Wending its way northward through Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, Nostrand Avenue rocks to an island beat. The busy thoroughfare is lined with bakeries offering cassava pone and pine tart; fish stands hawking croakers, porgies, grunts, and jacks; and beauty parlors where locks, twists, braids, and dreads are the preferred styles. A rasta in a puffy leather cap wields a machete outside a vegetable stand, hacking green coconuts to free the juice. Above the tumult rises the bright red sign of A & A Bake and Doubles. Even though it’s late Saturday afternoon and the shopping crowds have ebbed, a long line of patrons still snakes out the door eager for doubles.
Both singular and plural, doubles is the Trinidadian weekend delight, a pair of glistening flatbreads drawn from a red soda cooler, smeared with a thick chickpea curry, sluiced with mango and pepper sauces, then twisted into a bit of tissue paper to make a rather gooey sandwich, all for one dollar apiece. A doubles is delicious, with an eggy taste and a spicy kick that leaves a warm glow in your stomach. To take a single bite is to wolf down the entire thing and get back into line for a repeat.
During the rest of the week, however, bakes are the order of the day. This breakfast favorite is made by slitting a bulbous fried bread (a “bake”) with a knife, then piling in one of four fish fillings. The choices include a herring salad that’s dark brown, chock full of sautéed onions, and as smoky as Texas brisket. The salmon filling is rather ho-hum, while the two salt-cod selections are both perfect in their own way. One is mostly fish, retaining a cardboardy texture and a saline tang, while the second distributes bits of bacalao among masses of al dente shredded and oiled cabbage, making that pedestrian vegetable click its heels in the air. All bakes benefit from the same two sauces that enliven the doubles.
The microscopic stand—the sign is almost larger than the premises—offers a few variations on the simple bake formula. A standard bake costs $1.75, with a second ingredient added for 50 cents. High rollers can go for the sada bake ($2.25), made with a giant greaseless bread that’s quartered and slit longitudinally to make something like a pita sandwich. Its big attraction? You can walk away with clean hands.
Founded by a retired policeman in 1964 and now run by his grandchildren, SARGE’S (548 Third Avenue, 212-679-0442) is one of the city’s great Jewish delis. The pastrami is monumentally smoky, delicious even though it’s usually cut way too thin (request thick slices). But the corned beef can’t measure up. It finds the meaning of its life not in a sandwich, but in the corned beef hash—slivers of salty meat fried crisp that overpower the smidgens of potato. It’s wonderful when topped with a trio of poached eggs. And the servers are so gruff they could be character actors playing waiters in a deli.
The panelle special—a round seeded roll heaped with chickpea fritters, ricotta, and slivers of parmesan—is one of Brooklyn’s great vegetarian snacks. JOE’S OF AVENUE U (287 Avenue U, Brooklyn, 718-449-9285) styles itself as a “focacceria Palermitana,” a throwback to the snacking parlors of Sicily’s capital. Enjoy a garlicky octopus salad, the eggplant relish called caponata, or a delightful peasant plate of boiled sausages and potatoes in a sharp tomato sauce. Weekends, there’s pasta con sarde, the island’s favorite dish of bucatini topped with fennel-laced sardine sauce, sided with toasted bread crumbs to provide thickening.