Culinary Report From Cinco de Mayo Street Festival in East Harlem


Go ahead, take a bite of this delicious chile-soaked pambazo.

Cecomex, the community organization that figured largely in this week’s Voice cover story, sponsored this year’s East Harlem Cinco de Mayo festivities. The street fair filled two city blocks, from Lexington Avenue to Second Avenue on East 116th Street, a thoroughfare now almost entirely flanked by Mexican businesses. This area is currently the city’s oldest Mexican immigrant community.

Under the Cecomex banner, a girl sings along to tapes as the band looks on.

I accompanied Victoria Bekiempis, the article’s author. She went to see if the fair had been diminished from previous years by the incarceration of the organization’s founder, while I went to check out the food. Bekiempis reported: “Calle One Sixteen was definitely abuzz with patriotic revelers, who seemed to take more notice of the street food and child singers than community power struggles. And the food was fantastic.”

Cowboy attire was the order of the day for many men.

Tacos being assembled


Prior to filling, the pambazo sizzles in chicken fat.

Red and green memelitas warming on the griddle

The Mexican food available was the standard festival fare of Puebla, including charcoal-grilled corn on the cob dipped in cheese, mayo, and chile sauce; tacos, mainly stuffed with al pastor and carnitas; huaraches and sopes with a similar roster of fillings; pambazo sandwiches; freshly filled flautas; and the linear donuts dipped in granulated sugar called churros. Non-Mexican stalls offered Dominican, Ecuadorian, and Colombian fare, the latter consisting of large pieces of unadorned grilled meat.

The pambazo itself remains a rarity in New York. This poverty-food treasure is really just a potato sandwich on a torpedo-shaped roll, made more appealing by soaking the bread in red chile sauce, then sautéing it in chicken fat before depositing the stewed spuds, greenery, onions, cheese, and crema in the bun. The sandwich is irresistible.

Another highlight were the memelitas. Like sopes, they are hand-patted rounds of fresh masa with a rim formed around the circumference to provide a larger reservoir for fillings. Unlike sopes, besides the original cooking on the griddle, they undergo an additional frying stage, in this case with chicken fat, which renders the interior soft and creamy and the exterior crisp.

Memelita with chile colorado and pork carnitas

Grilling corn in its husk over charcoal


One attraction featured Shetland ponies for children to ride.

Dusting off the old sombrero…

It was Sunday afternoon to remember, with families in their finest clothes promenading up and down the streets. Even babies wore elaborate ruffled dresses or cowboy suits, mirroring the dress of their parents. The festival seemed particularly oriented toward children, who enjoyed Shetland pony rides and the Spiderman bouncy castle.

Homemade beverages were available.

Long-simmered tongue with scallions


The cotton candy tree

Like father, like son

The churros (center) were exceptionally fresh.

The rotating cylinder of al pastor (shepherd-style) taco filling may remind you of schwarma — that’s because this method of preparing meat was brought to Mexico by Lebanese shopkeepers in the 1920s.

Overhead on this warm Sunday afternoon were dozens of flapping Mexican flags.