DC for the First Time and…I’m Not Sure How I Feel About It

Washington, DC subway tunnel

A weekend of Firsts

For most kids growing up in the New York City area, Washington, D.C. is their 8th grade trip. For this New York kid, it took all of thirty-something years to visit DC for the first time. I’d had my eye on a Caribbean trip for MLK Weekend, but couldn’t justify spending that much money on a last minute jaunt. After pricing trips to other US cities, D.C. it was.

This was also another first for me: after realizing I could fly to continental Europe for roughly the same amount (I wish I were kidding), I decided against taking Amtrak and bought a bus ticket on Greyhound. I’d been as far south by land as Philly (well, technically Delaware) and knew I could cover a decent amount of D.C. in a weekend.

There I was at the crack of dawn at Port Authority. I’ve all but given up my practice of descending on a new city with no planned lodging. However, my style is more go with the flow than a concrete plan. I’d done a fair amount of research using Yelp and Google Reviews, so at least I had my food and drink options on lock. The rest would be up to chance.

Arriving Into Town

Despite it being only a couple of hours south of New York, I only had the vaguest sense of what D.C. was like outside of the museums and government buildings. I had a friend who settled in D.C. as a young adult and a cousin who went to college there but never left. Up until this point, it never interested me much to visit. This sentiment would be a harbinger of things to come.

We pulled into Union Station about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Realizing the hotel was less than a mile away, we walked. I was immediately struck by how empty the streets appeared. Every New Yorker has had that moment ending up in the Financial District after hours and it being a ghost town. This was even more so.

The architecture reminded me of something not quite New York, yet reminiscent of parts of Williamsburg or Long Island City: modern glass and metal buildings, sterile with no personality. Some blocks looked oddly mismatched: old, rundown buildings housing nail salons and liquor stores sandwiched between taller, overbearing “luxury” condos.

H Street Chinatown Arch

The Chinatown Arch on H Street near the Pod DC Hotel.

DC Pod Hotel

At last, we turned onto H Street when we saw the Chinese arch. We stayed at the Pod DC Hotel, which markets itself as being a centrally located hotel with all the things you want and none of what you don’t at a moderate price. You can check-in the traditional way or by using their digital check-in kiosk, which I opted for. In minutes, we were settled into the room and ready to hit the road again.

By pod, I knew that the rooms weren’t going to be large: it was roughly the size of a dorm room. However, it had everything I needed at an arm’s reach (literally): a place to charge the phone, shelves and hooks to hang up your jacket and clothing, and even shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. I never made it to their Crimson Diner, which is on the ground floor, or their signature rooftop whiskey bar (though, my cousin recommends it.) I suppose you could say that this hotel has everything that a millennial could want or need under one roof (I’m technically a millennial, though Stefan might disagree.)

Arepa Zone

It was cold and we were hungry. In my research, I soon realized that what was considered a cheap meal in New York was a delicacy in D.C. Seriously. If you’ve read my blog, you know that my husband is of Trinidadian descent. In parts of Brooklyn and Queens, Trini street foods, like doubles and pholourie, can be had for pocket change.

I knew D.C. was a different animal when I stumbled upon a restaurant that sells doubles for $6 (!!!) and pholourie for $5. New York is expensive, but I saw menu items in some restaurants going for sometimes $10 or more than I’d pay at home. I understand they have to make money, but finding something on a menu that I’d pay $10-13 dollars going for over $20 was off-putting.

Eventually, we settled on a quick meal at Arepa Zone’s 14th Street NW location. I’m very familiar with arepas and Venezuelan fare (shout out to Arepa Café in Astoria!) I debated between a pabellón arepa and the pabellón bowl, a dish featuring black beans topped with grated white cheese, rice, sweet plaintains, and shredded beef. I went with the bowl. Stefan got the perníl arepa (shredded seasoned pork.)

The atmosphere was corporate, like a large Chipotle or Starbuck’s, and nondescript. While I devoured my meal, as I was starving by that point, it was just all right. The meat was pretty dry, and lacked that savory taste and aroma that is pabellón’s signature. The pork in Stefan’s arepa fared a bit better. While it wasn’t great, they earn points for selling containers of guayanés cheese, a soft, salty cheese not dissimilar to mozzarella or Oaxaca.

mojito

Drinking mojitos as Café Cuba.

Mi Cuba Café

We continued to walk north of 14th Street NW. It wasn’t freezing, but the rain and wind made it unpleasant. One of my buddy’s spends sometime in the DMV area and suggested that I head to the Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights area. It seemed like the further north we walked, the more interesting it became. Still, it was apparent that gentrification had devoured entire blocks. Turn of the century rowhouses and lively storefronts give way to bleak, generic apartment complexes and commercial spaces.

One of my friend’s recommendations was Mi Cuba Café. Full disclosure: I didn’t actually eat anything here except the complimentary garlic bread they gave us (Cuban-style pressed garlic bread is a must, if you haven’t had it.) Mostly, we sipped on mojitos and Cuba Libres while listening to the sounds of Celia Cruz, Fania, and classic Cuban music. The walls are painted in rich citrus hues and I could tell many of the customers were regulars. I still wish I’d tried the food. Oh, well, there’s next time.

