On an overcast Friday afternoon in an unexpectedly cool summer, my husband and I took the A train to Rockaway Beach to eat fish tacos. If you aren't familiar with New York City's eclectic waterfront, Rockaway Beach is a sea-fronted neighborhood in Queens that fills a peninsula jutting out between JFK Airport and Long Beach. Its new post-Sandy boardwalk has a very nice public clubhouse equipped with restrooms, showers, and an open-air café, but best of all is its beautiful, sandy beach that is popular with families and serious surfers. The adjacent neighborhood is both residential and commercial, as houses and apartment buildings share the area with auto repair shops, bars, and ice cream stands.
Although it's been two years since Rockaway Beach got decimated by Hurricane Sandy, there are still many signs of wreckage and repair. Empty lots sit alongside some houses that seem freshly renovated and still others that remain boarded up. We hadn't been to Rockaway since the hurricane and wanted to see the state of things, plus we'd been mostly stuck in the city all summer and were craving a look at the ocean. We also had a lunch agenda: Rockaway Tacos -- one of the Rockaway landmarks that has risen from the hurricane rubble.
Rockaway Tacos is located on 96th Street (take the A or S train from the Broad Channel Station to 98th Street), about two blocks from the beach. [2015 update: the stand closed early this year] It's easy to spot because there is usually a long line of waiting customers making their way to the colorful shack and friendly order-takers; a handsome one kept calling me darlin' which I was absolutely fine with. The cooking crew work hip-to-hip and with good humor in a small space behind the shack's order windows, pumping out fried fish (tilapia, I think), chorizo, and tofu tacos, along with guacamole, fried plantain chips, and other messy-to-eat items like cheese-coated roasted corn-on-the-cob. The fish is batter fried, the chorizo is hearty, and the tofu, well I don't know because why would I choose tofu when I could have fried fish or chorizo in my tacos. Beverages include icy watermelon juice or pineapple juice with mint, both extremely refreshing even on a less than hot day. Some customers bought to take to the beach; others, like us, crowded together to eat sitting at colorfully painted plywood benches and tables tucked behind the shack in a small alleyway.
The crowd of customers is eclectic, in age, style of dress, number of tattoos, and degree of sun damage but what we all shared was enthusiasm for the food and the chance to support this taco stand's post-Sandy resurrection. But beach romance aside, I've eaten better fish tacos -- my complaint was with all the fried batter that surrounded the flaky fish. Still, I wouldn't discourage you from making the journey to Rockaway Beach, especially if you bring a swimsuit and a towel. As for the tacos, if you've never cooked your own, you will be surprised at how versatile they can be and how easy to make and there's no need to take the A train.
Making Fish Tacos At Home
If you eliminate any fried batter coating, fish tacos can be a healthy food choice, plus they're very quick to cook. Like any home cooking, you get the best flavor if you make the effort to seek out the best ingredients. So shop around for good corn tortillas, buy good fish, take care with the preparation of the slaw and seasonings, and cook the fish (or shellfish) for maximum flavor. I usually buy bags of La Tortilla Factory white corn tortillas (made with both corn and wheat), which cost about $3 for a bag of 8; I freeze any leftovers which you don't even have to defrost before you toast them the next time.
If I'm pressed for time, which often happens, I buy bags of Dole coleslaw mix made with white cabbage and carrots, and toss this with a little Hellman's light mayonnaise and a few shots of sriracha sauce (go lightly with the sauce until you know how much heat you like). I pan-cook the fish -- cod or snapper or tilapia are all good -- or shrimp, that before sautéing in olive oil I first dusted with either a bit of flour, cornmeal, or fine bread crumbs which helps the fish hold together and adds a subtle crust. While the fish cooks I warm the tortillas in a second, dry-but-hot cast iron pan and assemble the tacos with a piece of fish, a handful of slaw, a few slices of avocado, and to the side, a wedge of lime. Sometimes I omit the spicy mayonnaise and instead toss the slaw mix with a little olive oil just to soften it, and then assemble the taco, topping it with salsa. How much easier can it be to make a satisfying weeknight supper? If I've planned ahead I've already got all the ingredients, with the tortillas and wild shrimp in my freezer, making this a really easy meal even at the end of a long day.
