Bushwick observations and gastronomic sensations.

“Bullet Bushwick.”  At least, that’s what my friend Izzy used to call it.  It was usually as a punch line to some kind of commentary about how his financial circumstances would lead him to only be able to afford to live out past the warehouses on the “L” train – somehow ignoring other, less reputation-laden neighborhoods that lie on outer segments of other trains. (In fact, I believe he lives there now, or at close by, in the totally bullsh*t realtor fantasyland of “East Williamsburg.”)  This kind of leaden nickname from a native New Yorker who spends a lot of time in South Jamaica videotaping slap-boxing competitions was certainly enough to inspire curiosity, though perhaps not a great deal of eagerness in terms of organizing a visit.

My first visit to the neighborhood took place yesterday, in fact, in pursuit of total information awareness about local Mexican restaurants.  I need to do the spying because I’m taking a group to De Guererros next week and needed to be sure that what they serve is at least comparable to the places on the infamous list.  El Paisa, at number 66, was my destination.

As you get off the train at DeKalb Avenue (love how the same street names can carry you from Junior’s nearly to Queens), you’ll notice that Wyckoff Avenue (the main drag and the street which covers the L in this neighborhood) has a bustling little commercial strip on it that trails off as you go down the hill.  Coincidentally (or probably not) the downhill direction leads back towards the warehouse district, Office Ops, and lofts that seem, upon party-related visits two years ago, totally amazing, but are probably actually quite nasty to live in.  I walked two or three blocks downhill and hung a left on Suydam St.  A block later, I found the teeming Bushwick Park and, across the street, the practically-empty El Paisa.

Maybe some folks were grabbing takeout and going to check out the very active basketball courts – my presence and intention to stay and eat was noted with some bemusement, and my negotiations with the waitress took place at the intersection of my twenty or so words of Spanish and her probably twenty-five of English (her English being the better of the two, at any rate).  How much do I wish I knew Spanish?  Without begrudging my German any, a whole heck of a lot.

I ended up with one taco each of al pastor and carne enchilada ($2.25 a piece), as well as a plate of chilaquiles in the green flavor.  The tacos came first – the tortillas, as insinuated by Mr. Sietsema, are perfectly great (important, too, for the chilaquiles).  The meats…well…the meats were probably a half-step down from Pio Maya on a bad day, and it was tough to figure out which pork was which.  The al pastor couldn’t touch De Guerreros’ with a ten-foot tamale – where the Guerreros version was tender and perfectly flavored, El Paisa’s was relatively flavorless and crunchy in the way that suggested either inexpert cooking or (more likely) unfortunate reheating.  Carne enchilada seemed kind of like a less-flavorful version of Pio Maya’s chorizo, while retaining and worsening the textural issues that arise from the reheating (the fatty portions don’t re-render correctly, for instance).

The chilaquiles ($7-ish) was better, but not nearly possessing of the level of fire I expected.  The waitress made sure to check and see that I knew the dish was spicy before giving the chef the order, and it STILL was mild.  Maybe there was a miscommunication – it certainly wasn’t swimming in green sauce like the Guerreros version was, and perhaps they went easy on me regardless.  It is available with a red sauce, and with meat, chicken, or eggs chucked on top (I went with chicken, which was a good choice).  Interestingly, at the bottom of the plate were some extremely bitter greens that didn’t mesh well with the rest of the dish – evidence of the leftovers-catch-all genesis of the dish, I suppose.

Walking along Bushwick Park towards Starr Street after the meal, I noticed the housing stock take a turn for the dilapidated.  Indeed, along Starr Street between the park and Wyckoff, and along the section of Wyckoff near the Jefferson St. stop, the houses are as poorly maintained (in general) as any I’ve seen anywhere in NYC, including poor sections of Bed-Stuy and Rockaway.  This is not to say that the whole end of the nabe is like that (having not explored further, I’m in no position to comment), but given how close the block is to both subway and park, it was surprising to note the lack of reconstruction.

On the other hand, I met a woman this past weekend who said she lived until recently at the Jefferson St. stop – she said it was “scary” but did not offer any evidence, and she was hardly the type that realtors describe as “risk-oblivious youth.”  It seems Bushwick’s bark may be worse than its bite – kind of like El Paisa’s chilaquiles.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Bushwick observations and gastronomic sensations.

  1. Anonymous

    i don’t know if you will read this as your post is from last Summer but man I gotta say..your comments about bushwick/east willburg are out dated and silly. firstly, east willburg is not a fantasy..its a real stretch of area that typically encompasses the grand/montrose/morgan L stops….bushwick proper doesnt start until you cross Flushing ave….but more importantly both hoods have been improving slowly but surely over the past decade and its not just the finacially destitute who live there. Ride the L on any day between dekalb and bedford and you will see plenty of young professional types,artists,musicians,etc…you may not realize this other lifestyles do exist here in nyc aside from high end professional or careerists who are here to simply earn money or live in posh hoods. in fact until recently nyc was KNOWN worldwide for being a place that creative types could live and pursue there art…it used to be soho,east village,chelsea….now its bushwick,bed stuy,soutgh bronx,astoria,etc….these hoods may not be gastronomic or shopping playlands but they are home to real people pursuing what makes them happy..you should look around sometime in bushwick and you might understand what im talking about.

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