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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bickles Caribbean

Here's the scene, good reader: my buddy told me about his uncle's restaurant Bickles, so I rolled down to the Brownsville/East Flatbush border to check it out. Two things he didn't tell me? This joint is 1) tiny, and 2) extremely popular, especially on Friday nights. Think “size of standard Brooklyn Chinese takeout spot,” then divide by two. And add a long line winding outside. (And ignore that small table; it's decorative.) Still, why fret? Jamaican food was in our future, and The Porkchop Express was very hungry.
The block is hot: lining up for Bickles on a Friday night

One word before we get to the food. The name “Bickle” has nothing to do with Scorcese. It just means “food” in Patois. So when you think Bickles, think food. Not Taxi Driver. Now that we've cleared that up, what about the food? We started with old friend Jerk Chicken, a Jamaican standard traditionally sold roadside from large charcoal drums. Bickle's cooks theirs in the oven, but they still deliver the heat: spicy, moist, aromatic. One of their secrets is a fresh marinade imported from Jamaica, which gives it an extra dose of authenticity. Flavorful authenticity.Oxtail Stew is one of Bickles' most popular dishes, and we were lucky to get some before it sold out for the day. It was meatier than I had expected, nice thick slabs slowly stewed in a savory brown sauce with beans, pimento (allspice), thyme, and other good stuff. The result is a long-simmered, glistening sauce; very little water is added, so the flavors are thick and deep. If the word “gravy” turns you on, then this is your dish. (Note: the poultry version shares the name – Stew Chicken – but tastes quite different. It's a sharp, tangy cousin to savory, mellow oxtail.)Bickles takes a lot of pride in their seafood, and it shows. Our favorite dish was probably the Escovitch Crocker, a whole whitefish quickly fried then set to marinate in a spicy vinegar sauce stocked with onions, thyme, pimento, peppers and carrots. The flavors are clean, assertive and hot, chock full of blazing Jamaican Scotch Bonnets. You can eat it at room temperature but we loved it fresh from the fry-pan, when the fish releases that spicy vinegar aroma that sends both eyes and mouths watering.
Escovitch sauce (l); and Red Snapper, frying...
...and good to go

If you want to join the seafood party but prefer a milder style, dip into the Brown Stew Snapper. (Again, this is a different sauce from the Stew Oxtail, Chicken, etc.) Bickles simmers some of their Escovitch vinegar with veggies and spices to bring it “to gravy.” After the flavors have melded and the sauce has thickened, they add the main event: a seasoned, quick-fried Red Snapper, which finishes cooking in the stew.
Wadsworth Reynolds, attempting to explain the mysteries of seamoss

One last thing to note: do not miss the unassuming fridge stocked with homemade beverages. Start with Bickle's Sorrel, a deep purple sweet-and-tart elixir made from boiled hibiscus flowers. But if you want to get sexified later, consider the Sea Moss instead. This is a unique beverage (to say the least): something like the root of a tree washed ashore, then boiled into a gummy liquid. A very gummy liquid. As Wads put it, “it doesn't have the best taste, but... it's useful.” So if you're in the market for an all-natural alternative to Vitamin V, look no further.
There you have it, good reader: an unassuming local spot chock-full of island flavor. Bickles may look like one of any number of Church Avenue spots, but appearances deceive. Step inside and you'll discover half a dozen workers, prepping and cooking in a very tight kitchen for a steady stream of regulars. It's quite a production, and quite a tightly-run ship.
Michael Owens, talking bickle

The captain, as it were, is one Michael Owens of Mandeville, Jamaica, a professional chef for about 15 years who honed his cooking skills on the East Flatbush Caribbean circuit. His final stint came at Susie Wong's local Jamaican spot. When she decided to sell in 1998, Michael was ready to buy. He re-opened under the name Bickles, and began serving classic Jamaican eats he hoped folks would appreciate.They did, and do. Michael's formula of quality, freshness, and reasonable prices has established Bickles as an important part of the neighborhood landscape. A very large Caribbean neighborhood, I might add. Which is one reason why they make so few overtures to eat-in customers. As with most spots in these parts, Bickles cater to locals who buy meals on the go, or take food back for their families. In that way, the East Flatbush scene reminds me of the Polish spots in Greenpoint: it caters to a relatively self-contained community, offering traditional food to hardworking people who want to go home and kick back with a taste of the old Island.

Not that you shouldn't make the jaunt if you don't live nearby. Just take the lead of one young Jamaican woman whom I spoke with in line. She rode the 3 train from the boogie down Bronx just to bring home tins of Bickles' Snapper, rice and peas, Oxtail, and Curry Goat. And why did she make that trek? The same reason we do every week, good reader: all in the name of delicious.



