Tag Archives: Bronx

The finest mofongo in New York City

would be hard to identify, there is so much fine mofongo in New York. But I have a hunch it might be prepared in the unassuming kitchen of 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, on 188 Street, just off of Grand Concourse in the Bronx. 

I worked around the corner for six months last year protecting trees, meeting some incredible people along the way.

Anthony Bourdain agreed with me, chowing down here in Parts Unknown, and his signed glossy adorns one wall of the joint, where patrons customarily ignore it and go on with their ordering and chewing.

The specialty is Puerto Rican/Latin cuisine. The crunchy pork chicharrons Dominicano are out of this world, a nice challenge to your Lipitor. It’s a boomerang of a bone, cleaver-chopped and served in bite-size wedges of crispy skin, meat and fat.

The place has other distinctions. It is as far as I have seen the only restaurant in town with a dedicated Lotto booth on the premises. A busy one, too. Made a former New Yorker happy by taking her here to dinner.

You can fill your stomach here every day of the year, from 9 am to 11 pm. It has been in business for 30 years, and even has a Facebook page. Whether you go for breakfast or dinner it is jammed, a line for takeout snaking through the door. The counter people efficiently juggle phone orders and packing up meals.

I tend to like any handwritten sign, so the menu board at 188 Cuchifritos is a delight.

Customers cut across a wide swathe of the population.

Usually there is a fairly high proportion of street people wandering in and hoping for a handout, alongside the paying customers. The common denominator here is a craving for sustenance.

The mofongo al pilon – a plantain dish derived from Spanish, Taino and West African cuisines–is stuffed with pork cracklings and served with a tomato-and-garlic infused gravy. The cook mashes starchy platanos in a classic wooden mortar and pestle and it comes to the table as a dome that you explode with your fork. One foodie reviewer described the taste with the buzz-word umami, and I think that as pretentious as that is, it’s not far off.

While waiting for the mofongo to emerge from the kitchen you might study the cartoon tiles on the wall. I have translated some of them, albeit clumsily.

Married man, spoiled donkey.

Two children and a mother are three devils for the father.

The guests are happy but that’s when they leave.

Okay. I never claimed to study Spanish in school, and anyway my mouth is watering too much to make good sense of the jokes. There is also some fine artwork on display.

Home-made hot sauce readily available and in an awesome recycled container.

The frituras, fried snacks displayed in the window, include one I love but don’t know the name of.

I just tell the wise waitress “the football shaped one,” indicating the oblate spheroid with hand gestures, and she knows what I mean.

I have now done research and found that it is more correctly alcapurria, a yucca fritter stuffed with picadillo, the classic Latin American blend of beef, tomatoes, and olives. I’ll try to remember that for next time.

It is possible to order pig ears, tongue, or stomach, though I haven’t done so. Yet.

I can’t decide which I like better, the counter or the five or so tiny tables. The service is always superb no matter where you sit. If you order like we do you and sit at the counter, though, you can barely fit all the plates in front of you. Yes, you can even get a salad to cut the fat if you insist. Plenty of rice and beans to take home, though of course you’ll have to eat without the cartoons for entertainment.

“I don’t know any place porkier,” was Bourdain’s summation. I would just add: when you are next in the Bronx, get lucky and go.

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Trees are more trouble than they’re worth

to some people, but others take painstaking care to preserve them.

Meet Jimmy, one of my favorite individuals at work.

His job is exclusively to build and repair tree guards on the Grand Concourse construction site. He is, he told me, officially a carpenter by trade, as far as the union is concerned. That’s an honorable and well-paid profession. But we’re lucky to have him doing what he does. He squares up the enclosures and hammers the boards together, often standing back to scrutinize them before he starts to correctly gauge the tenor of the job.

We’re chatting.

You must get tired of this, I say, referring to the orange snow fencing, a bale of which he carries around with him much of the day. It’s constantly getting ripped from the frames and he is constantly fixing it.

No, he says. I used to be. But now I covered my house with it inside and out, that’s how much I like it.

He sees himself as a bit of a comic.

What I see is a skinny, herky jerky guy who dances down the Concourse like a leprechaun, cigarette in mouth, hammer in hand, tool belt clanking, working his magic to protect the trees from harm.

It’s good you do it, I say. Otherwise the crew would knock down the trees.

No, they wouldn’t, he contradicts. They know they’re living things. I tell them that that tree there was Jesus’ original crown of thorns.

He means the honey locust – the site has a forest of them. Tree workers hate them because they get pricked so bad.

No, says Jimmy. The guys appreciate the trees. They are sweethearts. Really.

Well, shut my mouth. Sometimes I think a particular machine operator takes some sadistic joy in breaking branches with his bucket.

Still, I know that one day these tree guards will come off and the honey locusts and American elms and London planes and amur maples will once again introduce themselves to the world, and the neighborhood will be the better for it. It takes work to preserve them, but it’s well worth it.

Jimmy is a lot of things, a philosopher, a comedian, even an arborist. I told him I appreciated what he does and he told me he appreciated me appreciating what he does.

