When the Streets Are Paved With Snacks

Gorditas, mangoes, and corn in East Harlem

This time, I've practically swept myself off my very own feet. In celebration of the heat, I took a trip to East 116th street—and for once, it wasn't the tacos I was after. It was any street snack that had come out in the humidity. Some are meant to cool you down; others just to fill you up. And full as I was by the time I left, I had spent under $10 to sample just about everything between Lexington and Second Avenue.

Summer is many things: bathing suit season, baseball season, barbecue season. But in New York, it's also the time when practically everywhere you look, there are vendors selling everything from meat patties to stir-fry. Street food is around (and worth celebrating) all year, but it's the colorful hot-weather snacks that are most memorable.

Gordita, $2 Steps from the subway exit, I spotted a gaggle of little girls around what looked like a hot dog stand. At least, a hot dog stands umbrella was shading the operation. But in fact, these girls, who eat at their grandfathers cart every afternoon (and whom he referred to as "the babies") were having gorditas, not frankfurters. The pre-fried pockets can be stuffed with either chicken or pork skin. Grandpa assumed Id want the chicken, but no—Im no fool. The pig fat was soft and translucent, not crunchy, and blended right into the fried shell, topped off with lettuce, crumbly cheese, sour cream, and hot sauce. The cheese absorbed most of the sour cream, making a thick, salty, granular sludge that I highly recommend.

The art of mayo-slathering
photo: Nina Lalli
The art of mayo-slathering

Mango, $2 Outside a grocery store on the next block, a woman had a table set up, selling fruit. Mangoes and melons are available already in bite-sized pieces in plastic to-go containers, but the whimsical whole mangoes, cut like flowers, and impaled by wooden skewers, are much more fun. A girl in purple sneakers took my order—one mango—and asked if I wanted salt and lemon juice. I did. Her mother poured what looked to be about a quarter cup of fine kosher salt over the mango, which she had placed upside-down inside a plastic bag. Then she doused it with plenty of bottled lemon juice. This made its petals close up and gave the outside of the fruit, which was incredibly sweet and soft (verging on over-ripe) a tangy exterior. The lemon and mango juice streamed down my arms, into my shoe, and were smeared all over my cheeks. In fact I ended up enjoying this snack hunched over a garbage can. Thats fine dining.


Cherry: That old standby
photo: Nina Lalli
Shaved Ice, $1 Growing up in New York, the sighting of a shaved ice cart was far more magical to me than Mr. Softee. Those carts, especially since they seem to be more and more rare, still illicit a compulsive need to purchase. The boy ahead of me in line at this cart, near Lexington Avenue, where an old, tough-looking woman shaved the ice with enormous force, was having trouble deciding on a flavor. A familiar dilemma. In the end, he did as most kids do and went with cherry. I resisted that fallback and decided to try something new, letting the old woman choose. She shaved the ice, (Ive never cared that it must be filthy), into a heap in a plastic cup, then used a funnel to shape it into a cone. She poured the only non-translucent syrup in. It was thick, opaque, and orange in color but the flavor was simply "crema." Incredibly sweet, utterly, sickeningly delicious condensed milk. She told me to drink, to make room in the cup, and added tamarind juice, which tempered the sweet with a little sour. Later, I tried out her competition, right across the street, and succumbed to the beloved cough-syrup cherry.

Corn on the Cob, $1.50 or $2 I was starting to get full, but there's always room for a little comparative corn-eating. First, a steamed ear of corn (housed in a cooler full of hot water) from a vendor between Second and Third Avenues, on the south side of the street. She stabbed the corn with a skewer, coated it completely in mayonnaise, and rolled it in grated cheese. The result ($1.50) was downright ugly, and after I sprinkled on some chili powder, downright delicious too. A block west, I tried the grilled version. The corn sat on a makeshift grill before it underwent the same mayo-and-cheese ordeal, though here the condiments were applied with more restraint. The corn looked better—bigger, plumper looking kernels, and dark, charred spots giving it a less alien appearance, but it was overcooked and sticky.

I washed it all down with a limeade ($1) and a small mango/coconut ice ($.75), then headed home, high on sugar and loving New York in the summer.

 
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