Bickles Caribbean & American Restaurant
9407 Church Avenue, East Flatbush, Brooklyn
Open 7 Days
(718) 342-1543

Fish dishes run $12. The meat dishes (Jerk Chicken, Oxtail and Curry Goat) cost around $8. Both are served with rice and peas, fried plantains, and salad.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Pork Diva, pt. 2

Nothing sings “Pork Diva” like the double dip: chopsicle, with salami chaser.

(Amy Winehouse has arrived.)

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Red Hook'd: Ochoa Guatemalan

Juan Ochoa, talking food

This is it, good reader: the last of our Red Hook Soccer Field reports... so let's cut to the chase.

Not only are Juan and Esperanza Ochoa some of the nicest folks in these parts, they've also been here the longest, serving up hearty Guatemalan comidas tipicas in Red Hook since 1984. If nothing else, they have earned the title of genuine Food Tent O.G.'s. So gather round, pull up a seat, and let's see what Red Hook's most venerable has to offer.If you're in the mood for seafood, start with their Guatemalan-style shrimp ceviche ($6). It's packed with tomato and fresh cilantro, and reminded us a little of the Mexican coctel de camarones. Ponder that coincidence with a few rolled chicken taquitos ($1.25), or dig in to a big plate of grilled marinated chicken, rice, and thick black beans ($8). No matter what you settle on, try one of their homemade salsas. Nothing on the table brings thermonuclear heat, so don't be shy: just pick, squirt, and act like you know.
Speaking of which, here's one thing you really should know: many of Ochoa's most popular (and interesting) dishes are out of sight. Literally. I had no idea they served so much, because so much of what they serve is under the radar... like (ironically) the gigantic “Guatemalan style” tamale. This seriously creamy ode to cornmeal comes stuffed with a chunk of salty, saucy chicken (bones and all). It's a meal unto itself, and a real deal at $3. Just make sure you get it with a spoonful of the terrific spicy pickled cabbage.
If you're still feeling adventurous, look for an inconspicuous white “kidney” cooler... this is where the Ochoas keep their chiles rellenos. We ordered one “spicy,” a seasoned mix of chopped pork, beef, carrots, onions and egg, stuffed (against all odds) into a hot pepper. The rellenos arrive lightly fried in a spongy batter, topped with tomato sauce and served on two corn tortillas ($3). Keep those tortillas handy. You'll need them to make a taco and/or wipe your face. Then take a breather; you've earned it, big eater! Then consider a full-fledged nap. Then see if you can figure out which tent is more laid back: this one or the Carrello family's. All of which begs the question: is Guatemala really this mellow?
Esperanza Ochoa, fanning chicken on the grill

Either way, who cares... so long as the Ochoas stay in Brooklyn. After all, there is something immensely relaxing (if not reassuring) about the way they do business: the interactions, the regulars gathered at tables, the warm smiles and soft music, the nigh-stubborn lack of anything even vaguely resembling a menu. No matter how quickly things have changed in Red Hook Juan and Esperanza continue to operate on their own terms, as they have for 22 years and counting.

So on that note, let me leave you with one final suggestion, good reader. If you haven't already, walk a few extra meters past the huaraches and the pupusas to the Ochoa tent, and sample what these real O.G.s have to offer: Red Hook as it was, is, and hopefully will continue to be.



Ochoa Guatemalan
Bay Street side
(eighth tent from the corner)

Tamales & Chiles Rellenos: $3.00
Big combo food plates: $8.00
Taquitos: $1.25

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Pork Diva

Some think Beyoncé tries too hard but I don't mind; she still has moves, and also she loves pork skins.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Red Hook'd: Vaquero Elotes

