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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Don't Feed the Monkey

Why is Mr. Monkey so sad? Maybe because we don't have a creamy, banana-flavored update!

No matter, a breather was in order... so take this time to catch up, and grip it on that other level. Red Hook, sure, but maybe the Earl of Sandwich or Competitive Eating. Or beef, pork, Polish kielbasa... even radishes. Go nuts.

And if you're still feeling perky, leave a comment or drop us a note on an area or foodstuff you want to receive that fresh-never-stale (have it with a glass of ale) patent-pending Porkchop Express Treatment©®™.

Regardless, back next week on a whole new tangent.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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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Red Hook'd: The Map

Who's your favorite explorer, champ? Magellan? Ponce de Leon? J. Slab? Either way, The Porkchop Express has you covered with a little map we whipped up to aid you in your journeys. Print one up and hit the road... to delicious, of course!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Adiós (almost)

The Porkchop Express was ready move on, but we hit a snag. So tune in next week as we really wrap things up at the Red Hook Soccer Fields (with a user-friendly map to boot).

Some final food reports–terrific ceviche and pupusas–below.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Red Hook'd: Rojas Ecuadorian

Do you have a car with a bumper sticker, friend? Maybe your child is an “honor student” or you encourage fellow motorists to “honk if they're horny”? Carmen and Victor Rojas aren’t so crass. Instead, they rest a single sign on the window of their van, one three-syllable word, a humble hint at the greatness that lies within: ceviches.

To the uninitiated, ceviche is a dish of fresh raw citrus-marinated fish. The Rojas get their seafood the night before and lightly “cook” it overnight (off-heat, in an acidic broth). The next morning, they add crisp slices of red onion, cilantro, and a little tomato. And every Saturday and Sunday, at the Red Hook Soccer fields, they offer folks like you and me three varieties: camaron (shrimp), pescado (fish), and mixto (shrimp, fish, squid and octopus).

C. H. Baker's 1951 South American Gentleman's Companion urges readers to avoid mixed ceviche, but The Porkchop Express was ready to break some rules. So we sat down at the counter, munched on a few homemade corn nuts (giant toasted salted kernals), and eagerly awaited our bounty. What arrives is a round sealed plastic container, about a pound, of seafood swimming in a milky white broth.
ceviche mixto

It's a generous, welcoming assortment. Lime, onion, and fresh herbs greet the nose, while plump rosy shrimp urge the eyes to get the brain to tell the hand to have some already. One of the nice things is the utter lack of fishiness: the product is fresh in every sense of the word. Blushing shrimps, certainly, but also toothsome chunks of picudo (blue marlin), tender slices and long silky strips of squid, and wonderfully rich, chewy cubes of purple octopus. I experimented with a little fresh lime (not necessary) and extra salt (ditto), but really enjoyed dashes of their hotsauce. The thick puree of green chilis and scallions added a little zing to the schwing, without detracting from the delicate flavor of the seafood. And no matter how we tampered, one thing was clear: this was a winner.
Victor and Carmen Rojas, cooking up the W's

Still, skeptical reader, this may sound well and good on the bright white sands of some cool clean beach. But maybe you’re thinking: why on earth should I eat semi-raw fish at a Soccer Field? In Red Hook? From a mini-van?!?

A few years back, on a roadside in Thailand, I was faced with a similar decision and ordered crab and papaya. What arrived was a giant bowl of raw blue crabs tossed with shredded green papaya, citrus juice, and torture-hot chili peppers. It might have been tasty but I can’t recall all that clearly. Far more vivid are the uncontrollable sweats and mild hallucinations that follow eating sadistically spicy raw crustaceans off a Southeast Asian highway.

Ms. Slab (often the voice of reason) seemed to think that I had fried whatever few braincells were still hiding under my skull, and gruffly refused to go near it. Her position was categorical: she felt it daft to eat semi-raw seafood sold out of cars or at street stands.