Karribean Kitchen

I wasn’t looking for it especially. Before leaving Mi Café Cuba, I took a glance at Yelp to see what else was around. The weather sucked, so walking around aimlessly was out of the question. At this point, what’s another round of drinks? Karribean Kitchen  caught my eye. At just a few blocks, it seemed like a good place to set up shop for an hour or so before deciding on dinner plans.

Karribean Kitchen looks like a small, nondescript restaurant from the outside. On the inside, it’s all music and no nonsense. I really wasn’t hungry yet, but the thought of listening to some 90s Reggae and a rum punch sounded awfully good. The vibe was casual and unpretentious. We sat down at the bar and ordered some rum punches. As soon as I saw the Wray & Nephew Overproof make an appearance, I knew they weren’t fooling around. The finished product was a perfect balance of strong and sweet, the sugarcane aroma of the Wray coming through.

I should add that while there is an abundance of West Indian (and especially Jamaican restaurants) in New York City, a lot are only take-out and even fewer have a full service bar. It’s always a treat to find one with a bar. I really liked the vibe and could have stayed there for hours. Alas, all good things must come to an end. We ordered a Lyft and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant

I go out of my way to try new foods and I’d heard that DC had a huge Ethiopian population. East African cuisine was a whole new ballgame for me. I deferred to Yelp and found Chercher on 9th Street NW. When we got there, it seemed a lot of others had the same idea for Saturday night. The restaurant is situated in what looks like a rowhouse. You walk up the stairs to the main floor and there’s also a basement level.

Though bi-level, the space was intimate. Inside, it felt like a good mix of East Africans and people of other backgrounds who were there for the same reason we were. We were seated downstairs next to a group of older Ethiopian men and promptly given menus. I ordered the doro wat and Stefan, the beef tibs. Doro wat is basically a stewed, spicy meat (in this case, lamb) served with a side of yogurt.

I’m a big fan of arepas, roti, and naan, so I was really curious about the Ethiopian equivalent: injera. I’d never seen one before. It tasted like it was made of whole wheat and was served room temperature. It’s a brownish-grey color and has a stretchy, chewy texture that I can’t really compare to anything. Much thicker than a dhal puri or paratha, for comparison. I saw some of the other diners ordering it with small portions of different veggies and sauces on top, kind of like a thali platter but actually on the injera.

I would soon learn that forks aren’t really a think if you order a meal with injera, as you use it to scoop up the food. It’s spongy texture held up well against the lamb. I was trying to draw a comparison to things I’d eaten before, but really couldn’t. It had almost a smoked, barbeque flavor to it. I have to admit, I wasn’t crazy about it. The beef tibs were good. I don’t think doro wat is my thing. However, the service was very friendly. I’d be curious about trying one of the dishes with various sauces and vegetables.

US Botanical Garden

The courtyard in United States Botanical Garden.

National Mall and United States Botanical Garden

Luckily, Sunday morning was a tad warmer and sunny, so we were able to get out and about to explore. Stef made it a point to get up at the crack of dawn to run around the National Mall. Once he came back, we looked for breakfast and ended up at Lincoln’s Waffle House, a diner with an old timey feel to it, which seemed popular with tourists. Very simple and to the point. Being a New Yorker, I appreciated their efficiency.

After breakfast, we took a walk to the National Mall. We realized that most of the museums in the area were free. However, it was such a sunny day and I prefer the city streets as my museum. Don’t judge me. I’ll always make an exception for botanical gardens, which I make it a point to seek out. (Oh, in case you do want to visit the museums, here’s a list.) I all but rushed over.

The world renowned New York Botanical Garden is practically (in) my backyard, so any garden I visit has a tough act to follow. United States Botanical Garden is an impeccably manicured, though much smaller place. I love gardens that feature collections by climate. Nothing like experiencing the humidity of the Amazon and Hawaii on a 40 degree day!

Eastern Market

From there, we made our way to Eastern Market, where we were meeting my cousin and her husband. Capitol Hill felt much more like a small town than a bustling city center. I was expecting a large, frenetic market similar to something I’d see in New York. In reality, it reminded me of a mini version of Montreal’s Jean Talon Market. It was pleasant to be in a neighborhood that felt residential instead of the sterile empty streets of Downtown DC.

edible orchids

Edible orchids for garnish at Eastern Market.

Blue Jacket Brewery

I was most excited about getting down to Blue Jacket Brewery. For not having a car, it’s rare that I get to go outside of the city, where most of the breweries are. Blue Jacket is a huge repurposed warehouse in DC’s Navy Yard neighborhood.

I love a good stout or porter, so went with ordering the Mexican Radio, a chocolaty milk stout with vanilla beans, cacao, cinnamon, and ancho chillies. It gave the finish a tiny bit of heat to it. I ordered two. Along with the stout, all the beers I tried were quality with some imagination (sorry, nondescript IPAs.)

Mexican Radio stout

The Mexican Radio stout at Blue Jacket Brewery.

Philz and GEORGETOWN

The sun was out and it was warmer than it had been. We decided to check out and leave our bags with the front desk to get a few more hours, the in hopped on Metro to Dupont Circle in search of breakfast. We ended up at a coffee chain I’d never heard of, Philz. The two coffees and pastries (a croissant, in my case) were good, better than Starbucks, but not good enough to justify the nearly $20 price tag.