If you want a more complex taco, here are a few suggestions. First, from thekitchn.com, here is a very good recipe for fish tacos, which will help any taco-novice with the core technique, including how to cook the fish. If you want more variety, Cooking Light Magazine offers a dozen ways to make fish tacos in this article.
The Fancy Food Show
Twice a year the Specialty Food Association holds its Fancy Food Show; in January it's in San Francisco and in New York it's in early summer. And a show it is, with more than 2,400 exhibitors from more than 80 countries presenting 180,000 products. Yes, 180,000 different food products.
The Fancy Food Show is where retailers and wholesalers go to shop. If you wonder how your grocer manages to carry a dozen different fruit vinegars or fill its snack shelves with so many pretzels and bagel chips or sell a score of hot sauces, there's a good chance that your store found them at the Fancy Food Show.
I like to go to this show to meet or revisit lots of people in the ever-larger food world, all gathered in one convenient place. These food producers are passionate about their products, work very hard, and many run businesses that started if not in their garages, then at least in their home kitchens.
This year as usual, aisle after aisle of the Javits Center was filled with chocolates, cheese, coffee, snacks, hot sauces, charcuterie, salts, spices, yogurt, olive oil, gluten-free, organic, vegan, imported, farm-to-table, and even 3-D printed foods.
After five hours of wandering the cavernous convention center I was wishing I had one of those pedometer bracelets so I'd know how many miles I walked. Was it enough to make a caloric dent in all the tasting and snacking I'd done? That's because just about every exhibitor tempts you with samples. Perhaps not a moveable feast; more like a moveable grazing. I carry a bottle of water and learned that if I forced myself to write down everything I tasted, I would be more selective and avoid the unique hangover from eating a combo of hot sauce-macarons-mortadella-pickles-bitters-elderberry tea-tomato sauce-goat cheese-mustard filled sausage-and sea salted chocolate.
The term "fancy food" is evocative. The first show was in 1955, when "fancy" meant something exotic or extravagant, and when they first introduced many of the imported and independently produced foods that today, a lot of us consider essentials and not "fancy" at all. Foods like olive oil, yogurt, wine vinegar, hot sauce, and dark chocolate to name a few.
Despite the show's name, today's food trend data say we want to eat less "fancy," not more so, which is in fact what this influential trade show demonstrates and helps to make possible.
So did I see any trends? Based on my five-hour walk, this is some of what I observed:
- Pre-made sauces and marinades. Dozens of vendors showcased ways to add easy flavor to meats, fish and poultry. Some were ethnic, especially Indian and Asian, while others were fruit or vinegar based, especially balsamic vinegar. This suggests to me that people are trying to cook at home with more of the flavors found in restaurant eating without all the fuss of making the sauces or marinades. I also saw many jam-like products that were showcased served over cream cheese as an hors d'oeuvre, as a riff on the old fashioned (but quite yummy) snack of red pepper jelly spilled over a block of cream cheese served with Triscuits. It also may be because cream cheese is inexpensive and easy to find.
- Cheese. Wow, were there lots of cheeses. Especially goat cheese but also region-specific hard cheeses, like Vermont cheddar and one particularly awful Wisconsin blue cheese, and a tasteless make-at-home mozzarella mix. I also saw more cheeses with things mixed into them, like smoked chili.
- Chocolate. I was struck by how often I saw dark chocolate with unexpected add-ins like quinoa or dulce de leche. The classics are still there but if you want diversity in your chocolate, you're in luck.
- Pickles and Hot Sauces. Not together but still, there seemed to be an increased presence of small producers offering only one or two products and these were often either pickles or hot sauces. I think this has to do with the relatively low bar to enter the food business with such products.
