New York is a street food town, from the ubiquitous hot dog cart to the plethora of vendors who cater to Midtown lunchers. New Yorkers have been known to wax romantic about their preferred vendors--the Dosa Man of Washington Square Park and the Arepa Lady of Jackson Heights are particular favorites. Those in the know have learned that some of the most authentic and delicious food is not always made in a restaurant kitchen but on street corners and in carts.
Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park has been called the Holy Grail of Mexican food and this is no overstatement--it is a mecca for Mexican street food. The vendors here sell dishes not commonly served in restaurants (or outside of Mexico, for that matter). There are few other places in the city where you can experience this calibre of authenticity. There are vendors on virtually every block selling all manners of wonderful regional snacks, sweets and drinks. Here are some of my favorites.
The jovial frutas vendor on the corner of 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue is set up under colorful umbrellas with giant knives and cutting boards and piles of beautiful fruit, making fruit salads to order. Mango, cucumber, jicama, melon, coconut, papaya, pineapple--you pick your fruits and then you are asked "Chile, salt, limon?" This combination of salt, fresh squeezed lime juice and chile powder on perfectly ripe fruit is the ultimate summer snack. He also sells aguas frescas from big glass jars called vitroleros. These are refreshing drinks made from fresh fruit, flowers, seeds and grains. The most common aguas frescas are horchata, creamy rice milk flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, tamarindo made from tangy tamarind, and a sweet hibiscus flavored drink called jamaica. Also on the menu here are elotes, roasted ears of corn placed on wooden skewers then coated with mayonnaise and grated cotija cheese, then finished with chile powder and a squeeze of lime. Absolutely amazing!
The spanish word for snack is antojito, derived from antojo meaning craving. Antojitos Mexicanos is a food cart run by three women located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 49th Street. Their menu of excellent antojitos includes sopes, gorditas, quesadillas, huaraches and papusas. On a recent visit I sampled a variety of their antojitos. A papusa was filled with cheese and chicharrones (spiced, deep fried pork rind) and topped with a pickled cabbage slaw, queso blanco, crema and salsa verde. The quesadilla con tinga is a corn tortilla filled with spicy braised chicken and cheese. Huarache means sandal and describes the shape of the hand formed corn tortilla that can be topped with chorizo, carne asada or canitas then sprinkled with cilantro, chopped onions and either salsa verde or rojo.
Pozole and Pork
One of the more unusual vendors on Fifth Avenue is a steam table set up between 52nd and 53rd Streets. Aluminum trays are filled with steaming links of blood sausage called morcilla, tamales and fritada, an intriguing mix of pozole (hominy) and chunks of pork shoulder fried to crispy perfection. The tamales here come in two varieties, sweet and savory. The sweet tamale is filled with creamy corn meal and kernels and wrapped in a corn husk and the savory version is wrapped in a banana leaf and a stuffed with slow cooked chicken, peas and carrots.
Another great spot for antojitos is Taco Mix, a lean-to building on 46th Street and 5th Avenue. Not surprisingly, tacos are the specialty here. The usual beef and chicken are available, but the real draw are the more authentic and exotic varieties like oreja (pig's ear), lengua (cow's tongue), suadero (thin cuts of beef from around the breast bone) and cecina (salted, air dried beef). Place your order, and your meat of choice is placed upon two fresh corn tortillas and topped with chopped cilantro and onions, salsa and served with thinly sliced radishes and lime. A lengua taco from Taco Mix is a truly transcendent gustatory experience. The meltingly tender tongue paired with smoky salsa rojo is an incredible combination.
Weekends are the best time to explore Fifth Avenue. Vendors line the sidewalks selling everything from snacks to sneakers. The prices here are incredibly reasonable--most items are under $4, and a taco costs around $1.25 (a welcome sight in this economy!). Spend an hour or two strolling up and down Fifth Avenue assembling a picnic lunch then make your way over to Sunset Park located between 41st and 44th Streets on Fifth Avenue. The park has plenty of picnic spots and unparalleled views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. There are even a few helado (ice cream) vendors in the park if you are in the mood for dessert! It will be one memorable meal.