Brooklyn: Red Hook Mercado

August 23, 2010

I’m off getting married and honeymooning and all that so, in my absence, some good friends are filling in. Today’s look at Brooklyn’s Red Hook Mercado comes from Ana Sofia Peláez.

I didn’t know it then, but I dreamed of Brooklyn my entire life. Moving here 13 years ago, I was part of a wave of post-graduates trading Manhattan shoe box apartments for Brooklyn’s mom-and-pop coziness, though most of my friends were hold outs. I was just over the Brooklyn Bridge but had to beg friends to visit my Cobble Hill apartment only to find myself trekking out to see them in Fort Greene, Williamsburg and Sunset Park a few years later. As a minority, I felt exempt from gentrification guilt though I knew it was only a technicality. A Cuban-American from middle-class Miami, I wanted the same things my friends did — coffee houses, bookstores, and farmer’s markets set against a shabby chic urban landscape — rough but friendly, quiet but accessible.

Red Hook was the exception. Labeled the “crack capital of America” by Life magazine in the early 1990s, it couldn’t be prettified for a new comer’s benefit despite its recent IKEAfication. Though it’s the only New York City neighborhood granted a full frontal view of the Statue of Liberty, she’s oriented to look right past it towards France. Isolated from the rest of Brooklyn, few subways take you there and a highway cuts across it. Passing the docks along the waterfront, you half expect to cross Terry Malloy walking home Edie Doyle. There are some restaurants and stores, studios and parks, but they’re nestled in between forbidding industrial spaces and warehouses, like flowers bursting through a broken sidewalk.

Only twenty minutes away, I rarely went there without a purpose — Fairway, Baked and the Red Hook Ball Fields. Since 1974, vendors from all over Latin America have congregated around Red Hook park to sell Salvadoran pupusas, Mexican huaraches, Colombian arepas, and Chilean empanadas from open air stalls set up with card tables and tarps around the soccer fields. Operating with temporary permits granted over thirty summers, the City Parks department opened the site to outside vendors in 2007. Residents, bloggers, celebrity chefs and local politicians rallied to the vendors’ defense. The City received no competing bids and rewarded the vendors a six year contract instead, but it wasn’t over. The Department of Health forced the vendors to replace the makeshift stalls with expensively outfitted food trucks if they wanted to take their places. Some didn’t make it back, but those who did have done well over increasingly successful summer seasons. No longer confined to the park, they’ve expanded into the popular Brooklyn Flea and Central Park Summer Stage, generating the most buzz and the longest lines wherever they go.

Most recently, they opened the Red Hook Mercado on Van Brunt. Local business owners, Tina Luongo and the photographer Steve Hellerstein, had been using the garden space for small events when they met Cesar Fuentes, the executive director of the Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park. Deciding to partner up, they saw an opportunity to recapture the feel of an open air marketplace that had been lost when the original venue was set on wheels. Settled into a small lot packed with communal tables, the Mercado features ball field favorites like the Vendy award winning Country Boys and Soler Pupusas alongside Robicelli’s Infamous Cupcakes and a pop-up Italian pastry shop blessed by Al Pacino. La Tiendita, a consignment shop for local crafts, and weekly movie screenings are planned for the future.

I headed over there last week on one of the hottest days. Stepping inside the gate, the too-green plants cooled everything off like a jungle in a greenhouse. I introduced myself to Tina and Cesar and took a few awkward pictures of the space before settling down with a black bean pupusa and tamarind juice at one of the tables. If this was really the central square in a small Latin American town, I would have known everyone but it wasn’t, so I was elbow to elbow with strangers. Instead, I listened to the music blaring out of the speakers – Julio Iglesias singing tangos, Jose Feliciano’s wishing us Feliz Navidad in July, and Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma. Improbable but lovely, it felt like home.

Ana Sofia Peláez, a graduate of Barnard College, coordinated features before leaving film to study with Steven Shaw, founder of eGullet.org, at the International CulinaryCenter in their first food blogging program. Since starting hungrysofia.com, she has been featured IN STYLE magazine and the COOKING CHANNEL’s Stay Hungry campaign as well as contributing to several websites, including THE DAILY BEAST and BROKELYN. She lives in Brooklyn.