Now Ms. S is a woman of true grit and moral fiber, but she knows when to make exceptions. And this Red Hook ceviche was clearly time for her to dig in. So rather than listen to another anti-street-stand-sushi lecture, I soon found myself pulling out every trick in my book to make sure that she didn't eat more than her fair share: fork kung fu (the 37th chamber), dousing shrimp in hotsauce (an easy deterrance), techniques I used on my dog (look over there!).

Rambling story short, if ever there comes a time to try fish from a van this is it. And unlike those evil evil crabs, eating the Rojas' seafood didn't leave me feeling like someone slipped me an LSD-roofie. Far from it, this was one of the finest ceviches I have ever had the pleasure of eating, under a roof or no. So great, in fact, that we decided to try everything else on their modest menu.
We continued down the path to delicious with a bag of plantain chips. Carmen peels green plantains and slices them with a mandoline into a pot of bubbling oil; fresh indeed. The knowledgeable young lady who served us, Kimberly, suggested we throw a few crisp, lightly salted slices into our ceviche for contrasting texture. Around that time an empanada arrived: hot, savory dough, just-stuffed with queso blanco and well-fried. Yes, good reader, this was turning into quite a feast. Ms. Slab uncomprehensibly bowed out at this point, but I stayed behind. After all, there were two more items to try.
plantain chips and cheese empanada

Next on the radar? A dish with three names: encebollado, a/k/a sopa de tuna, a/k/a Ecuadorian tuna soup. They strain their rich, slow-simmering tomato-based broth (infused with herbs, garlic, onions, scallions and long green Italian peppers), spike it with lightly cooked chunks of fresh tuna, pour it over softly boiled yucca, and top with thinly sliced red onion. In a word, delicious. Really something, even better than it sounds. And invigorating to boot. Carmen's soup strikes that delicate balance between light and rich, and I showed little restraint while eating. (It was pretty clear why so many folks were ordering this on a sunny Summer's day.)
Carmen plays it coy with a bowl of Encebollado

Still, good reader, there is a point at which we all hit a wall. The Slab was there, a gallon past full and forced to retreat, yet silently vowing to return the next day. After all, I still hadn't tried their Ecuadorian take on seafood fried rice, arroz con mariscos. So Sunday afternoon, I pulled a Jedi Mind Trick on Ms. Slab and dragged her back to the Rojas tent to finish what we had started: rounding out the menu.
Arroz con Mariscos: Celia works the wok

Celia Alcantara, Kimberly's mom and a Rojas family friend, prepares the arroz by frying garlic, red onions and scallions in hot oil with a splash of soy sauce, then adding gobs of shrimp, squid, octopus and clams, fresh peas, carrots and herbs, before tossing in the rice. The end result is like everything else here: fresh and flavorful. Try adding some of their hot sauce and a twist of fresh lime to this generous plate of South American stir-fry.
Down for delicious: Deyssi and Roberto Mesa, #1 fans

Our whirlwind culinary tour left The Porkchop Express with plenty of questions. For example, Victor is Chilean yet almost everything we ate hailed from his wife's native Ecuador. The Rojas seemed shy, but luckily a few enthusiastic patrons were on hand to help break everything down. Deyssi Mesa, their self-described “best customer,” was kind enough to wax eloquent about her native Ecuador, its seafood, and her favorite ceviche in the city.

As Deyssi tells it, great Ecuadorian is hard to find in the five boroughs. Which is why she makes a point of stopping by the stands each week. Simply put, only the Rojas prepare delicious, authentic food “in the real Ecuadorian style.” This is partly because they are such sticklers for detail. Take the ceviche: it's pure Ecuadorian both in technique (this is not the drier, spicier, far more prevalent Peruvian version) and ingredients (the Rojas only use shrimp caught from their native waters, 200 miles of clean mineral-rich sea that stretches to the Galapagos Islands). They use the freshest seafood, veggies and herbs, and never skimp on costs. Everything (literally from soup to nuts) is homemade, and well made at that. Which is why Deyssi not only returns, but passionately spreads the word.