We ended up using this time to walk into Georgetown, which I’d heard so much about. G-Town was this smart, young, trendy, college neighborhood, or so I was told. Yeah, the architecture may have been pretty, but it seemed like gentrification’s ugly Anytown, USA had eaten it whole. Chipotle. TJ Maxx. Sephora. These were just a few of the chains that I spotted. The park trail by the Potomac River was scenic, though Starbucks punctuated its riverside plaza.

Reflections

Granted, DC is much smaller than New York, Los Angeles, or other major US cities, it seemed to lack substance. It was almost bizarre how devoid of any diversity many parts of the city were. Even Chinatown, where we stayed, was about a block long and aside from a couple of restaurants, there was no sign of Chinese culture. To find those kinds of neighborhoods, you need to leave the city center towards the periphery. In fact, in certain sections, aside from Stefan, there were few people of color period. It seemed very homogenous.

Walking through the streets back to the hotel, the streets seemed deserted with few shops, and not a whole lot going on. Where was the personality? You could walk blocks and it really didn’t look much different than the neighborhood before. Are there cool restaurants and bars? Sure. Dozens of museums and monuments? Absolutely. Are there buzzing, diverse neighborhoods full of art and character? That I’m not too certain about.

This may sound odd, as it seems like we hit all the cool places in town— and maybe you’re not wrong. The restaurants and bars we found may not have been places that you “just stumble upon”— we had to look for them or go on recommendations. What I noticed in my research for this trip was that cuisines that we take for granted, like Indian or Thai, were at higher price point than you’d find in New York, which was surprising (and nothing is cheap in New York.) It was bizarre to see some foods that were common in our neighborhoods being sold for super inflated prices.

When I talk about Brussels, where I’ve been twice, I’m usually met with ambivalence at best from travelers who’ve been there. No real Belgians live there, they complain. It’s an administrative capital full of bureaucrats and government employees, not a real city, they say. Is DC the United States equivalent of Brussels? I left without feeling like a got an adequate enough dose of DC’s personality. Or more accurately stated, I left wondering if DC did have a personality at all.

4 Things Must Sees in Montreal

Fast-track to Montreal: Only have a day or two to paint the two red? No worries— I’ve got you!  

Traveling off season can be rewarding. Airfares and lodging are cheaper, you’re not faced with crowds and long lines, but comes with challenges. In my case, I visited Montreal, Canada in January, its coldest average month. But, hey, I’d never been north of the border and I couldn’t resist a bargain!

Getting Into Town

Budget is my kind of travel. Unless I arrive somewhere late at night or the locale lacks adequate public transportation, I rarely opt for a cab. As it turns out, Montreal’s airport is served by the 747 bus (aptly numbered!), which makes stops via Rue St.-Jacques before turning and continuing via Boulevard René Lévesque. It takes upwards of 40-70 minutes to reach its final destination,  Berri-UQAM. This is where the green and orange line subways converge which, as it turns out, is my stop.

Tip: In order to board, you need to buy a $10(CAD) ticket in the vending machines in the airport, positioned adjacent to Door #28, which the bus stops in front of. This card is good for all Montreal buses and subways for 24 hours. Even better, if you’re in town for a weekend, like I was, you can buy a weekend or 3-day unlimited pass ($18.) A single ride ticket on a regular bus or metro is $3.25 (CAD.)

What to Do

Vieux-Port

Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel

Vieux-Port aka Old Montreal is a must for the first time traveler to this Canadian city. When I arrived, it was 14° and the streets were a ghost town in sections. Come spring, those same cobble-stoned streets are brimming with sidewalks cafes, terrace bars, and life.

Auberge Restaurant in Montreal

It’s location alongside the St. Lawrence River make it ideal for a walk on a sunny day. Compact and walkable,  you can see a lot if you’re on a layover or only in town for the day. Teaming with French and British architecture from its colonial days, the district evokes Europe. Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring your camera— the picturesque buildings make for an excellent Instagram backdrop.

Notre-Dame of Montreal

Metro Station: Champ-De-Mars and Place-D’Armes metro stations on the orange line

 

Explore Street Art

Mural in St-Henri

 

Art in this city is huge and you’ll get a nonstop dose of it by chance. Just walking around, you’ll find it on street signs, on buildings, and even in the subway. Street art is so highly celebrated in this town that there’s even a festival dedicated to it.

 

The paintings range from the avant-garde and surreal to depictions of people and nature, as well as pieces paying homage to indigenous people and victims of AIDS deaths. Neighborhoods like Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, Mile End, and St-Henri are great jump-off points for a taste of art, but it’s very difficult not to stumble upon it no matter where in the city you go.

Hummingbird Mural in Montreal

 

Visit Jean-Talon Market

Jean-Talon Market

Do you like eating? Shopping? People watching? If you answered yes to all of the above, Jean-Talon Market is an obligatory stop in Montreal. Situated on the fringes of the Little Italy neighborhood, this enclosed market, which opened over eighty years ago, is one of the largest of its kind in North America.

Farm fresh items— produce, meats, and cheeses— line dazzle tables and displays. It’s very not hard to see why many local restaurants buy their supplies straight from this source. Not only can you shop here, but the market itself in the anchor to several specialty cafes and restaurants, ranging from seafood to crepes.

