A: Inwood-207th Street, Manhattan

Posted on February 10th, 2012 by Viveca in The End of the Line

WindowThursday February 3, 2011

The idea had been hanging over my head for years. I was hungry to explore the extremes of my adopted home city, and more than that (and as usual), I was just hungry. The scope of the project daunted me, but the potential rewards kept me from giving it up altogether, and I daydreamed about it abstractly, never buckling down to make it real. Over the years, the simple concept teased and eluded me, but it never backed away, and in 2011, my new friend Damaso called my bluff, and together we made it happen.

When I first moved to New York in 1993, I had more time than money. When I heard rumors of glorious and usually temporary outer borough delicacies, I loved nothing more than tracking them down: searching Roosevelt Avenue for the woman who sells the city’s best arepas (but only on Friday and Saturday nights) or loading up plates from the taco carts that ring the soccer fields in Red Hook (but only on sunny afternoons). To a newcomer living in Manhattan, the outer boroughs were exotic, and the food tasted better the farther I traveled to get it.

Almost two decades of foodie explosion later, my little quests seem quaint. Who doesn’t know soccer taco, for crying out loud, heck by now they have an outpost in the Brooklyn Flea food market! My appetite was whetted though and my snobbery piqued. Anything that appeared in the food press was already passé, tainted with the known. I still love following up on a live octopus lead or a guinea pig roast, but I was just following up, not leading, and you can’t explore a path someone else has cut.

Like my actual ravenous appetite, my appetite for exotica was never sated, and it wasn’t just food I craved; it was neighborhood. How many years could I live in this city and never learn it all? Every time I leave the city and drive through the strip malls and chain stores of “real” America, I long for the idiosyncratic and small, the misspelled and the locally owned. Every time I wander through this city, I want to walk every sidewalk and explore every store. I want to eat the entire city, ingesting its sights as well as its flavors.

New York is no city of moderation. I wanted to find its extremes, and my plan was simple: I’d ride every subway line to the last stop, get out, and eat at the first restaurant I saw. My exploration would be random but controlled, large but finite, and most importantly, would take me beyond my comfortable commutes and into neighborhoods unknown.

Only I never did it.

For almost two decades, the idea stayed safely in my mind, one of many nagging at my sense of potential, until I told it to my new friend Damaso. “Would you want to collaborate?” he asked. Of course! He’s a photographer, and I’m a writer. It hadn’t even occurred to me how much the project needed pictures, but he’s right of course. Plus, it’ll be fun to have a partner. I became determined to conquer the city, one subway line at a time.

Where to start? I briefly considered tracking down the history of the subway system to ride the trains in the order they developed but instead decided to use the city’s own ordering system. That narrowed down my decisions for the seminal journey to two: A or 1 train and uptown or down. I’ve always given letters priority, and my decision to start uptown is made by the slimmest of associations. I remember my father teaching me the order of baseball innings by saying they went from bad to worse, from top to bottom, and I decided if it works for baseball, it works for me: the project would start on the A train uptown.

Last stop

At over 31 miles, the A train is the city’s longest, but I wasn’t trying to ride it all; I just wanted to get to Inwood and eat. The express stretch from 59th Street to 125th was familiar, but beyond that the stations were unfamiliar and relatively empty. 181st Street intrigued briefly with a series of white-on-white arches cut into the walls behind the tracks. The relief arches hint of former glory, but I didn’t exit to examine them more closely. A restaurant was waiting at the end of the line.

hat & map

 

Finally the doors parted at 207th Street. I waited for the familiar announcement for everyone to please leave the train, but the PA system remained stubbornly silent, and I stepped off into the overwhelming odor of cleaning fluids on the platform. That terminus was clean, as was the train across the tracks, exactly where the “Next Train” sign pointed to it. Upstairs the station had historical tidbits about the neighborhood on small, tasteful tiles directly across from a giant, glittering silver sign reading, “At the Start.” The text art repeated on the floor, although without the silver glitter. “At the Start,” it said, and across from it, “At Long Last.” Sheila LaBrettville’s installation was a fitting welcome; at long last I’d reached the end of the line, but I was still at the start of the project. The city has 24 subway lines, several with more than two terminal stations. It’ll be hard to find time when Damaso and I can both fit a two round-trip, and it’ll take us a while to get to the end of every subway line. This was only our first trip, and we still hadn’t eaten lunch!

Tile subway art

Exiting the station wasn’t promising. The stairs faced a solid wall of red brick without a restaurant in sight. Making a U-turn out of the stairs onto Broadway immediately calmed my hunger-induced panic. Even at that altitude, Broadway was bustling. Across the avenue, a majestic snow-covered tree dominated the tiered walkways of Isham Park. The branches etched a stark contrast against the brilliant blue sky, but I hadn’t traveled that far to sightsee, and my stomach was rumbling with impatience.