- Large Versus Small Producers. Related to the above point, I saw more large companies and fewer small ones. Perhaps the financial crisis put some of the "mom and pop" ones out of business and they haven't come back, but minus a more scientific measure, I'd say that there are fewer small specialty food companies than there were five years ago, although in some categories (pickles and hot sauces) they still seem to dominate.
- Hot Ingredients. Hot as in trending, not spicy. The ingredients that I saw featured the most often, sometimes in unexpected ways, were quinoa (in granola, snacks, chocolates), chai tea (aside from dozens of teas, also in sorbet, chocolates), chickpeas, which are increasingly used in crackers and other snacks, probably because they are gluten-free, and sriracha sauce (in pickles, hot sauces, snacks, beer, on popcorn, and yes, in chocolate).
- Beverages. We are a thirsty bunch based on the 500 or so beverage vendors presenting beers, wines, water, spirits, syrups, bitters, non-carbonated juices and ciders, carbonated soft drinks, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Many of these were small craft companies and still others were international, especially in the categories of coffee and tea. Neither Coke nor Pepsi were there. I guess they're not fancy.
- Special Needs. It was my impression that there were, if not fewer gluten-free products, there weren't more, except for the gluten-free fruitcake being introduced. Maybe this category has topped out, at least in terms of the kind of snack foods featured at this show. But there seemed to be a larger presence of foods in the categories of halal, kosher, lactose-free, nut-free, organic, and sugar-free, plus companies touting non-GMO (genetically modified organism) ingredients.
- Convenience Foods. No surprise here as we're all pressed for time but in support for those of us who cook at home, I saw many items that can be quick-cooked, or slow-cooked in a slow cooker. I also saw more pre-made soups that can be easily reheated and baking kits that are like upscale cake mixes without the chemicals.
- Sugar. In spite of the 70 or so producers offering sugar-free products, a huge number of the other 2,300+ vendors had plenty to make up for it. I would routinely ask producers about added sugar in savory products and it was rare to be told that there wasn't any. While it's easy to leave the Fancy Food Show with the impression that our processed food is being increasingly produced with care and craft for healthy eating, a closer look will tell you that sugar lurks everywhere. It was a big reminder for why we must read labels.
A final trend observation: we now live, cook and eat in a global village and demand easy access to international ingredients that even a decade ago might have required special sourcing or visits to neighborhood ethnic markets. The proof is how this Fancy Food Show hosted producers and distributors from around the world, organized into their own nation aisles in the huge halls of Javits where you could take a gastronomic mini tour traveling from Egypt to Greece to China to Italy (the Italians were the best dressed) to Thailand, Turkey and back again. But being reminded that food and culture are linked, as you'd enter the French section, you'd see samples of chevre or paté given with tastes of wine. Served in stemmed glasses. At 11:00 am. Now that's fancy.
In 1964 New York poet, novelist, and MoMA curator Frank O'Hara finally delivered a long-promised manuscript to his editor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is said to have chased his laggard author for years with an occasional taunt, "what's for lunch?".
Lunch Poems, recently re-issued by City Lights Publishers on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, is a collection of 37 poems that describe O'Hara's sights and musings about New York City, many of which were written while on his lunch hour as he walked and watched the city and its people. The poems observe the city and the theater of its streets and back stories, the ordinary and the famous, geopolitical news and New York streetscapes, much of which no longer exists. And they reference lunch, said to be his favorite meal.
O'Hara, who posthumously received the National Book Award for Poetry in 1972 and was a force in what was known as "the New York School," was killed in 1966 in a Long Island auto accident similar to that which killed his friend Jackson Pollock 10 years earlier. O'Hara was 40 years old.
Here is an excerpt from A Step Away From Them, written in 1956:
It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.…
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.…
Whether you're cooking fancy or plain, eating lunch on a park bench or cooking dinner, enjoy this month of September, our most nostalgic month, and the one when our markets give us their best and most generous bounty.