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.
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.
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.
Eric and I arrived in Mexico City yesterday afternoon. In our first 24 hours in the city, we consumed tacos al pastor; de arrachera; de costillas con nopales…not to mention tostadas topped with a startling variety of sea creatures.
Please don’t treat this as some sort of “bizarre foods” gross-out post. The “head” in tacos de cabeza doesn’t stare back at you or anything like that. It’s nothing more than shreds of meat painstakingly removed from the head of a roasted animal, then steamed to melting tenderness.
Nothing more, but also nothing less; while I normally go for strong flavors and crunch and char, I’ve come to appreciate the unadorned, unctuous meatiness of cabeza. It’s my go-to order from the Tacos El Bronco truck stationed on Fifth Av between 37th and 38th streets, across from the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in Sunset Park. Taking advantage of a thaw in the weather and (mostly) clear sidewalks, that’s where I went for lunch today.
It was long past embarrassing – approaching shameful – to have lived in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade without once crossing the threshold of Defonte’s Sandwich Shop. I have no excuse: not ignorance (Defonte’s was a favorite of the old Outer Boroughs Chowhound board, which I used to read avidly); not convenience (it’s a bit out of the way, but I run and bike close by often enough); not lack of hunger (obviously).
Burros – along with their diminutive (at least in name) cousins, burritos – have always struck me as problematic. They’re invariably overstuffed, often grotesquely so. When they’re not dry, they’re drowning in goopy sauce and (horrors) cheese. Worst of all is the dreaded burrito fold, confronting the eater with double or triple or quadruple layers of gummy flour tortilla.
But Eric and I are in Tucson this week, and Tucson is the land of flour tortillas, where chimichangas were born and burros reign supreme. As the saying goes: when in Rome, do as the Sonorenses do.
It started with a quest to see a bird; it ended with a search for a different bird, and a takeout container of tacos on the F train.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. When I left the apartment early this morning, headed for the R train, I had visions of glory. That Sandhill Crane that’s been reported several times at the Dyker Beach Golf Course, always vanishing before others could lay eyes on it? I would find it. Maybe I’d even manage to document it with my handy iPhone camera.
Ha! You know who gets up even earlier than birders (or at least this birder)? Golfers, that’s who. By the time I had surfaced at 86th St and jogged west to the golf course, multiple foursomes were already well into their games. The idea that a freakishly large, long-legged bird would still be out there grazing in the short grass began to seem a bit farfetched.
I’ve been to the small Sunset Park bakery called La Flor de Izucar before; I’ve even blogged about it. But when I heard they were serving birria, and that their birria was good, I had to pay them a return visit. In the interest of research, I stopped by a few weeks ago and confirmed that their birria quesadillas were both excellent and enormous. “I should come here with Eric,” I thought at the time. Today, I did.
We mounted CitiBikes and then pedaled our way south, dodging delivery trucks and double-parked cars on Fifth Avenue, sucking in lungfuls of smoke-fouled air (western wildfires continue to be felt here on the east coast), and generally risking dehydration and heat exhaustion under a relentless sun. Once my mind is set on birria, I will not be denied.
Fifty Favorite Places #22 In 1928, when Nicolo Mazzola opened a bakery at the corner of Henry and Union streets in what was then called South Brooklyn, the neighborhood was well into its transition from Irish to Italian. Both groups were driven by hunger – the potato famine, the almost feudal poverty of the Mezzogiorno – and drawn by the lure of jobs along Brooklyn’s developing waterfront. Today, the area has been re-dubbed Carroll Gardens, and it’s pretty thoroughly gentrified. Judging by what one sees and hears on the street, intimidatingly stylish and attractive young families from France are now the biggest immigrant group. But traces of older waves remain. There are the fig trees brought as seedlings from Sicily or Campania, replanted in Brooklyn gardens, wrapped and coddled through half a century of harsh winters, and still bearing fruit today. There are old school barber shops and funeral homes with unmistakably Italian names. There’s the Cittadini Molesi social club, the last of its kind. There’s the church where Al Capone was married. There are front yards like the one pictured below.
And there’s Mazzola Bakery – still in its original location and still family-owned, though since 1980 that family has not been the Mazzolas but the Caravellos.