7070, Avenue Henri-Julien, Montréal, QC H2S 3S3
Website: www.marchespublics-mtl.com/marches/jean-talon/  

Metro Station: Jean-Talon, blue and orange metro lines

Tip: For a smaller, less crowded experience, try Atwater Market,  just a short walk from the Lionel-Groulx station on the green and orange lines.  This is a ice stop before catching the 747 bus to the airport, which stops adjacent to the metro station.

 

Walk “The Main”

Mural of Girl with Fish

Montreal locals refer to Boulevard St.-Laurent, the nearly-7 mile long street that runs north to south through the city’s center, as “The Main.” This avenue begins in Old Montreal, snaking its way through a diversity of neighborhoods containing some of the city’s best restaurants, bars, shops, and parks. The street is wildly popular with natives and tourists alike—it even has its own website and Twitter account. And the best way to see it is on foot.

I hopped a #55 bus in Chinatown with the intention of taking it to Avenue du Mont-Royal, another main drag. I was captivated by The Main from my bus window and instantly wished I’d opted to walk instead. Its vibrant art, sea of ethnic eateries,hipster cafes, and specialty shops can be sensory overload. Did I really want to eat Venezuelan arepas or did I actually want Portuguese rotisserie chicken? On the Main, you can have both and more.

Cali Vietnamese Restaurant

After deciding on arepas, I spent over an hour with my camera out, shooting graffiti murals, architecture, vintage store signs, and street scenes. You’re instantly sucked in and think, “Yes, St-Laurent is the perfect street.” I decide to return early the next to do more exploring, the city coming alive. Here it’s not unusual to eat breakfast alongside Hasidic Jews, have brunch prepared by Chinese immigrants, and have a cocktail made by a French-Canadian. The boulevard is the crossroads of many cultures coming together.

ACCOMMODATIONS

I stay almost exclusively in hostel. I booked a 6-bed female dorm in Alexandrie-Montreal. Located on Rue Amherst, it’s in the midst of the city’s  Village neighborhood, a colorful gay and artistic community.

Alexandrie-Montreal, 1750 Rue Amherst, Montréal, QC H2L 3L6, Canada, +1 514-525-9420 www.alexandrie-montreal.com

Día de Los Muertos: Mexican Cuisine in the Bronx

Note: Updated on October 29, 2019

New York is a city where you can get a feel for dozens of cultures without leaving the borough. After all,  the  7 train subway line that runs from Manhattan’s Westside to Queens is known as the “International Express.” When people think of the Mexican diaspora in New York, they typically think of  Jackson Heights and Corona in Queens, Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and perhaps East Harlem in Manhattan. The least obvious place may be the Bronx, but that’s where a rapidly growing Mexican population is flourishing.

Feeling festive at Mexicozina restaurant in Mott Haven

Feeling festive at Mexicozina’s 149th St. location

With a Latino population that makes up well over half the borough (which also boasts the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans after the island itself), behind Dominicans, Mexicans are the next largest immigrant group in the Bronx . Nowhere, perhaps, is this more obvious then in the Mott Haven and Melrose sections of the South Bronx. This has resulted in taquerías, specialty stores, and restaurants cropping up all over.

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Unlike California or Texas where you have populations that are from all over Mexico, New York City is host primarily to Mexicans from Puebla, which is both a city and state southeast of Mexico City, along with smaller groups from Oaxaca and Michoacán. Theses sensibilities are reflected in their cooking, which has recently gotten some accolades (read: Mayor deBlasio has dined at Mott Haven’s La Morada restaurant this past spring.)

Eat Your Way Through the Bronx

The mole poblano at La Morada

The mole poblano at La Morada

Before you head to Manhattan to gorge on the Tex-Mex for Día de Los Muertos, you should take a second look at what the Bronx is cookin’:

La Morada
308 Willis Avenue
Bronx, NY 10454

This is as mom and pop as it gets. This family-owned neighborhood stronghold is owned and operated by a couple and their three young adult-aged children serving up oaxaqueño cuisine. It features a small book lending library and has been featured in no less than the New York Times and New York Daily News. Several varieties of mole  are available and chef/mother, Natalia, is known to whip up specialties on the fly.

Over the past few years, La Morada has found itself in the media, achieving critical acclaim. You may recognize Marco Saavedra, the owner’s son. His story has garnered media attention as he’s become a symbol of the battle that young undocumented adults in obtaining legal status. You can read more about the restaurant and about Marco here.

Xochimilco Restaurant
653 Melrose Ave
Bronx, NY 10455

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it is: Baron Ambrosia, the Bronx’s culinary hometown hero of Cooking Channel fame featured it in a 2009 episode, which received a write up in the New York Times (yeah, Bronx cuisine is serious stuff.) The restaurant takes it name from what’s left of a tiny community within historic Mexico City, recognized by UNESCO. It’s a neighborhood favorite.

Mexicosina
503 Jackson Ave.
Bronx, NY 10455

watermelon agua fresca

A delicious watermelon agua fresca at Mexicosina.

Originally a tiny restaurant so small that you were practically sharing a table with other diners, it’s expanded. In 2012, the owner moved to a larger venue closer to the Hub, where the action is, before expanding to an additional location on nearby Jackson Avenue. The 149th Street location, which served margaritas and sangrias, and featured an enclosed porch, closed down a few years back when the building was sold. The restaurant’s popularity has facilitated its expansion into the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn. Though you can no longer sip a boozy tequila drink, Mexicosina’s agua frescas, fresh fruit-based beverages, are a standout.

