• The Substance Issue
    The Substance Issue
    Small plates

    We need to feed ourselves once and a while to keep the gears sweaky and moving. Here's a guide to cooking and eating for the Young, Broke, and Restless.

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    Olivia Starkie is a West Coast girl living the broke eastern life in Brooklyn, New York. When she is not food service hustling, she can be found cooking, writing, making visual art, sitting in sun patches in the park, riding the train for fun, or eating bagels.

    Tacos2

     

    Small Plates

    Life and Tacos in Bushwick

    You stand in the middle of a crowded North Williamsburg sidewalk and cry while your friend screams at you over and over because you bumped into him and his phone broke on the sidewalk. I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to, you say over and over but after a string of obscenities he is gone into a crowd of people. Disappeared, as if he was never there and you are a mess standing with your lips trembling and the beautiful people on the sidewalk around you clucking sympathy. You look around and hope that maybe your friend is still somewhere close and you can find him. You want to say sorry, you want to take his hand and ask him to please not be mad. Some old men sitting outside of a bodega offer to beat him up for you as you walk past because they’ve heard the exchange. That’s ok, you say, trying to smile through tears. You know you didn’t mean to bump your friend on the crowded sidewalk but the violence of his words scares you and knocks the breath out of you like you’ve been hit or you’re trapped underwater. You want to go home. You have a million dollar smile, says one of the old bodega guys and you almost want to laugh because even in this street after watching you get called names by your friend this guy still has the nerve to hit on you.

    You stand in the middle of a crowded North Williamsburg sidewalk and cry while your friend screams at you over and over because you bumped into him and his phone broke on the sidewalk. I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to, you say over and over but after a string of obscenities he is gone into a crowd of people. Disappeared, as if he was never there and you are a mess standing with your lips trembling and the beautiful people on the sidewalk around you clucking sympathy. You look around and hope that maybe your friend is still somewhere close and you can find him. You want to say sorry, you want to take his hand and ask him to please not be mad. Some old men sitting outside of a bodega offer to beat him up for you as you walk past because they’ve heard the exchange. That’s ok, you say, trying to smile through tears. You know you didn’t mean to bump your friend on the crowded sidewalk but the violence of his words scares you and knocks the breath out of you like you’ve been hit or you’re trapped underwater. You want to go home. You have a million dollar smile, says one of the old bodega guys and you almost want to laugh because even in this street after watching you get called names by your friend this guy still has the nerve to hit on you.

    This is your life now. Your friends scream at you one day and fuck you the next. Deep breaths like a fish out of water choking on its own air, spilling itself at angles into a patch of grass. Are you choking or are you floating? You go home and cry about it in your room sometimes as the sky becomes a blue and pink smudge. But sometimes you go up to your roof as the summer heat yawns over you and you watch the pigeons circle up into the expanse of clouds like tiny angels, like a Milky Way flashing in front of your eyes. The pigeons make patterns that speak to you of freedom and of a different time, maybe fifty years ago when the city was a fever dream reviled and worshipped in movies and you weren’t even a person yet. You think if you could take the pigeons and put them in a bottle and watch their flight pattern every day things would be different. You aren’t sure why but the pigeons bring you peace. They make you feel whole again and they make you think about the last time you saw your friend before the phone incident. You took him to get tacos at your favorite place. Al pastor with chunks of pineapple, the best kind, salty and sweet in your mouth like a particularly good day. He took your hand and it was almost like having a connection or remembering what it was like to have somebody to depend on. His hand, cool and smooth in yours, tan and strong. These are the things that haunt you, that come to you on your roof as you watch the Empire State Building light up at night and imagine the golden people in the city drinking martinis and laughing in big black cars with no windows, only lights, stretching as far as anybody can see. 

    You carry on with the mundane routine of your life. You listen to the same three songs on loop hundreds of times in one day just because they almost make you feel like crying and you build furniture from Ikea to put in your new apartment and you wait for your third job in three months to start and hope that this time it sticks. You spend two days straight washing and drying your soon-to-be roommate’s clothing because she has discovered, on the day you’re all supposed to move in together, that she has bedbugs in her East New York apartment. You vow to yourself that you will only drink smoothies and eat salads for a week because you’ve gained five pounds or something since graduation and you hate your body so much some days that you punch yourself in the stomach. You tell yourself you’re not insecure even though it’s all bullshit and nobody is secure, least of all you. You look in the mirror and you see a pale face and red lips and you think that today you could almost be beautiful and you celebrate by drinking at the bar with your roommates like every other night and you always always end up back on your roof, looking out at the city blazing away in the distance and feeling tiny snakes coiling and uncoiling in your stomach. You remember that you are hungry, but not hungry enough to cook so you get tacos for the third day in a row at the same place where your friend held your hand and the spice on your tongue makes you feel like nothing can go wrong nothing can go wrong nothing can. You make yourself salads with so much avocado you might as well just be eating a whole avocado for dinner and you try to think of a good email to write your friend. 