Truth be told, her enthusiasm was extremely infectious. After talking I was considering hopping a plane to Ecuador, to eat more seafood on sparkling beaches, to watch humpback whales breach and water-raft thru the Amazon. Instead, I sat back and ruminated on the delicacy of the flavors, the freshness of the ingredients. And when all was said and done, Deyssi and her husband Roberto's loyalty was pretty understandable. At only 5 years in America and 3 years at the food tents, the Rojas are the newest additions to the Red Hook Soccer Field scene. They are also, hands down, one of the best. So do yourself a favor: welcome them to Brooklyn, try some of their delicacies, and see what the fuss is all about. It's a win-win situation.

Rojas Ecuadorian
Bay Street side
(last tent on the block)

Seafood runs between $6.00–$7.00
Empanadas: $1.50–$2.00

To purchase Ceviches & Encebollados after the Red Hook Ball Field Season ends, call (718) 832-6745.

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Red Hook'd: Lainez Salvadoran

A vegetarian buddy of mine (yup!) introduced me to the pupusa about 5 years back. We drove two hours in the pouring rain to a spot in Queens where the streets and the avenues have the same numbers, and then kept going... to a little hole in the wall. From the outside, it looked like one of those bars you see in 80's horror flics, where patronage is split evenly between cannibal maniacs and nubile young campers. Was I that wayward, unwitting teen? Was my pal a psycho killer hungering for human flesh? Vegetarians typically don't eat people, so I decided to chance it and enter.
Don't get it twisted: Papoose (Brooklyn emcee), a papoose (kiddie backpack), and pupusas (good eats)

The nondescript restaurant was actually a Salvadoran hotspot. Inside, a packed house of folks relaxing after work enjoying the bustle: a constant rotation of fresh pupusa production, cabbage shredding, and Corona drinking. I dove right in and ordered a few, still not entirely clear what I was about to eat.

As I soon learned, a pupusa is a Salvadoran staple, a griddled-cooked cake of masa (soft moistened cornmeal) stuffed with cheese and either beans or shredded pork (or both). This was awhile back, but I still remember this simple and satisfying meal, how great pupusas went with the traditional sides of crisp shredded spicy cabbage and frosty beers. But it was unrealistic to expect I might relive this experience anytime soon; it was just too long and confusing a trek.

To this day I haven't been back to that pupuseria, but I harbor fond memories for their specialty, and have since tried to relive the experience at various nearer-by non-Salvadoran establishments. Always with so-so results: they never really hit the same spot.

Enter the Red Hook Soccer Fields, once again to the rescue.
Master P: Roberto Lainez flipping pupusas

If you ever have a hankering, or want to partake in an authentic pupusa experience, pay Roberto Lainez and family a visit. Their tent (the only Salvadoran on the premises, as they proudly note) serves some mighty fine eats and conversation alike. I recently spent an afternoon shooting the breeze with Roberto's daughter Janet on food, family, Salvadorans, and the Red Hook Scene.
a winning smile: Janet Lainez on pupusa duty

Janet comes from a pretty talented family. She was a psych major at CCNY, and her brother is a photographer from Pratt. But they made their most well-known mark with food. She and her folks came to America back in 1977, when there weren't many Salvadorans in Brooklyn. (For that matter, there still aren't; the community is concentrated on Long Island.) So when they set up tent at the Red Hook Fields some 15 years ago, they were the only act in town. Her mom, aunt and cousin actually started the pupusa stand. After her mom took ill and the other relatives returned to El Salvador, Janet and Roberto grabbed the reigns.
Roberto's daughter-in-law Vilma surveys the goods

Back then, the Red Hook food tents had quite a different vibe. For one, there was drinking. A lot of drinking. And you get the sense that, after folks had tipped back one too many, Janet received her fair share of hassles. These were also more competitive times, marked by the occasional tent controversy amongst vendors themselves. It was still far more satisfying than owning a restuarant (which Roberto also did), so the family kept at it, hassles be damned.
pupusa with pickled cabbage

One of the Red Hook O.G.s, this is an experienced tent. The star of the Lainez show is, of course, the pupusa. As Janet confides, some folks buy up to 10 or 15 at a time, to eat throughout the week. They serve traditional Salvadoran combinations (she wasn't too keen on making an all-bean pie for a vegan customer), but she recommends the revuelta with pork, cheese and beans... and I have to agree. This was one seriously tasty pupusa. Paired with some of their homemade hot sauce and terrific pickled cabbage, it hit that elusive spot.