Bonus:

Seis Vecinos
640 Prospect Ave.
Bronx NY 10455

Guacamole at Seis Vecinos

Guacamole at Seis Vecinos

The newest kid on the block, this restaurant not only serves up traditional Mexican food, but throws in some Central American staples (pupusas and balaedas, anyone?) for good measure. The place serves up good piña coladas and hearty guacamole. After work, the mood is festive with friends and families celebrating TGIF. After a good run on East 149th Street near St. Mary’s Park, the restaurant relocated to a larger, more upscale venue on Prospect Avenue.

Learn more about these restaurants and the South Bronx’s growing Mexican community.

Larkin Plaza: Urban Planning at Its Best

Map of Larkin Plaza

Truth be told, I would not necessarily suggest somebody make a special trip out to Larkin Plaza unless you are an urban planner, transportation buff, and/or architecture lover. The park is very small and more of an example of what urban planning could be at its best than a true tourist site. That said, there are a few reasons to linger if you find yourself missing a bus or waiting for the next train.

(more…)

Flushing, Queens: $20 and a Mission

Flushing, Queens is the last stop of the “International express”, the nickname for the 7 train line. It’s also home to one of the city’s largest Asian population, primarily Chinese and Koreans.

One of the goals on my Day Zero list was to visit the Queens Botanical Garden. The day before I’d visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which I can get into free due to my New York Botanical Garden membership. I’d been to the my Brooklyn counterpart many times, but for whatever reason I’d forgotten there was also a garden in Queens. I decided I’d take the trek to Queens and check it out.

I’m a big travel junkie and on weekends I like to explore the five boroughs and the outskirts when I get a chance. Sometimes to get the full experience you need to travel like a local away from home but get the full tourist experience at home. That’s what I decided to do. First stop: Main Street, Flushing, the last stop on the 7 train.

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I had not eaten before leaving the Bronx and Flushing is known for its great Asian cuisine, especially Chinese and Korean. I decided to let my nose and stomach be my guide. I walked down Main Street south towards the garden. I’d never been the way except once or twice on a bus ride to Jamaica, but that was years ago.

I crossed underneath the Long Island Railroad trestle and landed in front of a bunch of open air windows selling food to go apparently known as AA Plaza. They sold all kind of Chinese goodies, some familiar and others I had never seen before. I settled on these tiny balls I saw on a stick that smelled good. The lady at the window informed me that these were fish balls and cost a dollar for about four on the “kebab.” I agreed, paid the lady, and went on my way. They were actually quite mild, slightly spicy, and delicious.

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I soon crossed the street and stumbled upon a similar type set up: an open window with displays of food being sold. This particular stall specialized in poultry and rice. I saw a good looking plastic container of brown rice, but decided to be more adventurous. I settled on a container of honey roasted duck. I paid the man the asking price of $5.95 (another bargain) and was on my way. The actual meat was not as fatty as I’d imagined, had a texture similar to turkey, and a slightly sweet taste not too different from turkey or chicken.

I am a big fan of Chinese bakeries. I discovered this when I lived briefly in Woodside. There was a bakery under the 7 train in the 50s that I’d frequent to pick up a slice of cake or cookies. When I sawQQ Cafe & Bakery, I made a dash across the street. I saw cheesecake and a creme brulee that looked good, but I decided to go with something different.

A mother and father with a toddler stood in front of me who looked confused as they bombarded the girl behind the counter with questions. I spotted a display of what appeared to be cracked eggs smoking on the counter. I later found out that these were duck eggs, a Chinese delicacy. Not quite my cup of tea (no pun intended.) I found a brightly shaded green cake that the sales girl told me was green tea cake with apple filling. $1.50? I’ll take it! The green tea flavor was subtle but the apple filling was sweet and moist. I happily ate it up as I walked.

I finally hap733985_3046503459087_1876799447_npened upon the garden. It was much smaller than either the one in the Bronx or Brooklyn, and the entrance was not apparent at first.  I flashed my garden pass to the girl in the booth who said the entry

was free for the next few hours, and handed me a map. To people who are not fans of botany as I am, a garden is a garden. I looked at my map and realized there was really nothing in the way of a conservatory like the aforementioned gardens have, which are considerably larger. I walked on. It seemed more like a park than a botanical garden. It was pleasant enough and I walked leisurely through, admiring the scented garden and bridges built over small streams.

I left, slightly disappointed, and headed back up Main Street towards the 7 train. I decided that I wanted to check out some of the local grocery stores, whose interesting displays on the sidewalks drew me in. I walked into the Good Fortune Supermarket, interested in the exotic fruits and vegetables I saw, a produce worker encouraging me to take a look. So I did.

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Dragon fruit aka pitaya

I consider myself to be a pretty adventurous eat, but I will be honest in sharing that there were many things I would have serious reservations about trying and could not identify. I appeared to be the only non-Chinese/Asian shopper in sight, which was no deterrent. Most of the signage identifying the items were in Chinese, though the produce and seafood also had English.