    But you have a problem, which is that somehow you and everyone you know fails to be nice or to understand how to love anybody and it makes you want to scream and bang your fists against the walls of your bedroom but instead you build your bed from Ikea and you go the gym and you make hummus and pesto from scratch and eat them alone in the cool and gathering dark of your apartment. You watch the curtains on your bedroom window flutter and you hear a man yelling at another man and somebody’s car stereo going HAM and you try to write an article about food and cooking five different times but each time you start, it’s not really what you want to say. Finally you go up to your roof just before it gets dark and watch the roosting pigeons rise up into the air, making stars with their wings and burrowing through the sky and you think, This is it. Get ready.


    Go get some tacos, because they do make things better, if only for the ten minutes it takes you to devour them.

    Really good tacos should have, in my world, succulent meat, onions, cilantro and maybe some radishes on top. Lime is a necessity, as is tomatillo salsa. Accept no substitutes and don’t fuck around with any place that uses flour tortillas or shredded lettuce or cheese or olives or any of that nonsense on their tacos. Trust me. My West Coast eating habits die hard, and I know a good taco when I eat one. My favorite place to satiate a taco craving is Las Tres Espigas in Bushwick, on Suydam off Wilson. Their tacos al pastor are worth the extra fifty cents, and are made the correct way, with pineapple chunks mixed into the meat. All the tacos come with a cilantro, onion and avocado mixture, as well as a couple slices of radish. Lengua and chorizo are also good options here, and they even have oreja (pig’s ear) if you’re feeling like trying something new. Unfortunately, they don’t have pork lengua anymore—only beef. They have a vegetarian option, but unless you’re a super committed vegetarian, don’t go for it. Added bonus: it’s not on the menu, but if you ask them, they will give you escabeche—pickled jalapeños that add an extra spicy vinegar kick to your food. They also have horchata (sweet rice milk with spices) and jamaica (sweet hibiscus tea), as well as an impressive array of Mexican soft drinks. No liquor license or BYOB at this tiny place, so get your drink on later if that’s your jam. Tiny outdoor picnic tables with umbrellas provide a cozy place to eat if you’re not taking your food to go.

    More hyped in the Bushwick Mexican food scene, and, in my opinion, overrated, are the tacos at Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos (sometimes referred to as Los Tres Hermanos, but that’s not their name). This eatery a couple blocks down from the Jefferson L at Starr Street doubles as a tortilla factory, and you can see into the cavernous back room where, ostensibly, the tortillas are made and packaged. While this ensures that the corn tortillas are always fresh and delicious, the taco toppings and flavors at Los Hermanos are, to be honest, sub-par. They don’t have my beloved al pastor or lengua. Options are pollo (chicken), carnitas (fried shredded pork), bistec (steak), cecina (salt beef), enchilada (spicy pork), chorizo and vegetarian. The enchiladas and chorizo fillings are the best of these (but I also don’t like beef), and the chicken, which is bland and lackluster, is definitely the worst. The vegetarian option is not even worth mentioning. All tacos are topped with anemic shredded lettuce and their salsas without much flavor seem like an afterthought. If you’re set on waiting in line with a bunch of Jefferson St. hip kids and drunk people getting off the L train down the street, order a picada rather than tacos. It’s a large, corn flour cake, slightly thicker than a tortilla, topped with your choice of meat, cheese, avocado, and the dreaded lettuce. Still, the avocado portions are generous, and the picada, with its primary cheese layer, is more pleasing than most of the rest of the menu’s offerings.

    Taqueria Las Tres Espigas
    187 Suydam St., Brooklyn, NY 11221
    taquerialastresespigas.com
    I recommend: tacos al pastor, lengua tacos, chorizo tacos

    Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos
    271 Starr St., Brooklyn, NY 11237
    I recommend: enchilada or chorizo picada

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