One reason may be simple: in addition to their traditional approach, their pupusas are utterly homemade: soft sweet masa; wonderfully flavorful beans (slow-simmered for hours, ground, seasoned and simmered again); pork (mashed fried chunks simmered with a secret spice combo); and whole-milk mozzarella cheese (chosen for its low-salt content and meltability).

Come to think of it, the Lainez fam makes everything on their menu from scratch: grilled steak and fried carnitas, rice, beans, plantains, tamales, corn and Salvadoran tortillas (unstuffed masa cakes). It's a long week that begins on Mondays: ordering and seasoning the meat, frying and grinding, grating cabbage, shopping for yucca, corn and plantains, doing final prep work, packing up the goods, and heading out to Red Hook for the weekend rush.
secrets of Salvadoran horchata revealed: Janet holding a morro nut

Before calling it a day, Janet insisted I try another house specialty: a pair of Salvadoran beverages. First up was a really unusual horchata. Unlike the Mexican variation, El Salvador eschews rice and cinnamon for a refreshing elixir of black sesame seeds, corn, and something called morro (the large gourd-shaped seed in the picture above). I also enjoyed the marañon, juice made of raw cashew fruit. This Salvadoran specialty vaguely reminded me of guanabana: pale yellow, sweet and tart, slightly creamy, and a great way to cap of a fine afternoon.

The family's hard work has clearly paid off. Janet noted that both Time Out and Channel 41 have interviewed her this year; they heard she served the best pupusas in Brooklyn. During one visit, I also met a saucier from Jean-Georges' flagship Manhattan restaurant, who took a particular shine to their masa. But she doesn't seem to sweat the attention, so long as people sample some of her country's finest. Game recognize game!

Lainez Salvadoran
Bay Street side
(sixth tent from the corner)

Giant plates of goodness: $9.00
Pupusas: $1.50
Horchata or Marañon: $2.00

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tha Block is Hot

This weather blows, and not in a good way. I hope you're keeping cool no matter where you are, and finding time for delicious.

We'll be wrapping up the Red Hook Soccer Fieldstravaganza next week... with some final reports, and a map (in progress). Guatemalan and Dominican below, to tide you over.

Say it loud, Porkchop and proud.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Red Hook'd: Carrello Guatemalan

You know that old Snoop song, good reader? "Laaaaaaaid back...." It kept running thru my head at Carrello Guatemalan, the most mellow of the Red Hook Soccer Field food tents. Which is saying alot, as this whole area is supremely low-key, a zen-like intersection of Dee and Licious where the only remotely stressful experience is figuring out what to order and where to sit.
Maria Carrello and family, and friends

Maria, the Carrello Tent matriach, brings special herbs and spices from her native Guatemala to make tasty treats like the flauta a/k/a taquito a/k/a fried chicken taco. We hung around and watched her prep these puppies. It was an exercise in the unconcious, Central American Kung Fu, movements repeated thousands of times with the same two hands: grab (tortilla), stuff (with chicken), roll (the taco), poke (with toothpick), drop (in oil), pull (and eat). We kicked it by the curb until she removed a golden batch fresh from the oil, then dug in.
Guatemalan fried chicken taco
getting busy: customer on the move, with taquito in hand

Maria eyed us as we sampled the goods, and nodded approvingly at our enthusiastic reaction. Smothered with a tomato-cilantro sauce, and topped with grated queso anejo, this won a unanimous round of approval.chili relleno taco

Did I mention these folks are chill? So chill, that despite multiple visits I'm still not entirely sure what exactly they offer. But on our last visit, we noticed something tasty: a stack of chili rellenos, stuffed, batter-fried, and crowned with sliced onions and cilantro. The Carrellos serve this on two tortillas, with some of that same red sauce. The hearty stuffing is a mix of corn, onion and carrot (amongst other things). You can try it vegetarian-style, or sample the meat-friendly version. And if you're still peckish, grab one of their big red spicy pork tamales for desert.