 

I consider myself to be a pretty adventurous eat, but I will be honest in sharing that there were many things I would have serious reservations about trying and could not identify. I appeared to be the only non-Chinese/Asian shopper in sight, which was no deterrent. Most of the signage identifying the items were in Chinese, though the produce and seafood also had English.

 

I think that the other shoppers probably knew that I was as interested in exploring as I was in actually shopping. While I myself would not necessarily be eating what was sold, I did find it interesting to check out what the offered and it appeared quite fresh as many of animals were still alive.

 

I decided to head on my way and see what else was in store for me (unintended pun #2.)

Some things I would eat or were just very fun to look at. It became a challenge to see how much I could eat with the $20 bill I had. You cannot go to a Chinatown and not buy bubble tea. I headed to Comebuy, which I admit that I have been here before and I knew that I could get something fun and tasty. I ordered a green apple bubble tea ($4.50.) Not too traditional, but had a satisfyingly sweet taste similar to ice tea with a Jolly Rancher and just as green. To those who have never had one, the “bubbles” are actually black tapioca pearls that expand and take on the taste of whatever liquid you put them in. They have a soft, sticky, jelly consistency.

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My green apple green tea with tapioca or “bubbles”

I headed to one more bakery to sample a regular green bubble tea (the I think all the sugar got to me) at Maxin Bakery. By then, as you might imagine, I was stuffed. I also purchased anther green tea cake that I planned to eat for breakfast the following morning. I walked to the Q44 bus stop and headed back to the Bronx.

Total spent for the day? Just under $18.

McLean Avenue Fall Festival 2014

McLean Avenue in Yonkers and Woodlawn in the Bronx are the epicenters for the Irish diaspora. The neighborhood is contiguous, one side being in the Bronx and the other in Westchester. The main avenue is lined with bars, restaurants, and Irish specialty stores . The accent is often more of a lilt than a gruff New York one.

Today is the annual fall festival, celebrated in September just as summer is ending. The street is closed off and full of music, family, food, and souvenirs from the Emerald Isle. For the second year in a row I’ve decided to tote my camera along. The day is a mixture of rainy and clouds, coincidentally the same as you’d find in Ireland, where I’d had a notoriously hard time photographing for that reason.

Two neighborhood lads sitting on a bench observed me and suggested I take a few shots of them, which you’ll find below. After wandering around for a bit, I finished the day up at Rory Dolan’s, where it seems every Irish family has celebrated a birthday, communion, or  wedding at some point (my own great uncle’s 90th surprise party with relatives flown in from County Mayo, case in point.)

The Bronx-based MCNY offers tours of the area, which trace the history and present of immigrant neighborhoods in New York, such as the Irish, Italians, Latinos, and African-Americans. For anyone interested in the Irish experience  McLean/Woodlawn neighborhood is not to be missed.

San Gennaro Festival, NYC 2014

These shots were taken at the San Gennaro Feast in September 2014. Though it’s change a lot through the years, it’s remained one of Manhattan’s quintessential street festivals. I had not been to the feast in quite a number of years. San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples, the city in Southern Italy where quite a few Italian-Americans descend from.

It really has turned into a major tourism event, especially as Little Italy and the Mulberry Street area continues to shrink. In reality the neighborhood is much more Chinese than it is Italian and much more mainstream than it is ethnic.

Street fairs and parades have become one of my signature photographic specialties. I was playing around with white balance that day. While some enjoy photographing people, I love capturing architecture and local food. The colors were very rich, which you can see.

Although the festival is quite different than it was in the past, it’s a worthwhile event to attend- if you get there early enough! I enjoyed some zeppoles from a street vendor. Nowadays it’s pretty much a carnival with food, games, and music with an Italian-American theme to it.

Learn more about the festival

No Photographs, Please: Hall of Fame for Great Americans

As a photographer, have you ever been told that you were prohibited from photographing something?

This past Saturday my neighbor/friend/fellow Bronx aficionado, Matt and I decided to take a photography walk. We began at our lovely art deco building in Bedford Park, stopping for a quick bite at Jerome’s Pizza (my neighborhood favorite.) If you know the area, there are quite a few photogenic subjects to be had. Matt is a licensed tour guide, has a Master’s in history, and is always good for some Bronx trivia.

After the slice we arrived upon the Bedford Park Blvd. overpass, peering into the MTA’s Concourse Yard, a subway storage facility. There are always trains coming in and out, making their way onto the 4 and B/D subway lines, which makes an interesting photo. I’m a personal fan of the retired redbird car series. They can often be seen painted yellow, reinvented as a worktrain or if you’re lucky, as we were, in its original glory. Matt quickly pointed out that getting the right depth of field would totally negate the chain linked fence surrounding it, the only thing obscuring our view. Sweet!

Making our way past Lehman College, we discussed the benefits of an auxiliary flash, something I seriously could have used during my Bronx Fashion Week shoot. We stumbled upon one of those water sampling stations that just happened to be opened and running. Matt was quick to take a photo. I’d never seen one open and had always wondered what was inside. Ah, but within a second of snapping the photo, an overzealous DEP employee appeared out of nowhere and barked at us that we were not allowed to photograph the water station, quickly shutting its door and hiding its contents. Really? We questioned him, as it was a public fixture, thus there was no way he could prevent us from taking a photo. He backed down and disappeared.

This would not be the last time we would be told no that day.

