Ever since the subway became considered a dangerous mode of travel, I’ve been missing my favorite way to navigate the five boroughs. Just recently, I started reaching distant neighborhoods by bike, with an emphasis on revisiting some of my favorite dining establishments after missing them for three months and more. Yes, their ongoing status could be confirmed on websites and via delivery services, but this was not the reassurance I needed. I had to see for myself, and taste the food I’d craved.
A couple of weeks ago I visited the Upper West Side and other Manhattan neighborhoods, but my most recent destination was Bedford-Stuyvesant. I intended to go on a Saturday, but the weather proved so muggy that I didn’t want to endure the steep climb of the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. When Sunday arrived, though, the temperature was glorious. I went knowing that many of the old-timers among the places I wanted to visit wouldn’t be open, because Sunday remains a day of rest among many restaurant owners.
The route was simple, lying from my West Village tenement crosstown on Bleecker, downtown on Chrystie, then over the Manhattan Bridge on the northern bikeway, with dramatic scenes of Chinatown and the Lower East Side unfolding below me. Deposited on the Brooklyn side, I swerved over to Fulton Mall past boarded-up big-box stores, then straight up Fulton Street on a slightly uphill grade through Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and finally under the subway’s aerial walkway at the Franklin Avenue station. I had arrived in 38 minutes.
Already feeling hungry, I cruised past Abu’s Homestyle Bakery, the world’s greatest maker of navy bean pies. Owner Idris Conry goes by “Abu,” which means “father” in Arabic. You’ve doubtless tried pumpkin and sweet potato pies before; these are somewhat similar in their legume outlook, said to have originated when Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad exhorted his followers to adopt a healthier diet. Whatever the history, these pies, available in three sizes, are wonderful in their earthy sweetness. Though often open seven days, the bakery was closed on this occasion. I resolved to have pies shipped to me (see info on the website).
Continuing eastward on Fulton, I noted that Le Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant named after a sacred tree, was open. But I skipped it due to the volume of food that one of its meals entails, resolving to stop at another Senegalese cafe farther up the road. Since it was Sunday, I already knew that my favorite Trinidadian places wouldn’t be open: Ali’s Roti Shop, with its excellent goat roti with a dab of pumpkin, and A&A Bake and Doubles for its doubles or maybe a shark bake, both places near the corner of Fulton and Nostrand. A&A, owned by Noel and Geeta Brown, was the recent recipient of a James Beard award designating it as an American Classic.
At the second spot, a friendly preacher wearing a clerical collar emerged from a storefront church next door to help an elderly parishioner, and then turned to tell me and my riding companion, “A&A isn’t open on Sunday and Monday, and the hours on other days are shorter than usual.” I thanked him, noted that a banner commemorating frontline medical workers had been unfurled across the facade, and made an about-face to head south on Nostrand.
Two blocks south of Fulton and Nostrand the Long Island Railroad rears up, making Crown Heights visible under its pylons, exploding with sunlight. My objective just north of the LIRR was David’s Brisket House, originally a Jewish deli but now long run by Yemeni Muslims, and currently owned by Riyadh Gazali and his son Aladdin.
Featured are the usual forms of beef brisket, as well as hamburgers and other deli and diner classics. The dilemma is always whether to pick the pastrami or go for the roast brisket, its caramelized edges dripping with brown gravy.
I went for the pastrami on a kaiser roll with mustard and sour pickles. The kid behind the counter mournfully told me that the prices had been raised a dollar or two as a result of the novel coronavirus, and I tried to reassure him that all three sizes of sandwich were still a great deal. (I paid $16 for a very heavy sandwich.) The steaming red meat came heavily coated with spices, with a powerful smoky flavor, every bit as good as Katz’s. (I know this assertion will be regarded as blasphemy in some circles.)
Returning to Fulton and traveling east, I sought out the wonderful Afro-Panamanian jerk pork taco spot, El Jeffe, the brainchild of Onishka Camarena. But it was still shuttered, and so was Spudz across the street — a topped-french-fry place with some nice murals that I had only visited once, but loved. Hopefully, both will reopen (according to their Instagram pages, they have limited hours). On the same stretch of Nostrand, it should be noted that Soldier Restaurant, a favorite Jamaican serve-yourself steam table, was open and accepting customers with an elaborate protocol featuring gloves, masks, and a handwashing sink.
I decided to dive into Crown Heights for some of Peppa’s jerk chicken, but first I paused at one of Bed-Stuy’s best coffee and pastry shops, Le Paris Dakar, name-checking the capital of Senegal, which is famous for its Parisian-style pastry shops and cafes; its founder, Mouna Thiam, grew up in France. In addition to coffee, smoothies, and pastries such as croissants and eclairs, the comfy place offers baguette sandwiches and crepes, making it a perfect luncheon spot. But unfortunately, it was having problems with sourcing its baguettes, as the counter guy informed me, so its beurre and jambon sandwich was unavailable, alas.
Instead I opted for a perfect pain au chocolat and a ham-dotted quiche, exiting the premises munching on the latter. When I arrived at Peppa’s, it was a hubbub of activity, with delivery guys and patrons who had preordered lingering outside at a safe distance from each other. But note that I went to the one on Prospect Place. The eponymous Peppa, Gavin Hussey, has expanded a single store, once known as Danny and Peppers, into a vibrant chain, with additional locations on Flatbush and Utica.
I went in and ordered just the chicken without sides in the medium-size container. It seemed to be nearly a whole chicken, though a complete anatomical inventory was impossible due to the process of hacking jerk with a cleaver, which, I believe, makes it taste better while obscuring the parts. The flavor of allspice with a touch of smoke and vinegar shone through the dark jerk coating, to which I’d applied a healthy dose of perfumey scotch bonnet jerk sauce.
After having the jerk chicken at all the branches, I’d have to say this one was the best. My route home took me straight up Bedford through the Satmar Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg, which was very lively for a Sunday afternoon, to the Williamsburg Bridge. A demonstration was forming back in Manhattan at Washington Square, and many participants were going there by bike across the bridge, hand-lettered signs tucked under their arms. I joined the throng and peddled back to Manhattan.