There is something very infectious about this spot. It's not for the impatient, or the rushy-rushed, or the super-uptight feeling fussy-fussed. But if you have some time to take it easy, follow the lead of the regulars. There is always a group–Guatemalans and some Salvadorans, mostly–sitting at a broad table under the tent, listening to music drifting softly from a stereo in the back of the Carrello van, and enjoying flautas and tamales while letting the day roll by. And that, my friend, is some mild style. Kick back and salute!

Carrello Guatemalan
Bay Street side
(sixth tent from the corner)

Most of these treats fall in the $2.00 range

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Red Hook'd: Soler Dominican

The first thing that drew me to the Soler tent at the Red Hook Soccer Fields was the menu. For one, it was actually a menu (only the second I have seen in these parts). And it advertised good things: papusas and tamales. So I ordered a papusa revuelta (with pork and cheese), and dug in.
por favor...un papusa

This looked good, an enticing, greasy, spicy snack, and our curiosity was piqued. Papusas–grilled cornmeal cakes stuffed with savory fillings (in this case, spicy ground pork and melted whole-milk mozzarella, served with pickled cabbage) are Salvadoran, while tamales are Mexican. And several other dishes looked straight Carribean. What form of flavor-miscegenation was this? To get the scoop, The Porkchop Express shot the breeze with the man behind the stand.Rafael Soler actually hails from the Dominican Republic. He set up shop about 5 years back, hoping to offer Latin food–not just Dominican or Salvadoran or Mexican, but the whole damn diaspora. A quick glance around reveals the fruits of his vision: there are a ton of eats. Steak on the grill, sweet plantains bubbling in a big drum of oil, chicken and cassava frying, trays of white rice and black beans, jars of pickled onions and sliced jalepenos... not to mention the papusas and tamales.

It's no mean feat to bring a NYC "comida hispana"-style restaurant to the Red Hook tents, but Rafael has succeeded. With a good deal of hard work, I should add. He lives in Long Island, and starts his weekend days at 5 in the morning, packing up the van and heading out to Brooklyn.
man with a plan: Rafael Soler works the grill

Talking to the man, you really wouldn't know he pulls 16-hour shifts. Rafael is exceptionally friendly, attentive to both his food and his customers. Take one time, about a month back, when he had just started making pina colada. His wife thought it was a waste of time, but he was pleased with the results. And he took a few minutes to tell the story, building his case for this classic DR recipe before pouring a cup. The enthusiasm was infectious: this was a light, sweet tonic, and tasted great on a balmy Brooklyn day.If there is a speciality here, it has to be the meat. Rafael spends most of his time tossing slabs of marinated chuck on a charcoal grate, flipping and slicing with a mini-machete. We asked for ours medium, and had fun pulling nice smoky, beefy chunks from the bone. Served with delicious sweet plantains, nicely fried cassava, soupy black beans and white rice, this was one satisfying meal.

One of many satisfying meals, I should add. With something for everyone, and good cheer to boot, this bustling tent offers a slice of genuine Dominican hospitality right in Red Hook.

Soler Dominican
Bay Street side
(third tent from the corner)

Plates overflowing with food: $9.00
Papusas: $1.50

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Red Hook'd: Carcamo Honduran

On the patience-scale, Ms. Slab falls somewhere between a sloth and a jitterbug; it all depends on the situation. So here was the situation: I was trying to drag her on another search for delicious at the Red Hook Soccer Fields, and considered it a minor victory when she agreed to return–yet again–to a tent that had caught my eye weeks ago.

The tent itself is actually pretty dull, an ordinary weather-worn off-white cap that shelters many of the food stalls in these parts. In all honesty, what had really stoked my spider-sense was a lonely pot of beans left bubbling in the corner of a large black griddle. Those beans spoke to me in frijole. They said... eat me. And who am I to argue with a pot of beans?
Too sexy for my pot

It's rare that I get so jazzed over beans (especially in mixed company) but these looked mighty fine: slow-cooked on the laziest of simmers, creamy and glistening, the sheen of what I hoped was lard, in a pot that had no doubt seen many flavorful days. I had a slow and steady courtship going with those beans, empathetic reader, and I was ready to consummate.