Back in Colombia, I’d gotten into my share of problems with photography. Most people don’t realize, for example, that the cerro— or hill —that you see in all the postcards of Bogotá actually encompasses a strategic military lookout, thus is technically illegal to photograph. I learned this the hard way. Standing on a footbridge, I used a point and shoot to capture the picturesque landscape. I caught the eye of a soldier and naturally, my battery decided to die at that very moment. “No photographs, please!” He instructed me to delete the photos or have my camera confiscated. I took out the AA batteries, alternating them, and was miraculously able to turn the camera on, erasing said photos. I was definitely popular the day I attempted to photograph the changing of the guards at Palacio Nacional. Oops, my flash went off accidentally, betraying me. I was just a naive kid.

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans

Meanwhile, Matt and I decided we should head to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. We continued south onto the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which is paved and snakes in between buildings. Recently renovated, it is still popular among a transient population. One such man jovially asked us to take his photograph. Posturing demonstratively for the camera, he jokingly made us promise to share some of the riches “when we made it big.” “Even $20 is okay!” he laughed as we continued down our path.

The University Heights neighborhood west of University Avenue holds some architectural gems and little known hiding spots. There are entire enclaves of middle-class families occupying private homes with gardens and decorative ornamentation. You can tell by St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church and the character of the buildings that this was no ordinary neighborhood. In fact, prior to the devastation of the Bronx in the 1970s, NYU occupied what is now Bronx Community College.

No Photographs, Please

Upon our arrival to the entrance, I saw the security kiosk by the stairs and realized that we’d likely be asked to present photo IDs, as the Hall of Fame is on the Bronx Community College campus. What I didn’t expect was that upon seeing our Canon DSLRs, we’d be told that we weren’t allowed in without prior permission.

Incredulous, but never the shrinking violet, the look upon my face revealed me. Just to make sure we were understanding the correctly, we asked him to repeat what he’d just said. Apparently, we learned, not only was prior permission a prerequisite, we’d also only be able to access the site during weekday hours. Apologetically, he offered to let us speak to his supervisor if we needed any clarification.

As a Bronx activist, I’m wondering what the rationale is.  You have a tourist site in the middle of a neighborhood that few, if any, non-New Yorkers will ever visit and there are restrictions on who has access and when. It’s one of those practices that somebody clearly spent some time thinking up yet just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. If you have some insight as to why this is, please comment below.

 

Why We Fight for Port Morris

Last week, Bronx Borough Ruben Diaz Jr. publicly wrote off the Port Morris section of the Bronx, referring to it with adjectives “dormant,” “dark,” and “morbid.” This past weekend I introduced an out of town relative to one of the South Bronx’s go-to locales: Mott Haven Bar and Grill (formerly Bruckner Bar and Grill.)

We treated ourselves to the best sweet potato fries in the borough and Bronx Pale Ale. The neighborhood, which is just below the Bruckner Expressway was frenetic with activity. What was once an industrial hub now has tree-lined streets, a café or two, sushi, and bars; there’s a lot going on.  Some wonder why I’m so passionate about the area. They wonder why I speak so loudly and proudly against the naysayers, including many Bronxites themselves.

Does this look dark and morbid to you?

Does this look dark and morbid to you?

Here are just a few reasons why I and others, like South Bronx Unite, continue to fight for this neighborhood:

There’s a strong sense of community

Nearly two years ago, Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. News reports predicted that places like Virginia Beach and Atlantic City would get blown away and that the storm would blow over New York City. Nobody ever anticipated that Sandy would be the cause of billions of dollars worth of damage. What we also never would imagined is that the East River would breach and wipe out one of the South Bronx’s most popular hangouts.

That night, six feet of watered gushed into Mott Haven and Grill (then known as Bruckner Bar), destroying thousands of dollars worth of food, alcohol, and supplies, completely gutting it. After months of legal fees, it seemed like it would never open up again.  For the community, it was not just a watering hole or hot meal. It was a meeting ground, where you would see anybody from the local school teachers to local politicians rubbing shoulders.

People were so touched by the loss, that some took to social media to raise money to help the staff, who now had to deal with the loss of livelihood. It was literally and figuratively a mess, and seemed like a lost cause. But just over a year later, Mott Haven and Grill reopened, with many of its original staff, albeit new management. The original patrons returned and it’s business as usual.

Mott Haven Bar & Grill gay night

Mott Haven Bar & Grill host a gay night

The neighborhood is extremely LGBT friendly

When people think of gay and lesbians strongholds, Greenwich Village, SoHo, or perhaps even Jackson Heights, come to mind. Little do they know, the Bronx— more especially the South Bronx — is home to 11% of New York City’s LGBT population.

With no gay bars, per se, in the borough, Mott Haven Bar and Charlie’s Bar & Kitchen (formerly Clock Martini Bar), have become well-known for their gay nights and parties, drawing customers from even outside the borough. The neighborhood is racially and socioeconomically diverse, and very tolerant.

 

An excited Keith Klain, CEO of Doran Jones, engages with BronxCentric! on Twitter

An excited Keith Klain, CEO of Doran Jones, engages with BronxCentric! on Twitter

Many new living wage jobs will soon be coming to the neighborhood— and they won’t be from FreshDirect

Last Wednesday, DNAinfo.com announced that Per Scholas, situated at the east end of 138th Street, will be creating over 150 jobs in the technology sector beginning this fall. Per Scholas, a non-profit founded in by South Bronxite, Plinio Ayala. His vision was to alleviate generational poverty through education and training in computer programming, placing graduates in IT jobs.