Brooklyn has its share of landmarks – the Bridge, Prospect Park, Coney Island, chez Slab – but for The Porkchop Express, one spot towers above the rest. I'm talking, of course, about a veritable Bermuda Triangle of flavor known as the Red Hook Soccer Fields. Many a proverbial sailor has journeyed to these parts in April, only to wander out in late October with spicy pork on their clothes, crema on their face, and a fat dopey grin. Which stands to reason. In these parts, your only real option is to go with the flow, watch some soccer, and eat as much as you possibly can.But where to begin? Consider the Vaquero Fruit Stand. The first tent you see when entering the fields, we like to consider Vaquero's a sort of flavor ambassador, a welcoming committee to all who enter the Red Hook food scene.And welcome they do, mostly with fruity offerings: chopped watermelon, canteloupe, pineapple, and coconut; sliced chili mango and cool cucumbers. They also sell aguas frescas, those light, refreshing drinks you'll need to wash down all the food you're going to eat. Try whetting your palate with a bright green lime, pale brown tamarindo, or deep purple jamaica (made from hibiscus flowers).
Now all this is well and good, but Vaquero's real flagship dish is the mighty elote, a grilled ear of corn, splashed with a little lemon juice, slathered with mayonnaise, rolled in grated cheese, and sprinkled with red chili powder.As snacks go, this one is hard to resist. Take last weekend, for example. I was fresh off a huarache/pupusa/ceviche/etc. breakfast/lunch/dinner/etc., when I smelled the corn grilling. What happened next was beyond the pale of science or logic. With Ms. Slab rolling her eyes, I stumbled up to the Vaquero's tent, sucked in my gut, and ordered an elote. I can't really explain it but I just had to have one. Maybe it's that Bermuda Triangle effect, good reader; delicious often hypnotizes.
Long story short, I'm a big fan of those nicely charred golden ears. Sweet and smoky. Salty and creamy. Smooth and spicy. Attractive enough for the living room yet delicate enough for the kitchen. And (bonus), it's served on a stick. Corn-on-a-stick is fun to eat.

After debating why Ms. Vaquero makes such tasty elotes, we decided the secret ingredient was “love.” Love and cheese. Lots of cheese. You see, this is a very generous elote. No skimping whatsoever. The queso blanco is freshly ground, so it tastes especially moist and salty and creamy. There is enough mayo to hold everything in place. And chili powder delivers ye olde knockout punch.
The mastermind behind this modern marvel of corn engineering is one Maria Vaquero (above). She first came to the states from Puebla, Mexico in 1962. After decades working in other peoples' homes, she decided to change careers and open something a little closer to heart. So 6 years back, she started a fruit stand at the Red Hook Ballfields.

To hear Maria describe it, fruit stands characterize Mexican hospitality and community. They offer a place for folks to congregate, hang out, sip cold lemonade, eat chili mango, chew on elotes, and watch the day go by. So it goes at Maria's tent as well. From the family atmosphere (both her sister Yolanda and niece Shaina keep things moving), to the smell of grilled corn and freshly cut fruit, everything about Vaquero Elotes says kick back and eat me.

When asked if she wanted to relay anything else, Maria just blushed a little and smiled: “come enjoy some fruit.” And elotes. And genuine Pueblan hospitality, of course.



Vaquero Fruit & Elotes
Bay Street side
(first tent at the corner)

Elotes & Chopped Fruit: $2.00

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Red Hook'd: Directions

Alright Magellan, you want some Red Hook Goodness but don't know your way around Bucktown? Never fear, The Porkchop Express is here... with tips.

Via CAR:
Use the magic of the internet and figure it out. 158 Bay St., Brooklyn, NY 11231 is the address. I've never notice parking to be a problem.

Click here for Google Maps link.

Click here for onNYTurf map (with nearby subway lines).

Via SUBWAY:
F/G to 9th Street. Get off, then either catch the B77 Bus or walk a few blocks towards the water. Cross under the bridge, then make a left at Clinton. You'll see/smell it in a few.

Via BUS:
B75 down Court Street (from Downtown Brooklyn). Get off at around 9th Street, make a right, cross under the BQE, then make a left on Clinton and walk a few blocks. You can also hop on the B77. It runs down 9th Street, and should drop you right at the fields.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Red Hook'd 2007

It's that time of year again, good reader! Food and fun at the Red Hook Soccer Fields... so we headed down to check things out firsthand.

Some observations, in no particular order:
  • Ms. Hernadez' Spicy Pork Huarache is even better than we remembered.
  • Mr. Sosa is now making elotes.
  • Sidewalk construction has pushed the stands inside, giving things a slightly more cozy feel.
  • An informal survey of this weekend's patrons shows that word is clearly spreading.
  • We'll be finishing our full reports on the remaining stands. First up: the Vaquero Fruits, later this evening.
  • We're still waiting to see how the tents pan out this year, and will adjust our map accordingly.
  • Food Vendors Commitee Executive Director Cesar Fuentes is still making things happen, and potentially big moves are on the horizon. To wit, even the Mayor's office is taking notice.
All-in-all though, business as usual... and that's a good thing.

What did you think, good reader? Let us know!

And if you missed it, these pics are for you...
Let the games begin...The man who makes it all happen: Cesar Fuentes, enjoying some Colombian food
It doesn't get much better than a Hernandez huarache
S.O.S.A.: now serving grilled, slathered corn
Lainez Pupusas, back in actionCarmen Rojas, working the ceviche magic
Man with dog, and huarache
Three for the road
Red Hook = Food + Family + Football

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