Marathon Sunday, 2022

The first Sunday in November, when tens of thousands of runners course through Brooklyn, is one of my favorite days of the year. Yes, it starts on Staten Island and eventually detours through Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Manhattan again – but the best part of the New York City Marathon is right here in Brooklyn.

That’s an entirely objective fact.

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Street Art Sunday: Saint John, NB

Saint John – the “Saint” in the New Brunswick city is spelled out, and the “John” is singular and non-possessive – was to be a quick first stop on our driving tour of Atlantic Canada. Instead, it became the only stop. With the remnants of Hurricane Fiona slamming into Nova Scotia the day we’d hoped to arrive, we headed back stateside and watched the news with horror.

But our one day in Saint John was delightful. As we stood on the corner across from our hotel, debating whether to head to the City Market, the Jewish Museum, or simply wander the Uptown district, not one, but two kind people offered to give us directions.

We’re not lost, we explained, just indecisive.

I was struck by the number of Syrian restaurants in Saint John – not vaguely “Mediterranean” or generically “Middle Eastern,” but specifically Syrian – and by the number of women wearing hijab. That inspired me to do a little googling, which confirmed that this small city has welcomed more Syrian refugees per capita than almost anywhere else in Canada. (And far more, needless to say, than anywhere in the U.S.)

Less consequential and arguably less admirable, but also noticeable: Saint John punches far above its weight in the use of Edison bulbs, which seemed to be everywhere. Their warm, retro glow suits the Port City’s vaguely steampunk esthetic.

And, of course, there’s the city’s street art. A small sampling follows.

Sending heartfelt sympathy to all the Canadians affected by this weekend’s devastating storm.

Taco Tuesday: Sundays in the park

For all the time I spend in Sunset Park – buying groceries, doing bakery runs, grabbing lunch – the existence of a full-blown Mexican tianguis in the neighborhood’s eponymous park escaped me until three weeks ago.

Plaza Tonatiuh has been running strong since 2021, at least in the more temperate months of the year. It began as an effort to fight back against the harassment of individual vendors, while providing a pandemic-ravaged community with economic opportunities and, not least, joy.

The food is delicious, too.

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Eating 8th Avenue: Lucky Vegetarian

My friend Andy, a long-time reader of this blog, knows how to express criticism in the kindest and most constructive way. For example:

“Don’t take this wrong, but all the bird stuff is a little boring. I wish you’d write more about food.”

When I do write about food, he provides positive re-enforcement. And when I go a long time between food posts – like this past month, say – what does he do? Why, he organizes a food outing.

That’s how Eric and I ended up with Andy, his wife Priscilla, and a few other friends in the basement of a Buddhist temple on Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue this past Sunday. The “Lucky Vegetarian” is part business – you enter, you sit down, you eat and you pay, like any other restaurant – but also part of a longstanding religious practice and cultural tradition. Priscilla, whose relationship to Buddhism sounds similar to Eric’s relationship to Judaism, spoke of going to eat vegetarian temple food on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month. It’s good luck, supposedly, and more to the point – it just makes you feel good.

Open the (extensive) menu, and you may be surprised to see a wide range of meat dishes, from hot and spicy whole fish to Peking-style spare ribs and Kung Pao chicken. They are, of course, not really meat. This is understood by the restaurant’s usual patrons – hence, no need to describe them as “mock” – but a bit jarring should you just stumble in from the street. (Though I doubt its bare-bones sign will inspire many casual passersby to descend the steep stairs that lead to the subterranean dining room.)

I should confess up front that I am not a fan of mock meats, so my heart sank a little when I saw the extent to which they dominated the menu. I’ve always thought vegetarian food should have the courage of its convictions. I scoured the menu for “real” vegetarian options, and settled on the clay pot eggplant, which I more-or-less-insisted we order.

Other than that, Andy and Priscilla did most of the ordering. We had to get the lettuce wraps, and the roast pork (“it really does taste like pork,” Andy promised). And how about crispy noodles? Sara requested a mushroom dish, so mushrooms with three cup sauce it was. And mahogany fried rice, at Priscilla’s suggestion (“will it taste like wood?” Melissa wanted to know; “it must be the color, right?” I opined, wrongly). Oh, and dumplings, of course.

It was a lot of food. The dumplings didn’t pretend to be anything other than delicious vegetarian dumplings. The lettuce wraps, with a finely-chopped fake meat filling, were tasty, as advertised. The fake roast pork did in fact both look and taste remarkably like pork. The crispy noodles were great. The mushrooms included tender slices that were easy to identify as mushrooms, along with chewier, fried nuggets that were maybe mushrooms? maybe more of that good, good fake meat? and indubitably delicious. But the sleeper hit of the spread was the mahogany fried rice with egg. It did not taste like wood, nor was it mahogany brown. It was in fact pale green from the young leaves of Chinese Mahogany (Toona sinensis), which gave it a hauntingly complex flavor, mixing herbs with onions. Priscilla buys prepared Toona paste to flavor soups and stew, and now maybe I will, too.

