Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lost in History vol. 82: Long bike rides, useless Queens forts, suburban hoods & delicious foods.

Every so often, one needs to forget the plans. drop the job, ignore the bills, get on a bicycle and ride off, into the horizon, like the superlative urban cowboy. No, not that type of urban cowboy, more like a two-wheeled adventurey explorer, armed with water bottle, bike map and camera, a little bit of spending cash and balanced atop a trusty steed, ready to take to the roads of eastern and suburban New York City. However, you'd be surprised how many friends found the notion of a long leisurely bike ride a no-go. My arguments fell on hungover ears.
30 miles round trip, to the northern-eastern end of Queens and back!
To see a historic Fort built during the Civil War but never used!
Just us and bikes and the vast private driveways and detached houses of eastern Queens!
Leave me alone.
I almost had to roll by myself. Right up until t-minus one hour, when good buddy / food writer / avid cyclist Josh Bernstein decided to tag along. Noon o'clock hit and we were off!
We took a circuitous route, that started us zipping through subway-accessible 'nabes, like Ridgewood and Glendale (the M train); Forrest Hills Gardens (the G, R and V trains); and North Jamaica Hills (the F and E trains), which is where we found this
awesome art deco power station, across from the Queens Hospital Center, on Goethals Blvd, related in name only to the Goethals Bridge, in Staten Island.
After North Jamaica Hills however, it was suburban Queens with generic hood names to the max. Before getting lost in the bland, we figured it was snack time - on the corner of Utopia Parkway and Hollis Court Blvd we charged into D'Alessandro's Meat Center, since 1957, for some protein based munchies, like sausage and cheese stuffed antipasto, and some fresh mozzarella balls in a spicy olive oil.
Finally upon reaching Fort Totten, we were a) amazed at the sheer size of the park and b) totally lost in trying to find the Visitors Center and historic fort at the center of it. All we could find was the FDNY training facilities, picnic grounds, decaying Victorian houses, and lots of construction cranes and fenced off areas. After asking a few locals we stumbled upon the Visitors Center, and, lo and behold, were a few short minutes from the next public tour! What luck!
Fort Totten was built as the Civil War was getting under way, (the very pleasant and dorky-cute NPS Ranger informed us) but midway through the War, rapid advancements in technology rendered the Fort completely unusable.
In 1862, after finishing 2 out of 5 walls to the (ultimately incomplete) Pentagon-shaped structure, the US Army field-tested a new type of cannonball. This pointed-tip rifle-shot projectile had a much better aim, and whats more, did tremendous damage to the interior of the Fort. Whereas a basic projectile would ricochet across the granite room, causing few dings but not much structural damage, this new rifled weapon lodged itself deep into the Fort and knocked whole chunks of masonry off the walls.
This test projectile, circa 1863, is still lodged deep into the walls of Fort Totten. This meant that if the Fort couldn't stand against one basic (massive) bullet, there's no way it would survive an artillery shelling, and the entire structure became totally obsolete as a defensive post. USA! USA! USA!
Once we were all swole up with national pride, it was time to stuff our stomachs. After getting a little lost and ending up in Douglaston (which is almost as far away from everything else in NYC as one can possibly get) we found a nifty little Deli with old school signs on the inside and outside. We got two massive heroes - a homemade Roast Beef and another homemade Roast Turkey, plus some North Carolina style slaw (apple cider vinegar!) chips, drinks, and custard.We found our way (after getting lost once or twice more) to Alley Pond Park, sat on a bench, and scarfed some serious hoagie. An unmitigated Sunday success, Josh and I biked our tired legs, full stomachs, and sun-scorched heads back to Brooklyn.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Lost in History vol. 81: Gin and Juice, Tacos y elotes, the El and Samosas; Food crawl in Jackson Heights

The invitation was as straight-forward as it gets: Jackson Heights and Elmhurst have good food. We're bringing good booze. You bring good conversation, and some greenbacks, and we'll eat our way through some of the most ethnically diverse blocks in all of New York City. How could we possibly refuse?
Once we got to the Jackson Heights / Roosevelt Avenue subway stop and locked up our bikes, we found the crew lined up outside a taco cart parked right under the El. Frank, our tour guide and a Jackson Heights native - praised this particular cart's beef paunch, con picante. A few of us got puerco, some ventured for the callos (tripe), and some for the lengua de chivo (goat tongue). We knew that this wasn't going to be your basic meat-on-a-stick kind of noshing tour.
Our sturdy group of 13 included an Asian, a Kiwi, a handful of Hungarians (including Frank and his girlfriend Zsuzsi), a laid back California surfer-dude, a Wasps, two Jews (soon to be three) an Italian, two Polacks, and one who pleaded "non-denominational." But good eats and early summertime drunk knows no color lines; we were all excited for our cross-cultural conclave of creative crunch-and-munching across Queens.
Frank and Zsuzsi had thought ahead and brought a couple of thermoses filled with Pimms Cup, a delicious (and strong) gin-and-juice-based summertime refresher. With our Subway soda cups stocked with Pimms, we made our way under the 7 train to our next stop, an Ecuadorian ceviche truck, for camarones (shrimp,) chivo and callos (tripe). each served in a thick soupy takeout cup.
Jackson Heights is an extraordinary neighborhood for its confluence of ethnic types, as well as the number of train lines that service it. You have the good old International Express (the 7 train) which rumbles on old steel I-beams along Roosevelt Avenue from Times Square to its terminal in Flushing. It was built by the IRT in different segments from 1915-1928, and therefore it shares a designated number, along with the other IRT lines 1 through 6.
The IND lines of E, F, G, R and V all share the same track, and were built by the city in the mid-to-late 30s. This new mode of public transit allowed immigrants to flood into the newly established garden community of Jackson Heights. What started out as Irish and Italian eventually became Ecuadorian, Mexican, Indian, Bangladeshi, Tibetan, Korean, Malaysian, Bhutanese and Fillipino. Ergo, yummy. Onto the elotes cart! Frank brought us to a tiny shack under the El and bought us a bunch of elotes - thick grainy stalks of corn, slathered with mayo, queso, a spicy ground pepper and lime juice. It started to rain, and we huddled under a modern FroYo shop's awning, devouring our elotes. Que sabor!
We hauled eastward, into Elmhurst, for Malaysian-Chinese. This is where one of our intrepid Italians bought, halved, scooped and served up Durian fruit to the crowd. Durian is the noxiously smelling-of-rotten-milk-and-eggs type asian monstrosity of a fruit. Our party was split down the middle on the disgusting/engrossing taste of the Durian fruit, but there was no denying the rank odoriferous. On the other hand, the Malasian takeout at Good Taste Malaysian Chinese was exquisite and yumtastic. Our third Jew arrived, in the form of BFU Will Meyer.
Back to Jackson Heights! There was more to eat! Samosas! Sammy's Famous Street Meat (being fought over here, in the concrete triangle, between yours truly and Mr. Aaden Stern.) Tibetan Momos (beef, chicken and veggies steamed dumplings,) and sticky Indian honey dessert! Our man Frank could do no wrong!It wasn't until we got to the Korean Fried Chicken takeout spot, complete with its own quirky mascot (shown here with Kate McCooliak) that we shouted, Enough! Enough! Too much deliciousness, Frank, let us roll home on our fat bellies! It had been 5 hours of wandering Jackson Heights, and enjoying no fewer than 9 different food stuffs from 7 different countries, found on 3 different continents, all under the El of the 7.
We love Queens! And Frank! (FYI, he's also available for private tours.)