They're slim: Each of these three, variously filled with beans, potatoes, or pork (shown), could have been slipped into a letter-sized envelope. They're not made to order: Except for spoonfuls of green hot sauce, applied by me, all of the preparation was completed long before I arrived. They're also cheap ($1 each), unique in New York (to the best of my knowledge), and delicious.
Tacos de canasta, also known as tacos al vapor and tacos sudados, are steamed ("al vapor") and traditionally held in a basket ("canasta"), where their collective warmth gives them a sweaty ("sudado") texture. Ideally, keeping close company with several hundred of their fellows also helps them develop an enticing juices-soaked-into-the-tortillas texture, as evidenced here.
At Viva La Comida!, where these tacos were pointed out by festival organizer Jeff Orlick, the basket simply sat on a checked-cloth tabletop. If you visit the vendor on his regular street corner, Jeff noted, look for the basket on the back of a bicycle.
Tacos de canasta vendor Junction Blvd. at Roosevelt Ave., Corona, Queens Early evenings
This Dominican shaved ice has several names, but you'll really don't need to use them. Walk up to a street cart displaying the trademark block of ice (it may be swaddled in a towel) and variously hued bottles of syrup, and you'll manage just fine by asking simply for a flavor and size. I've never had an issue when ordering una cocofresa grande (a large cup flavored with both coconut and strawberry syrups) or un tamarindo pequeno. If you speak no Spanish at all, pantomime and the vendor's knowledge of English, however slender, will see you through.
That said, I was curious about frio frio ("cold cold"), a shaved-ice name I'd seen in print but never heard spoken aloud. On line at El Bohio's streetside window, the fellow ahead of me had never heard it, either. Like me, he knew the name raspado, which sometimes also denotes the handheld scraper-scooper that the vendor "rasps" across the block of ice. The fellow did add that piragua ("pyramid"), the popular term in Puerto Rico, was also heard in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo.
At the head of the line, as he assembled my small orange with condensed milk ($1.50), the Dominican server offered three names: raspado, frio frio, and guayado. That last seems to be very recent slang for "scratched" in the sense of "distressed," as one might want in denim jeans if hipness and not durability is paramount. It all depends on what town you come from, the server added, in all-embracing fashion. My own roots are in suburban Connecticut; how about "Creamsicle in a cup"?
El Bohio Grocery 98-17 Roosevelt Ave. (at 39th Ave. and 99th St.), Corona, Queens 347-527-2538
This North Indian snack shop is the new retail arm of a well-established wholesale business called Delicious Food. Of some 200 items prepared in repertory, perhaps a couple of dozen are served each day. Many are available in dollar-menu increments, like alu tikki ($2 total), potato cutlets stippled with bits of carrot and daikon.
That there are sweets goes without saying; I sampled an excellent semolina-based halwa still hot and crumbly from the kitchen. Thirst quenchers includes lime water, lassi, chai, and jal jeera — "cumin water" that's reputed to wake up the taste buds.
For spectators, the food court offered little more than grilled corn, "bar" pizza, gyros, and buns from a Chinatown bakery that seemed to pale in the sunlight. Competitors fared better: They readied up and cooled down under corporate tents that offered not only shady seating but also ample (and perhaps catered) carbs.
Dragon-boat crews were outfitted with corporate-branded jerseys, too. The green jersey jibed with my sole purchase at the event, one of Bruce Cost's fine ginger ales, with pomegranate and hibiscus (12 fl. oz., $2). For South Asian chow, on the other hand, one would have had to look elsewhere.
Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival Meadow Lake North, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens www.HKDBF-NY.org (The 2013 festival was held on August 10 and 11)
This cuerno ("horn," 75 cents) is just one pastry from an unusually abundant and well-kept display of panes dulces. At many Mexican bakeries, these "sweet breads" sometimes wear festive colors (pink, especially) that belie their flavors. Despite the two-tone appearance, this horseshoe pastry was essentially a cinnamon cake-style doughnut, albeit a good one.
In common with many Mexican food shops, Tulcingo offers barbacoa on weekends; shown is a sample of this salty, fatty, long-cooked goat procured by a dining buddy (who kindly also procured extra forks).