So I stepped up and ordered a gargantuan plate of Honduran goodness: beans and white rice, of course, but also fried plantains and fried yucca, tangy cole slaw and pico de gallo, marinated onions and jalepenos... and a giant slab of steak.

“Restaurant quality.”

Thus spoke Ms. Slab (the former-skeptic) after taking several bites from our massive plate. And I think what she meant was, this is not your standard street fare. (But this is not your standard street, I thought; doesn't she read The Porkchop Express? Doesn't she know about Clinton & Bay at the Soccer Fields? I'll let it slide...)

In all seriousness, this food grabbed me from go. At first, it was the beef: a 1/4 inch slice of salty grilled chuck. I appreciated the cut (way better than sirloin) and distinctive marinade (Filippo Berio olive oil, mustard, a little adobo). Furthermore, it went perfectly with the yucca, fluffy starchy squares fried to a honey-gold exterior. (I enjoyed tearing the meat with my fingers, but noticed another option: on request, they cut each steak into bite-sized chunks and cook it to a nice charred crust on the griddle. Note to self: next time.)

While the smorgasboard was initially intimidating, I quickly saw its logic: balance in pairs. Try the meat with yucca or some white rice. Try the rice with those wonderful, creamy beans (every bit as good as they look). Top either with one of the salads, a sharp slaw reminescent of the papusa side, a mild pico de gallo, or the spicy onions and jalepenos. Or treat yourself to a bite of expertly fried sweet plantain, or a nice salty chunk of fried pork.
Suany Carcamo puts the finishing touches on a few chunks of chuck

We made surprisingly quick work of the plate... so quick, in fact, that the food was almost gone but fast. We had that edgy feeling (who gets the last bite? of what?) and so I decided to defer, and talk to the chef.

22 years ago, Suany Carcamo left her native Honduras for Park Slope, Brooklyn. She started cooking at the Red Hook Soccer Fields 6 years later, and, some 10 years after that opened the Honduras Maya restaurant in the Slope (587 Fifth Avenue). Suany serves many of the same dishes at both spots, but she seems to harbor a genuine fondness for the tent under which her culinary career began. Both she and her friend Suyapa can cook, and this venue lets them shine.
It Takes Two: Suyapa Cruz (L) shares the grill

Both women are extremely attentive to detail, and it shows in the end product: the impressively large pot of oil (which yields light, evenly fried yucca and plaintains); the rice (topped with slices of green pepper and sprigs of what looked like oregano while cooking); the beans (soooo sloooow); the chuck steak (with that unique marinade); and the veggies (fresh and crisp enough to hold their own).
Dough, yo

While trying Suany's patience with my painfully nonsensical line of “Spanglish” questioning, I noticed a bowl of what looked like balls of raw Chinese soup bun dough. So I bided some time (“que hora es banana?”) until one was put to use. The small balls turned out to be fresh tortillas de arina. Suany and Suyapa pat them down, throw 'em on the grill, then top and fold with crema, queso anejo, and some of those drool-inducing refried beans.
Ballad of the baleada

The result, curious reader? A wonderful snack that goes by the name of baleada. And yikes, is it tasty. The flour tortilla is soft, chewey, and ever so slightly charred, a fine foil to the salty cheese, sour cream, and rich beans. At $1.50, this qualifies as one of the best flavor-bargains at the Soccer Fields. It was far simpler than the other dishes, but just as satisfying; our first baleada was certainly not our last.

The long and short of it? This was a fine introduction to Honduran cuisine, and one of our favorites at the Soccer Fields. Check it out, and exercise some patience: there is plenty for everyone.

Carcamo Honduran
Bay Street side
(fifth tent from the corner)

Gimongous plates of good food: $9.00
Baleadas: $1.50

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