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.
Plaza Tonatiuh occupies a small corner of the park, spreading out from the entrance at Sixth Avenue and 44th Street. Walk or ride along Fifth Avenue, on the park’s western edge, and you’d have no inkling anything was going on. Ditto for 41st Street to the north. But through pure happenstance, Eric and I decided to walk off our mega-lunch at Lucky Vegetarian by docking our Citibikes and cutting through the park on foot from its southeast corner. That route put us in the middle of – what? All around us were tents and folding tables, craft displays, racks of clothing, coolers galore, sizzling meat, land-lettered signs, jug after jug of agua fresca in every flavor imaginable.
First question: what’s going on here? Second questions: could we possibly fit in a second lunch?
One of the vendors answered the first question, explaining that this was a weekly event, every Sunday, until it got too cold. The answer to the second question was, unfortunately, no (though I did gulp down an agua fresca de limon with chia seeds).
A week later, I was back – this time with an empty stomach. The quesadillas looked great, a few places promised Poblano-style chalupas and memelas, and, hmmm, it’d been a long time since I’d had a pupusa. But with this blog and its slightly silly “Taco Tuesday” series in mind, I focused on tacos . . . more specifically, on hefty tacos placeros. Hard-boiled eggs and chiles rellenos were the two ubiquitous fillings, but having already had what I consider the platonic ideal of both (egg at the late, lamented Puebla de los Angeles across from Green-Wood Cemetery and chile relleno at Santa Ana in Bushwick), I focused on the various stewy options. Chicken tinga, maybe? Or, wait, what is this? Pork ribs with verdolagas? Yes, please!
As with the other stews (and, for that matter, the chiles rellenos), the ribs weren’t prepared on-site, but rather in someone’s home kitchen, then packed in a cooler to be reheated to order. That gave the vendor time to make my tortilla in one of the wooden presses that were a feature of all of the taco/quesadilla stands, and then throw it on the grill top. Thick, soft, and with a gorgeously uneven char, the tortilla crumbled a bit under the heft of the rice and strew, but that is not a complaint. It’s why God invented silverware.
On this past Sunday’s follow-up visit, I branched out to quesadillas. In addition to what I think of as the “usual” (including huitlacoche and flor de calabaza), most of the quesadilla vendors also offered chicharron con calabaza, a combination that was new to me. Diced so finely that it was hard to distinction between the meat and the squash, the filling melted into the cheese and the whole shebang was then covered with lettuce and powdered queso añejo – delicious!
Eating my way through the stands in Plaza Tonatiuh is my new Sunday project for as long as the weather allows. For anyone interested in joining me there, be aware that the posted hours (11am to 8pm) aren’t universally observed. At noon, or even 12:30, some vendors will still be unloading coolers and jugs from their vehicles and hauling them up to their stands. Come later for the best selection, but not so late that the food runs out.
(One last note: despite banding together to create something vibrant, fun and community-building, vendors and patrons at Plaza Tonatiuh continue to face intermittent harassment from Parks Enforcement Patrol. You can read about some of the vendors’ challenges here. If only PEP brought a tenth of that zeal to getting privileged white people to leash their dogs in Prospect Park!)