple, tamarind, hybiscus, horchata... truly something for everyone. Everyone with taste buds, and two bucks.

The owner, Victor Sosa of Puebla, Mexico, is a mildly intimidating guy. And it's not just the "dude from Scarface" last name. He brings a little John Stockton/EPMD flavor to the Red Hook Soccer Field food scene: strictly business. But oh what a business. Only 5 years old, Sosa combines veteran poise and rookie excitement with slam-dunk results.
And we don't just mean the beverages. Check out the stacked boxes in front of the van, a cornucopia of ripe citrus and melons, mangoes and papayas, all ready to be cut... and consumed.

I was debating what to taste, when I remembered that a friend recently requested a Chilie Mango report. I can't say I'm well versed in this dish, but I gave it a shot and was instantly hooked. Sosa did it up exceptionally well, topping slices of slightly underripe mango with two types of dried chili powder (one hot, one not), a little salt, and some Goya bonfanita sauce. The cherry on this sunday? He squeezes the juice of one lime into each bag. (Details like this set him apart: none of that nasty, artificial-tasting, made-from-concentrate pre-squeezed lemon here.) Chilie Mango has a sweet/salty hot/savory combination not unlike Thai papaya salad: bold, arresting, far more subtle than you'd imagine. And a perfect way to round out a taco binge.

But no matter what you try, you really can't go wrong. After all, Sosa puts the "fresh" in refreshment. I always return several times on a single Red Hook mission, because these goodies keep me grounded and hydrated. They also have that Christmas-eve appeal of a gift in waiting. Unwrap yours early and often, good reader; you wont be disappointed!

Sosa Fruit & Agua Fresca

Clinton Street side
(second tent from the corner)

Drinks: $2 & $2.50
Bags of Fruit: $2

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Holidays!

It's the 4th of July! Independence Day! Freedom!

(So we took a break.)

Tune in next week tho, delicious goodies on the horizon.

(Hint: rhymes with "Paco.")

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab