Eating Like El Vagabond

Tortas and Whiskey together in Sunnyside

"The food's good!"

This endorsement is shouted directly into a cecina taco. The shouter is from Mexico, like the torta itself and many of the regular customers at this Queens taco truck. But locals of all kinds line up or at least come by to say hello when the restaurant-on-wheels arrives every evening around 7:30. The business has a name, which is posted nowhere but appears on the business card—if you happen to ask for one. It's called "El Vagabond." The card, brightly illustrated in a style somewhere between a cartoon and graffiti, shows a big round sun wearing a straw hat and a waxed mustache, smiling down on a young man in an undershirt and jeans. The man is carrying a satchel on a wooden stick over his shoulder. He has come from a dry-looking place with a big, green cactus, and he is heading toward New York's skyline.

Whenever I go to Sunnyside, Queens, to visit a friend, I invariably show up on his doorstep with something messy and spicy, begging for water and requiring paper towels immediately. Most recently it was a torta from El Vagabond, where I had trouble narrowing down my options and asked Rodriguez, the man inside, what was his favorite. Perhaps sensing my general inability to commit, he suggested "mixtos," a happy combination of many of the animals on a farm, all between two slightly stale halves of a roll. Walking the six blocks to my friend's house, I was unable to suppress occasional noises of delight. One bite was juicy, salty steak, and the next was bursting with pork chop fat! In between there was cool guacamole thin enough to act as a sauce and re-hydrate the bread. There was the pop of cilantro, the crunch of onions, the crumbly gristle of chorizo, and a jolt from pickled jalapeno. Rodriguez offers a choice of hot sauce or the peppers, accommodating the customer's taste without any hint of judgment. But when pressed for his personal opinion, a grin crosses his face. "The hot sauce is good, but the jalapeno is sour and hot together. That's really good." This block, between 40th and 41st on Queens Boulevard, right below the 7 train, is, like so many streets in Queens, made up of a random collection of small businesses that seems like the most natural combination in the world. On the corner is a drugstore with a big display of small electronics, as well as discount perfumes (Fendi, Celine Dion), which are in the window above Huggies and Luvs. Next to that is Natural Tofu Restaurant, a Korean gem with a tiny menu pairing fresh, soft tofu with kimchee, pork, intestines, or seafood, in big portions. The cooks work in an open kitchen in the front of the space, where passersby can stop to watch through a big window from the sidewalk. This was a smart business plan—watching them turn squid around on an open flame and toss kimchee in a wok is like seeing short order cooks flip pancakes and scramble eggs. You want to eat everything.

Next to the tofu restaurant is a supermarket that might seem unremarkable for the first four aisles, but the deli counter reveals specialties from Eastern Europe, like smoked sausages and farmer's cheese. Next is a Colombian bakery, "Trigo Y Cafe," with flan and butterfly cookies on display and a big selection of plastic brides and grooms. In the middle of the block is Lowery's Wine Factory Outlet, a huge liquor store with bottles of Seagram's and Jameson in the window, with shiny synthetic fabric draped behind them. An Irish pub, The Courtyard, rounds out the block. Inside, sturdy looking men drink Guinness and watch four different games on seven different TVs. When they talk, it's in thick, soothing brogues, and the topic is often Ireland or Irishness. What better way to wash down a mixed torta?

 
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