Searching for sweetness, bitterness, heck, a scrub brush to cleanse my tongue, I enter Fresh Health Food Emporium (594 Nostrand Ave., 718-774-3550). Burning incense perfumes the shop, while the fridge contains tonics promising to boost my libido. I eyeball pinkie-size rectangles of sesame crunch candy, only 95 cents per quarter pound. A few pieces make cuttlefish’s inky memories vamoose.
That means it’s time to say hello to Zen’s Caribbean Flavor Restaurant (602 Nostrand Ave.). This ma-and-pa eatery promises one-dollar lentil soup, but the tureen’s empty. “Whaddya have for a buck?” I beg of the indifferent hairnet-clad counterwoman. She points to a log-like “cheese straw.” The baked good is Sahara-dry and Antarctic-cold. Sometimes you get what you pay for. The straw meets the trash and I motor to Royal Bakery (618 Nostrand Ave., 718-604-0200), home to “TRINIDADIAN CHINESE AND HOT ROTI, ALL IN ONE PLACE.”
Greasy lo mein is always a dreadful notion, but the freshly baked treats displayed inside a scuffed glass case are not. I order a dense brick of bread pudding. It’s moist and riddled with coconut slivers, and expands in my belly like an add-water-and-watch-it-grow dinosaur sponge.
“Must…eat…more…” I groan, as I shuffle into the reggae-playing GT Golden Loaf Bakery & Restaurant (715 Nostrand Ave., 718-363-2954) and order a currant roll. “You gotta try it warm,” the tee-wearing counterwoman says, nuking it in the microwave. The pastry is flaky and fruity, a familiar flavor unlike what I find on the corner of Saint Johns Place and Nostrand Avenue. A makeshift card table is topped with a glass jar containing bobbing yellow fruits. “It’s a june plum in my special mixture,” says a man with a bushy beard begging off the camera. “Is this legal?” I ask. He smiles enigmatically as I nibble the tart, spicy, salty and disconcertingly firm flesh.
Down to my last dollar, I spy the gated Q’s Tavern (761 Nostrand Ave., 718- 774-9021). In front, a man hacks off sugarcane with a gleaming machete. “Wan’ some?” he asks, grinning. No, no, I reply, enamored of lumpy balls the color of compost, sold from a glass jar labeled “TAMARIND BALLS HOT HOT HOT.” They’re 50 cents apiece, so I buy two. They’re spicy and sweet, gooey with sugar and studded with gag-causing seeds.
“Drink this, man,” says the salesman, holding up a bottle of milky liquid.
“What’s it cost?” I choke out.
No thanks, I reply, wandering off in search of something just a little bit cheaper.