On the corner with the subway exit is a business, not a restaurant but a T-Mobile/Sprint store, and my heart fell at its functional, franchise exterior. This was the end of the line? It was so practical and prosaic. Similarly, the first restaurants I saw were Grandpa’s Brick Oven Pizza next door to Carreon’s Bakery Deli, and my stubborn snobbery overtook my preconceived randomized selection. I refuse to learn that New York City sprawls with similarity and that even at the extremes, the chain stores and pizza windows repeat in infinite patterns. I will find something special out here. I am the urban explorer, and I will not “discover” that people live and work out here the same way the rest of us do nearer to the more familiar areas that subway lines only pass through on their way to these exotic ends.

Nuevo Ambiente

Looking up the east side of the avenue, I seized on El Nuevo Ambiente: Hispanic & American Food. Inside was crowded with colors if not with customers. An ATM and a jukebox shared one wall. Opposite them, Jesus radiated color from what might have been a dress but looked like a bulletproof shield. His picture hung next to an ancient video game on top of a shelf filled with bouquets of metallic tinsel. A crack on the display obscured the last letter so it proclaimsed: “Touch Maste” instead of, presumably, “Touch Master.” The tables each had a plastic flowerpot full of plastic flowers, and a giant painting of a waterfall reminded me of Bob Ross’s happy little trees and happy little clouds. In case anyone feared an inch of boring paint or plaster, the walls were paneled in vertical strips of mirror, between which were set all manner of plastic decorations.

Plants & Jesus

The menu was in English and Spanish. I ignored the specials for “Thrusday,” because the very first item on the menu, Dominican breakfast special number one, transported me back to La Rosita before it shuttered some ten years ago. I ordered in Spanish: huevos, queso, y chorizo, eggs, cheese, and salami, but I mumbled because I was embarrassed at how bad my Spanish had become. The waitress asked what I wanted with my order—mangu or yucca, and I requested mangu and a carrot-orange drink. My companion asked for a papaya drink, pernil sandwich, and avocado salad. His parents are Dominican, and his Spanish is more confident than mine, but I secretly suspect it isn’t any better.

Menu

Most Spanish speakers appreciate people making the effort, but I generally avoid speaking. This time I was trying to be brave—wasn’t I the one who set out to explore? Isn’t it more satisfying to imagine the A train extends beyond the English-speaking city? Some items on the menu were only in Spanish. I asked the waitress what ponche was, and she answered that it was a hot drink containing “café, huevos, y azucar.” While she talked, Damaso translated for me, “coffee, eggs, sugar.” Why was he translating when I had asked the question in Spanish? I understood the waitress but was saddened at Damaso’s perception that I couldn’t. Distracted thinking about language, I couldn’t imagine this combination of coffee and sweetened eggs, but I’d heard enough to know it pierced both of my Achilles’ heels of omnivorism; I don’t drink coffee or alcohol. Later I looked up ponche and found many variations on what is apparently hot coffee-flavored punch. Yuck? Yum?

All the other patrons sat at the small counter. They were all male, and every single one had a hooded sweatshirt as some layer of his dress. This is a workingman’s lunch joint. Eventually other men and women entered and sat at the tables. None of them took off their coats to eat.

Cooler

 

The food was startlingly good. Apparently I didn’t ask for eggs, just the cheese, salami, and mangu, and it was perfect. The cheese was mild and fried so it was soft on the inside and just browning on the outside. It made a perfect foil for the so-called “salami,” which resembled a salty slab of ham. The mangu (boiled, mashed green plantains) was warm and satisfying with a few sautéed onions and peppers on top. I drizzled it with hot sauce and salt, and ate every drop. Damaso assured me his sandwich was excellent. My carrot juice was naturally sweet enough beneath the acidic orange juice, and I turned down the waitress’s offer to add sugar. Damaso’s papaya drink was fresh and sweet, and the sliced avocado side salad was just simple slices, delicately dressed. The whole meal cost $20.

Damaso took a few photos of the interior and then asked the waitress permission to take her photograph, at which the chubby, middle-haired woman dissolved into a fit of giggles so overpowering that she was only able to wave her refusal. Without leaving, she coyishly touched her bright blue hair net, her white cotton shrug, her tight stretch jeans, checking each piece of herself while she waved away his camera as though showing him specifically what not to document. She appeared flattered to be asked but adamant refused, saying he could photograph her “next time.”

MTA & ATM

There won’t be a next time. It was a fine start, but there’s no going back.

Afterwards, I wasn’t ready to get back in the subway, so despite the sub-freezing temperatures, we wended our way down Broadway to the next station. Although we hadn’t noticed any other restaurants before eating, afterwards we passed Piper’s Kilt, Yummy Thai, the Garden Café, and Pizza Haven as well as Dunkin’ Donuts and other fast food outlets to remind me that we weren’t in an obscure Dominican outlet but rather following along another tentacle of the city’s many fractals. Perhaps there are no outskirts in this all-or-nothing city—I’ll certainly keep exploring, but at least there’s a very good Dominican restaurant at the end of the line.

Art at El Nuevo Ambiente

Photos by Damaso Reyes.

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2 Comments on “A: Inwood-207th Street, Manhattan”

  1. David Ramos

    Viveca this site is awesome “congratulations”… muy buen trabajo.

  2. lånigt

    I have been absent for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this site. Thanks , I will try and check back more frequently. How frequently you update your web site?

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