The least interesting dish? Why, my clay pot eggplant, of course.

We did not eat in true Buddhist monk fashion, which as Matthew, a former Buddhist monk, explained, involves shoveling down one’s food as quickly as possible, in silence – and then rinsing off the dishes with warm water or tea and drinking the rinsing liquid so that nothing goes to waste. We did shovel it down, but in a convivially greedy fashion, savoring every bit. And while we left our plates clean, they were not quite tea-rinsed clean.

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Lucky Vegetarian, 5101 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Street Art Sunday: Motor City edition

We were in Detroit last weekend for a family wedding, and I went for a run and took some pictures. Here’s a sampling.

Full disclosure: the picture at the top of this post was actually taken last summer, but it was too cool not to include here. In fact, I’d say it’s a contender for “most Detroit street art” ever – though so is this piece, also from last year. At first I was unhappy that I was unable to capture the art without all the cars parked in front of it, and then it dawned on me. It’s Detroit, the cars are the point.

Taco Tuesday: Bushwick

My first Bushwick taqueria

I knew, in a general way, that there were a lot of taquerias in Bushwick, and that you could find freshly-made tortillas there, as well. But living so close to Sunset Park has spoiled me for choices, and Bushwick is kind of out of my way, and I wasn’t sure which streets had the taquerias and which the annoyingly young, beautiful and hip people . . . and so I procrastinated.

Until last week.

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Street Art Sunday: A peek at Bushwick

This, I’ve decided, is the summer that I’m going to get to know Bushwick a little better. Its reputation for coolness has scared me away in the past, along with the convoluted subway connections between here and there. On the other hand, it has fantastic street art and abundant Mexican and Ecuadorian food choices. It also turns out to be easy to bike to, with Citibike stations aplenty.

What this means, among other things, is that you can expect more food posts in the near future. In the meantime, feast your eyes on these works, illuminating the side of a wholesale meat market on Stockholm Street at Myrtle Avenue.

Back to Ba Xuyen

Ba Xuyen, a modest storefront on Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue, was a favorite of the old Outer Boroughs crowd at Chowhound (the plug has been mercifully pulled on the sad remnants of that site), which became a personal favorite when I moved to Brooklyn. Katie shared my enthusiasm – to the extent that in the waning days of her college semester in Spain, she had just one request. When we picked her up at JFK, could we please bring a grilled pork banh mi and a honeydew milk tea from Ba Xuyen?

We obliged, of course.

And yet, for various reasons that didn’t amount to much individually, but slowly added up, several years had gone by since my last visit. There was the time I was craving a banh mi, but for some reason couldn’t find the storefront (it’s nothing if not unobtrusive) and settled for sesame pancakes from the dumpling place instead. Then the pandemic grounded me. When my Sunset Park visits resumed, I generally headed for the southern end of the 8th Avenue strip, drawn by the markets there, and only worked my way as far north as Yun Nan Flavour Garden or Wong Wong Noodle Soup.

In other words, I was overdue for the banh mi that has forever ruined all other banh mi’s for me.

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Street Art Sunday: The Audubon Mural Project

“Endangered Harlem” by Gaia

Last weekend, the National Audubon Society teamed up with the group Runstreet to host a running tour of the Audubon Murals in Upper Manhattan. Let’s see . . . an event that combines running, birds and street art? Sign me up!

And so, only slightly challenged by weekend train schedules, I headed across the East River and up, up, uptown to the Harlem Public at Broadway and W. 149th. A small crowd of participants had already gathered – easily recognized, first, by the fact that they were milling around outside a closed bar at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and second, by their mix of running and bird-themed apparel. As we arrived, a preternaturally cheerful organizer checked us off from her list of registrants. New arrivals continued to trickle in, muttering about “trains” (the all-purpose NYC excuse for tardiness), until someone decided that it was time to get started.

First, though, some background on the Audubon Mural Project, echoing the introduction provided to us by Avi Gitler, a local gallery owner and project coordinator. The ambitious goal is to depict all of the more than 300 North American birds threatened with extinction because of climate change. Eight years into the effort, the count has reached 138, spread across 100 murals, mostly in Upper Manhattan – where John James Audubon was once a major landowner, and where he is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church.

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Street Art Sunday (now with even more sidewalk parking!)

On Memorial Day, I mixed up my running routine by heading out of Prospect Park to the north, in a general Prospect Heights/Crown Heights direction. With spring migration winding down, I figured it was high time to start reacquainting myself with the less birdy sections of my borough (though as we know, birds are everywhere). And so I meandered through Grand Army Plaza, around the glassy Richard Meier building with the prestigious “1” address, then north on Underhill and east on Park Place. Eventually I hit the complicated intersection where Park Place and Washington and Grand avenues converge to define a small triangle. The triangle is surrounded by a construction fence decorated by multiple artists.

Naturally, I paused to snap photos of my favorite panels:

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