Two decades ago, Bushwick Park was known as the worst druggie park in the city, and gunshots often echoed across its seven acres. It was renamed Maria Hernandez Park in 1989 after a crusading anti-drug mom who was gunned down by crack dealers as she stood in the window of her apartment. But the violent history of the park—which was assembled in the 1890s from land owned by P.T. Barnum—goes back even further than the ’80s. On July 12, 1979, across the street from the park, Bonanno crime boss and French Connection inspiration Carmine Galante was whacked in Joe and Mary’s Italian Restaurant as he ate lunch, yielding a notorious photo of the mobster slouched against the garden wall in a pool of blood, a half-smoked cigar protruding from his lips.
Nowadays, prospects for the park couldn’t be rosier. A renovation begun in 2001 was completed a year ago, crisscrossing verdant plantings with promenades that converge on a green-mosaic parrot. On Sunday afternoons, as Mexican, Ecuadoran, and Dominican immigrants—and a few Italian old-timers—amble through the park, El Paisa (“The Compatriot”) rolls out its portable stand, turning out tacos as lush and green as the park itself. Chivo ($2.25) cradles hacked goat parts in a pair of warm tortillas and smothers them in lettuce, onions, ripe tomatoes, and fragrant cilantro. The tortillas themselves are made only a few blocks away, and you’ve never tasted fresher.
El Paisa’s windowed storefront is one of the most pleasant in Brooklyn. The menu is mostly antojitos—such corn-based snacks as enchiladas, tostadas, flautas, and quesadillas, the fillings of which span a predictable range of pork, beef, and chicken variations. High points include cow-tongue tacos and a satisfying version of chilaquiles ($6.50) that tops the usual scramble of tortilla chips, cheese, and chile sauce with a pair of runny fried eggs. Among the antojitos are a handful of Tex-Mex inventions, including burritos, fajitas, and nachos. In what is undoubtedly a backhand compliment, the so-called texanos nachos ($6.50) turn out to be unspeakably bland, with no chile product of any kind in evidence. Note to El Paisa: In light of the recent election, please rename them Bush nachos. As a remedy ask for the twin salsas, delivered in a graceful metal caddy. One is thick, red, and incendiary, while the other is green, herby, and mild.
Glance at the chalkboard on the sidewalk as you enter, or turn to the menu’s Platos Tipicos section, for some really transcendent southern Mexican fare. The adobo de pollo ($7) is the best in town, a tender poached chicken in an oily, vinegary, and intensely red chile sauce. Great, too, is the sometime special of mixiotes, chicken tied up in parchment. It makes its own sauce inside the paper with the aid of crushed chiles and avocado leaves, which confer a winning sweetness not unlike bay laurel. Finally, the weekend special of pozole—the hominy, pork, and oregano soup—often lasts until Monday or Tuesday, and is well worth ordering. With each succeeding day it becomes better. Pozole comes with a bonus cheese tostada, making a very economical $5 feed.
After your meal, take a circuitous constitutional around Maria Hernandez Park as you happily pick your teeth. Admire the parrot, and note the lack of junkies shooting up in the park’s clean restrooms.