The counterman that day was sipping his soda from a plastic bag, with a straw, a fashion he'd acquired on a visit to Mexico, where "they don't want to give you the bottle." Another time, he also suggested, he'd set me up, too — no deposit, no return.
When national colors appear in the public realm, not just at homes and businesses but also in shared spaces or on government-owned fixtures, they signal a sense of community. In these two photos the green, white, and red of Italy appear in Morris Park, on a pair of bollards that protect an electronic Muni Meter, and in Corona, on an old and probably defunct FDNY call box. Judging by the relative freshness of the paint and the objects painted, in which neighborhood would you expect today to find a greater variety of Italian-American chow?
Il Tricolore Bollards protecting a Muni Meter, Morris Park Ave., Morris Park, Bronx FDNY call box (probably defunct), near William F. Moore Park, Corona, Queens
From my photo archives: By swapping in the appropriate logo and team uniform, this poster could have easily been adapted to any major-league city. Sadly, though, it suits the Mets particularly well. If you read the dot of the "i" in "Budweiser" as the baseball, this looks like one more mistimed jump at the fence.
Also shown: Unpaved, undrained Willets Point roadways after heavy rain. In the final photo, the bullpen gate of Citi Field is dead ahead.
Budweiser and baseball Sign (no longer extant) at the Mets-Willets Point station of the 7 train, Corona, Queens
In the deep-frying and in the presentation — plopped in an oil-absorbent brown paper bag and showered with granulated sugar — these Ecuadorian empanadas (two for $1) are not unlike the most basic savory variety of Italian zeppole. I also observed, however, that as each empanada was rolled out by hand, a little low-moisture mozzarella was added before it was crimped closed. The empanadas are just a little bit richer for it.
On a weekend afternoon, several carts held court in this cloister at the eastern edge of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. All served empanadas, though La Esquina de Rosita's garnered the most attention, and all were spit-roasting cuy, to little notice from the locals.
La Esquina de Rosita Between the Van Wyck Expressway and Industry Pond, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens Almost certainly weekends only
This Colombian raspado (lemon, $2) differs from its its Dominican counterpart in a couple of ways. Delicias Calenas keeps crushed ice at the ready inside the restaurant, then crushes it further in a snow-cone machine at the cart just outside. The raspado man, who otherwise would be scraping away by hand from a solid block, saves elbow grease, though the end product is still on the granular side.
The distinction that makes a greater difference is the addition of condensed milk, striped on the inside of the cup and layered on as the ice is loaded. As with a cholado (also on offer here), you're provided with both a straw and a spoon, so although the condensed milk tends to settle, you can get to the sweet stuff as quickly as you please.
On occasion, Puerto Rican piraguas and Dominican raspados do offer the option of condensed milk. Invariably, that I've seen, the milk is simply poured or dribbled on top, often straight from the can.
Delicias Calenas 95-41 Roosevelt Ave. (at Warren St.), Jackson Heights, Queens 718-507-0414
There were six of us, and only four tortas. A fair match, considering that the sandwich squad was captained by the Torta Pumas ($14, named, like its fellows, for a Mexican soccer club.) Heavy with ham, cheese, a deep-fried chicken cutlet, sausage (also shown during prep), an eggy fry-up, and generous applications of the usual fixings, the Pumas can take on two eaters of average appetite. As it happened, the six of us were in fine form this day, and ultimately, the tortas went down.
Tortas Neza Truck on Roosevelt Ave. near 111th St., Corona, Queens, afternoons only 347-666-1517 Also at 53-26 Roosevelt Ave. (53rd-54th Sts.), Woodside 718-205-2121
Versions prepared from concentrate haven't thrilled me in the past, and with the bar set low, this ready-to-drink La Feria brand horchata (or-Chot-uh; 16 fl. oz., $1) wasn't terribly disappointing. There's no comparison, of course, with horchata made from scratch, though there's also no doubt that my tastebuds can be swayed by the setting.
Fanesca, an Ecuadorian specialty served during the week before Easter, traditionally includes 12 varieties of beans and grains (for the 12 apostles) as well as salt fish, sliced egg, and some sort of tuber. This is the tuber.