And he may possibly an actor. A producer discovered him on the job and told him he wanted him for a bit part on screen.  Then he came back. He told Jimmy they decided they wanted him for a bigger role. He was just too good to be a cameo.

That would be great, he’d get his SAG card and hobnob with hot shots. But it would be a loss for the Grand Concourse to have him no longer nurturing the tree guards, butt in mouth, a hammer in his hand.

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You can’t unsee the graffiti in the Bronx

once you see it. And it is all around you.

Some surfaces would seem to be left alone. Church walls, for example. Or cars. But everything else is fair game, and especially popular are store gates, the kind that get opened in the morning and pulled down at night.

Every surface is game.

You’ll find mailboxes.

Dumpsters.

Houses.

Even lightpoles.

Self expression. It’s such a powerful human urge.

A lot of these look as if they were spraypainted by the same person, but I’m sure I’m missing the subtleties.

I happen to like the metallic images.

The runic ones.

Indulge me. When I looked on the Grand Concoure in about a four block radius, I found so many striking examples.

And my favorite, I guess.

Washington Square Arch in the West Village has chronic problems with graffiti. It was tagged one night amongst general mayhem, and by the next morning they had removed the anti-cop slogans, leaving “ghost graffiti” that would only be finally removed from the porous, delicate stone  at a later date. 

In the Bronx, nothing gets removed.

You start to see color everywhere, even where it’s ungraffitied.

Utility markouts are  really a kind of graffit. You’ll notice them on every sidewalk. Yellow means gas. Don’t dig too near or you might get blown up. Red, electric.

Some fundamental graffiti history. A while back there was a huge warehouse called 5 Pointz in Queens – it was constructed in 1892 as a factory that built water meters — that served as the canvas for dozens of graffiti artists as well has leasing studios to artists inside.

We visited, and something amazing was that after a certain viewing period one artist would cover over the work of another artist with his own work. Just wipe it away. That was the accepted method of showing as much good stuff as could be shown. Very democratic.

I was wearing a cast on my foot at the time and I asked the artist named King Bee if he would tag it.

Fast forward and of course something so impossibly cool could not last. The owner of the structure announced that he was razing 5 Pointz to put up a residential complex, and all the artists would have to leave. He had the walls whitewashed overnight. Even a plea from Banksy could not save the brilliant assortment of aerosol art. The developer got payback – a judge made him pay 6.7 million in damages to 21 artists.

The Royal “King Bee,” born Alfredo Bennett the guy who decorated my cast, grew up in this part of the Bronx and honed his aerosol chops here, in fact.  His way of “giving back” was to furnish extravagant murals at 17-50 Grand Concourse and other Bronx locations. His oeuvre, which includes madly stinging bees, is something to admire. I like it better than the paintings of some of the genteel artists venerated by collectors and museums. George Seurat, for example, or Rubens.

There is a difference between the iconic murals of George Floyd – found now in cities including Houston, Philadelphia, Portland and Los Angeles, Miami Chicago as well as Minneapolis, and so often defaced  by white nationalists – and the personal idiom of the streets.

But they both require paint and skill – perhaps some just need a taller ladder.

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Dollar coffee

is a bodega staple I’ve always thought is among the best things in the Bronx. Hot, strong, milky and cheap. It’s universal in the borough, along with the chopped cheese sandwich (also known as a chop cheese), a mess of ground beef, melted cheese, tomato, lettuce, a mystery sauce and some other things on a Kaiser roll, guaranteed to drip down your chin.

Within this little microburst of a neighborhood, just a few blocks of the Grand Concourse, I’m beginning to scratch the surface of its foodways.

There is the grocery I park my car next to–onions out front– which features floors cleaner than mine at home, a full butcher counter, a sandwich maker, iced coffee, a spic and span bathroom (with toilet paper!) and a tiny litter box, presumably for a tiny cat. And at the cash register the loveliest woman, whose brother owns the place.

Searching in another greengrocer for a bathroom (It’s in the basement! Headshaking no) I’m in a quandary. This place has a dozen varieties of tuber but no public bathroom.

An elderly gentleman wearing a kerchief directs me to Lulo, a restaurant across the street.

It is the official house of goats. A guy on the sidewalk yesterday told me I look like a horse. Could have been worse. Anyway, I don’t eat horses, and I don’t eat goats, I like their Satanic eyes too much. Lulo is also immaculate, all of its furniture covered with slick, easy to wipe down plastic.

Home to the dollar coffee, the Grand Concourse is also home to The Real Coffee Man.

And, shock, the dollar slice.

I thought that was obsolete. And I’ll give it a try one of these days, coffee on the side.

There is such careful attention given to selecting among the fruits and vegetables on the little produce stands on nearly every corner. The proprietess tenderly chooses the perfect tomatoes for a man on a bike.

Kennedy Chicken, Popeye’s and Dunkin may have a foothold here on the GC, but as long as chop cheese reigns, they will never push off the mom and pops.

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