It’s the first warm, blue-skied Saturday of the year, and the Yankees are playing at home. The tinny smell of canned beer wafts out of every sports bar on River Avenue, each one packed with fans chugging Bud and downing grilled sausages. Just one block over, the Feeding Tree restaurant—all kitschy murals of palm trees, soft reggae, slow service, and bewitching goat curry—is nearly empty. It’s just me and two balding, middle-aged Yankees fans having a plate of jerk chicken before the game. As they get up to leave, one of the men flashes a small paper bag with a bottle inside. “Their sorrel juice is really good,” he says conspiratorially.
There’s nothing wrong with ballpark hot dogs—except that they’re overpriced and don’t taste that good. But both Yankee and Shea stadiums allow fans to bring their own food, and cheaper, more delicious options abound. So where are the best places for takeout or a quick bite within a few blocks of each stadium?
Willets Point, a rundown warren of auto-body shops, occupies the area directly east of Shea. At noon on the Mets’ home opener, a stream of hard hats poured out of the Citi Park construction site, all heading in that direction. I followed them, figuring that hungry workers would know where to eat, and was led to the Express Deli and Restaurant, a bare-bones Latin lunch counter where the Heineken was flowing.
All the tables were full, so two construction workers were standing outside, scarfing down big plates of rice, beans, and grilled-chicken skewers.
“You see batting practice?” one man asked the other. “I saw Reyes and everything.”
“I heard anyone watching the game is fired, man,” his friend replied.
Inside, the walls are painted blue and orange. I finagled my way up to the counter and ordered the tongue stew, yellow rice, fried chicken, and a chicken skewer. The restaurant’s homemade hot sauce comes on the side. The tongue is greasy and flaccid, but the fried chicken is great, nothing but crisp skin yielding to well-seasoned dark meat.
Soon, the Phillies’ lineup was being announced, and boos from the stadium echoed across the parking lot, where a few tailgaters were still putting away their grills. I walked down Roosevelt Avenue and came across La Ambateñita, a small Ecuadorian restaurant and bakery. Adriana Acosta, whose family owns the restaurant, told me that the restaurant features a different Ecuadorian soup every day.
They also always have ceviche, which is refreshing on a hot day and easy to eat on the go. The shrimp ceviche is especially good, served with a creamy aji sauce on the side. If you want to grab something that’s not dependent on utensils, this is the place to get homemade empanadas or freshly baked rolls—either sweet (pan de dulce) or stuffed with cheese (pan de queso).
Down the street, no fewer than two fire trucks and three police cars were parked illegally outside the Pine Tavern, and the place was packed with firefighters and cops. “You here to watch the game?” bartender James Scholz asked me with an easy smile. “Pull up a chair!” A moment later, Carlos Delgado hit the Mets’ first home run of the season, and the room erupted.
If it weren’t for the low hum of the Grand Central Parkway that separates the Pine Tavern from the blue edifice of Shea, you could hear the crack of the bat from a seat at the bar. The tavern’s large windows have a panoramic view of the stadium, and the entire room is decked out in Mets memorabilia.
The restaurant features serviceable red-sauce Italian (including a tasty eggplant-parmigiana hero as long as my arm), but the real reason to come here is to soak in the Mets love—and to keep an eye out for the players and coaches who sometimes stop by after the game. In fact, the restaurant provides the post-game meal for the players, sending about 20 trays of pasta, chicken, and fish over to the clubhouse.
The neighborhood around Yankee Stadium has many more sports bars than Shea, though none are as inviting as the Pine Tavern. Skip the warm beer, and instead walk one block up to Gerard Avenue for fantastic Jamaican food at the Feeding Tree.
The Feeding Tree’s goat curry has none of the gristly bits that goat often does; the bone-in pieces of meat are stewed to tenderness in a flavorful slick of spiced, turmeric yellow sauce. Jerk chicken comes as a pile of moist chicken pieces slathered with a thick coating of dark, wet sauce, perfumed with allspice and chilies. There are also the stuffed patties—filled with spiced meat enveloped in a flaky yellow crust—that are perfect for ordering to go.
The Feeding Tree specializes in Jamaican punches, including the sensationally good, tart sorrel juice and ginger beer. There are also more elaborate concoctions, like the Stay Long. I am forever accidentally ordering male-aphrodisiac potions because they have such interesting names. The Stay Long—purported to . . . well, I guess it’s pretty obvious—involves boiled sea moss puréed with vanilla soymilk, cashews, and peanuts. “OK, mami,” said the juice man dubiously as he handed it to me. It tasted like a soy-cashew milk shake with a strange, mildly vegetal aftertaste, but I can’t speak to its effectiveness.
Just around the corner, El Molino Rojo II traffics in cuchifritos, Puerto Rican fried snacks. The takeout window displays a cratered, bubbly tumble of chicharron. Then there are piles of various crispy fried balls of starch and meat. There are spheres of fried potato, cassava, and plantain. There are beef and chicken patties as big and flat as a slice of pizza, basically fried dough with a bubble of spiced meat to one side. These things have their charms, but they are extraordinarily oily—so much so that the grease slicks your hand while eating them. If you’ve had a few beers, though, all bets are off; they might seem like manna from heaven.
Inside El Molino Rojo, there’s a lunch counter and a few tables. It’s Norman Rockwell meets Bronx Puerto Rican. Spanish conversation bubbles convivially around the room, and the gruff ladies behind the counter wear hairnets. Here you can get a good mofongo, the Puerto Rican green-plantain mash, with chicken, shrimp, or ribs on the side. The special gets you a yellow starchy dome of mofongo, two fried pork ribs, salad, and a cup of savory beef gravy. Spoon the gravy into the mofongo and the dome crumbles apart, bits of garlicky plantain studded with crunchy pork cracklings.
If curried goat or mofongo isn’t your thing, there’s always the Press Café. The small panini bar is only open during home games, starting about two hours before game time. The evening of a recent Red Sox–Yankees match, the crowd overflowed onto the sidewalk, guys in button-downs drinking from red plastic cups. It looks like a frat party, but this is definitely the only place in the area where you can get Belgian ale or a German wheat beer. The paninis are simple, featuring cheese, greens, and cured meats. They’re served on good, toasty bread, but the fillings are sadly skimpy.
Robert Hyman, the owner and bartender, is also a full-time sixth-grade teacher in Hackensack. He’s handsome in a thick-jawed, Brendan Fraser way. Robert, who actually prefers Bud Light to Schneider Weisse, inherited Press Café from his friend. What happened to his friend? “He got married,” said Robert. Pour one out for the fallen.