Ah, the pleasures of bringing good takeout food to a friendly bar. Often, the most delicious grub comes from a truck, or a spartan joint with one linoleum table and a flickering fluorescent light. Although you can balance a plate on a parked car, or stubbornly ensconce yourself at that lone table, neither of those options necessarily promises congeniality, napkins, running water, and/or booze. Recently, I tramped around the city in search of great takeout, and the watering holes that will welcome you, your friends, and your portable dinner.
El Dugout Patacon Pisao—a popular Venezuelan food truck—parks on a quiet block in Inwood (431 West 202nd Street, at Tenth Avenue). Their specialty, as indicated by the name, is the patacon—a marvelous, meaty sandwich that substitutes large disks of fried green plantain for bread. The CD-size orbs are made by slicing unripe plantains lengthwise, frying them, then pounding them thin. The results are dry, starchy, and resilient, much more functional as sandwich-anchors than you’d think. For a filling, choose from the chicken, stewed shredded beef, or pernil, though the beef is best, barbecue-brisket-like in its succulence. For the optimal patacon experience, most patrons order the “full”—an extravaganza of all three meats, plus fried cheese, and the standard lettuce, tomato, cilantro, and dousing of crema.
Although the patacon inspires the line in front of El Dugout, the truck also offers cachapas—voluminous sweet-corn pancakes, folded around your choice of meat—as well as the golden, griddled masa patties called arepas.
One early fall evening, customers were wrapping their mouths around a patacon while sitting on the curb or on a car bumper. Instead, my friend Miriam and I got our order and decided to hoof it. To fortify us for the journey, we grabbed a tequeño—a stick of fried, pastry-wrapped cheese—and proceeded along Tenth Avenue. A left turn at 213th Street brought us to Irish Eyes (5008 Broadway, 212-567-9072), a place I hesitate to call a dive bar for fear hipsters will descend on it with demands for PBR and bacon cook-offs. Irish Eyes is well-lit and comfortable, a spot where older men drink beer and no one ever says, “Wooo!” Bud goes for $3.50, and a stiff pour of Jameson costs $4.50.
When we walked in with our Venezuelan loot, Ed the bartender gave us plates, forks, and napkins, while Kicky—the friendly dog of a long-time patron—sniffed in our direction enviously. Hockey was on the TV, but Ed, shouting down objections, turned on Top Chef. It was about the last thing in the world you’d expect a guy like Ed to do. But it seems he loves Top Chef, as do all the guys at Irish Eyes. “That girl with two earrings in her lip scares me,” said one. “That blond girl has been kicking ass,” said another. “I’m going to start a fantasy Top Chef pool,” said Ed. So Miriam and I watched Top Chef with the guys, while stuffing ourselves with extraordinary South American street food.
Downtown, Motorino has just opened an East Village branch in the old Una Pizza Napoletana space (349 East 12th Street, 212-477-9950). Out of the wood-burning oven come Neapolitan-style pizzas spotted with blowsy bubbles and bits of char. They sport a wonderful crust, puffy and chewy, but resilient, with a slight tang from a long fermentation. The list of topping options, though, is shorter than at the original Motorino in Williamsburg. The best pizzas here stray from the classical, like one strewn with Brussels sprouts leaves and smoky speck, and another with a craterous surface covered in molten scamorza—a smoked cheese similar to mozzarella—thinly sliced butternut squash, and pancetta. But there are only seven tables in Motorino’s small room, and the place has a cultish following, so there’s often a wait. To-go pizzas, on the other hand, are usually ready in about 15 minutes. So one night, we ordered our pizzas, then trooped off with haste—since pizza suffers from sitting in a box—to Burp Castle (41 East 7th Street, 212-982-4576). Once there, we settled in and took a look at the stellar beer list, which includes Jever, Delirium Tremens, and La Chouffe on tap. Burp Castle is serious about its Belgian, German, and British brews, and is an unusually mellow place to drink and eat, considering its location in the heart of the East Village.
You could also bring Motorino’s pizza to nearby Blue and Gold (79 East 7th Street, 212-473-8918), the venerable dive bar that distinguishes itself by offering fair pours of single-malt scotches like Laphroaig for about $4. Calling ahead, the woman who answered the phone said that we could only bring takeout that “doesn’t offend anyone, like Indian food.”
Back in Brooklyn on the weekend, in Crown Heights, you can follow your nose to the Spice Is Right’s oil drum grill, set on the sidewalk in front of the small Jamaican restaurant (781 Franklin Avenue, 718-484-3701). During the week, the grill moves into the backyard and out of sight, but the chicken is the same good bird—emerging from the smoke luscious and blackened with spice, tasting of thyme, garlic, allspice, and chilies.
Plates of chicken are available in small, medium, and large, but the difference is mostly an increasing heap of peas and rice. If it’s the chicken you’re after, get a small (or three), and don’t forget the macaroni and cheese. Ask for the bird extra-spicy so that the woman behind the counter squirts on the delicious habañero-scented sauce. Take it with you to Franklin Park (618 St. John’s Place, 718-975-0196), a bar just a block away, where you can drink good beer, like Coney Island Lager, or a light, spice-cutting white wine, like Grüner Veltliner. They also have Skee-ball. If there’s anything better than this booze-takeout-arcade game combo, I don’t know of it.