The organization has expanded to three other Northeastern cities and recently partnered with the IT consultancy, Doran Jones. Their newest initiative is the Software Testing Education Program (STEP), which will provide entry-level jobs starting at $35K, with benefits. They hope to fill the bulk of positions with recent graduates from their training program— sweet! What’s more, is that these jobs are sustainable and will provide a meaningful work experience, something not currently not widely attainable in the Bronx. These are the kinds of jobs we NEED!

The soon to open Randall's Island connector bridge

The soon to open Randall’s Island connector bridge

They’re building bridges- literally

Many are unaware it even exists, but many neighborhood activists and avid cyclists have known it’s there. Just this afternoon, DNAinfo.com reported that the red pedestrian bridge that has laid dormant in the shadows of the Triborough Bridge will soon be open to bikers and hikers.

Spoiler alert: the distance between the Bronx and Randall’s Island is so minute that one can (carefully) hop across the Bronx Kill on stones from one side to the other. Up until now, that property has been off limits, a locked gate closing off the semi-complete bridge from the general public.  Park areas are lacking in the Mott Haven/Port Morris vicinity and this would be a boon to further revitalization of the greenery. Hmm, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s the beginning of a beautiful South Bronx Waterfront!

Things are really brewing here

There’s no yellow “caution” tape or construction going on, but the distillery and beer brewing industry is alive and well in Port Morris. Three years ago, Chris Gallant and Damian Brown , opened Bronx Brewery on East 136th Street, steps from the Bruckner Expressway. Originally using a brewery in Connecticut, its success made it a household name in borough bars, like Mott Haven and Bronx Ale House, local groceries, and others outside the borough. They’re stepping up their game a notch and are slated to begin brewing in house this month. Their plans include opening a beer garden on the premises, where you can taste the hopsy goodness.

That’s not the only thing brewing along the Bruckner. In June, New York Daily News cast a spotlight on The Port Morris Distillery, which opened in 2010. Their specialty?  Pitorro, the Puerto Rican variety of moonshine rum. The liquor makes regular appearances on the menus of hot spots,  like Camaradas El Barrio, just across the bridge, and Don Coquí of City Island.

Port Morris also has Tirado Distillery on East 134th Street, which opened in 2010 by a medical doctor (it’s GOOD for you!) of Puerto Rican descent, Dr. Renee Hernandez. Specializing in rum and whiskey, the website lists almost forty locations of bars, restaurants,  and liquor stores where it’s sold. He’s been featured in the New York Times.  Perhaps the best part is that Bronx-based tourism agency, MCNY Tours, run by Bronxite Alexandra Maruri, is hip to all this buzz-ing in the neighborhood and offers tasting tours of the distilleries and brewery.

These are just a few signs of what’s to come…

Let’s Go Hiking (and Biking) in the Bronx!

This morning DNAinfo.com put out a list of what they deemed the five best places to going hiking within New York City limits. While Pelham Bay Park on the list, it was disappointing, considering our borough has more park space than any other. I’ve created a diverse list of trails, some off the beaten path (literally) that you can enjoy.

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The Real Bronx Sans the Tour

Today we celebrate a victory for the Bronx. Sunday’s New York Post revealed a company offering tours of our borough with the sole purpose of “gawking” at residents. Retelling 1970s war stories and half-truths, this tour company played on the fears of outsiders to make a quick buck. By Monday evening, those tours ceased. This was due to the efforts of Bronx politicians and more than 250 Bronxites and supporters who signed onto a protest petition! That’s great, but where do we go from here?

For years, I’ve been a staunch supporter of our borough, correcting anybody who dared to diss it. I take any and every opportunity to dispel a rumor or two. I’ve turned many a leisurely Sunday walk to the train into a history lesson and mini-tour for friends and family. I never miss an opportunity to highlight architectural wonders, landmarks, and events that happened there. Despite efforts, everywhere I go— from TV to Twitter —I find people making large pronouncements about the Bronx— even if they’ve never actually visited.

What’s more is that all of this negative press has invaded even the psyche of Bronxites themselves. I’ve known residents who’ve ‘fessed up to using a relative’s Manhattan address on resumes, refuse to eat out or shop in the borough, and believe that the grass is greener…anywhere but here. Through interactions with them, many are surprised when I tell them about all of the positive things that are happening in the borough. Free and low-cost concerts and lectures, new bars and restaurants, and neighborhood people making a difference in our community. Ah, but that isn’t sexy. You’re not going to necessarily read that or see it on the 6 o’clock news.

DID YOU KNOW THE BRONX HAS…

  • almost a dozen colleges and universities?
  • not only a Little Italy, but also a Little Ireland, Little Africas, Indias, Albanias, Jamaicas, Mexicos, and more?
  • more art deco architecture than anywhere else in the United States?
  • the biggest metropolitan zoo in the country?
  • the most parkland of all give boroughs?

I want to hear from you about what is going on in your neighborhood or block.

Clock Tower Building in the Bronx

Clock Tower Building near Bruckner Boulevard