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.
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.
At the beginning of the last century, Sunset Park was home to radical Finnish immigrants who set about constructing a cooperative alternative to capitalism. It’s nice to see that spirit endure today – in a different language, of course, the Finns having mostly moved on.
A few more snapshots from around the neighborhood follow.
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.
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.
50 Favorite Places #23 Industry City: it’s complicated. Is this still one of my favorite places, or is it a nightmare of hyper-gentrification? If I write about it here, am I encouraging its transformation into the kind of “destination” I despise? Should I move on to something less complicated, like parks and bakeries?
But Brooklyn is all about complications, and so is this blog. In the end I decided to include it for what it has to say about the past, the present, and possible – contested – futures.
Besides, Industry City is already part of every post I write: this blog’s banner features a detail of one of its buildings, circa 2010 or so. Even before I moved here for good, the complex and its surrounding blocks were one of my favorite destinations for easy runs. I love old industrial architecture – it’s the Detroiter in me, I suppose – and the Sunset Park waterfront is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in factories and warehouses. It’s lined with hulking, yet oddly graceful, multi-story factory lofts, interspersed with lower-rise warehouses and knit together by abandoned railroad tracks. Some buildings are, if not abandoned outright, underused. Others hum with activity, from the production of customized t-shirts to building supplies to beer. Smaller businesses sell live poultry, rebuild cars, and machine the components that go in those rebuilt cars. Truck traffic bumps along the uneven, block-paved streets.
Against this backdrop, the Industry City complex rises between 32nd and 37th streets like something conjured by a wizard or a movie director . . . or a developer. Oh, it’s real enough: the buildings date from the 1890s, when Irving T. Bush was pioneering the integration of transportation, manufacturing and distribution (you can read more about Bush and his legacy here). But today, they stand apart from the rest of the waterfront neighborhood. They’re in it, but not of it.
50 Favorite Places #21 This is about Sunset Park – the actual park, not the neighborhood of the same name (though I love the neighborhood as well). In general, I rank parks according to the quantity, variety and novelty of the birds I’ve seen or aspire to see within their boundaries. Sunset Park is an exception. Not so with Sunset Park. While you can see birds there – Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Crows of both the American and Fish persuasions, as well as the ubiquitous pigeons, House Sparrows and starlings, other common backyard birds, and the occasional weary migrant – it’s no one’s idea of a birding hot spot. The fact that I love it so much despite its failure to contribute a single species to my life list attests to its other charms.
Okay, so it’s not a “place,” exactly. It’s many places, scattered across the borough. Perhaps it’s better described as a style, a statement, even a culture. But the creative things that Brooklynites do with their tiny front yards deserve a shout out. For instance, I’m not sure why the folks in the Park Slope building depicted at the top of this post turned their yard into an amusement park, but I’m glad they did. If I had the ability to embed video, you’d see those sparkly rainbow pinwheels spinning wildly and it would be guaranteed to make you smile.
In fact, many tiny Brooklyn yards seem calculated to make you smile, like the one below, in the Gowanus section. (“They must be Italian!” was the reaction of an Italian-Canadian friend.)
That glowing review in the New York Times at the beginning of the year could well have gone to their heads – but it didn’t. Ali and Hakim are as friendly and unassuming as ever, their café’s vibe as relaxed, their food and drinks as good (or possibly better). The only difference I’ve noticed on recent visits is that it’s a bit busier. You may have to share a table at peak hours, but so what? Consider that part of its neighborly charm. Continue reading →
Suppose, just hypothetically, that this blog’s account of Bush Terminal Piers Park (Favorite Place #3) piqued your interest. You go there, you look around, and as so often happens, you find yourself craving a bite to eat. The immediate area is unpromising.
What to do?
You could, of course, head to Industry City, where a few of Bush Terminal’s industrial lofts have been tastefully renovated to attract tech firms as tenants. But why not go somewhere that’s truly of the neighborhood, not a developer’s fever dream or a curated-to-death food hall disconnected from the surrounding streets? Poke around a bit, and you’ll find some gems – including several that merit “50 Favorite” status.