Since the 1950s, East Harlem’s El Barrio ’hood has been a Puerto Rican stronghold featuring down-home eateries heavy on rice and beans, mashed mofongo and heart-slowing fried pig morsels. Nowadays, the 116th Street artery has been infiltrated by taquerías and tamale vendors, creating a scrumptious cuisine convergence.
Belly grumbling on a blustery weekday—and packing a $10 bill—I depart the 2 train at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue and embark east toward Sea & Sea Fish Market (60–62 W. 116th St., 212-828-0851). The seafood depot contains a lunch counter run by yellow-smocked men deep-frying hockey-puck fish cakes for 75 cents apiece. My crunchy cake is honey-brown, but its insides are February-frigid and as mushy and flavorful as oatmeal.
Trashing the pap, I head to patriotically themed $1 $2 $3 USA Superstore (64–68 E. 116th St., no phone) and uncover 79-cent, God-bless-the-U.S. Iced ’Spresso. The flavor? Nauseatingly syrupy American vanilla.
There are far fewer jingoistic eats at Zapotitlan Family Mexican Restaurant (118 E. 116th St., 212-426-6100). In the cluttered shop crammed with dried peppers, a sliding glass cabinet contains bread pudding.
“Cuanto cuesta?” I query the counter lady.
“Setenta y cinco,” she replies: 75 cents. Bingo. I chomp a hefty square suffused with subtle cinnamon and vanilla notes: a cheap-eats home run.
Buoyed by my discovery, I saunter to Sam’s Famous Pizza (150 E. 116th St., 212-348-9437), a corner spot selling five garlic knots for a buck. I sit on a red swivel stool and devour my bite-size breads. They’re well-toasted and covered with enough real garlic to mortify a vampire.
My stinkiness precedes me as I enter Puerto Rican old-timer Cuchifritos Frituras (168 E. 116th St., no phone), which slings stacks of fried brown weirdness heated by lightbulbs. A striped-shirt counterman eyeballs me warily, then serves me a $1 combo of nonalcoholic piña colada and a guineo: a boiled, unripened banana. It’s as mealy as a rotten apple.
“Do you like that?” asks a diner.
“That’s because you need garlic oil,” she says, handing me a squirt bottle. I douse the fruit and savor its transformation from torture to plate-scraper.
I uncover another torture at Capri Bakery (186 East 116th St., 212-410-1876), which peddles SpongeBob cakes, milkshakes and 50-cent beef or chicken “partties.” I order both, which is two more than I recommend. The flaky rounds ooze grease, and the fillings taste scavenged from a butcher’s dumpster bin.
I ditch my partties in a trash can (corner of East 116th Street and Third Avenue), beside which stands a wee red-hooded woman with Igloo corners. She’s vending one-buck cups of hot, thick champurrado, fashioned from masa and chocolate. Screw Swiss Miss, I think, sipping the chocolatey goodness: This is winter’s wonderful stomach warmer.
I’m so blissed out, I nearly overlook the jackpot awaiting across the street: a woman huddled over a shopping cart containing two covered metal pots. I quick-step across traffic and unleash my high school Spanish.
“Usted tiene tamales para un dólar?” I ask.
“Sí, sí,” she replies, reaching into a steaming pot and passing me a plump delight. I gleefully unwrap the corn husk and dig into spongy masa containing chicken shards bathed in salsa verde. It’s the peak of street eats—and tongue-numbingly piquant.
Searching for cooling relief, I trundle to El Barrio Juice Bar (308 E. 116th St., 212-828-0403). Fancifully named fruit drinks such as Hangover Cure, Melon Madness and Body Wiser are promising, and too pricy. So I pick a highlighter-orange cantaloupe popsicle. Packed with pureed fruit, it’s fresh and not cloyingly saccharine: $1 paradise on a wooden stick.
My sweet tooth piqued, I search for one final sugary nibble at L&T Coffee Shop (2265 First Ave., 212-358-4485), a narrow Greek diner crowded with school kids. Behind the cash register, I spy homemade doughnuts.
“Which one’s your favorite?” I ask the grizzled counterman.
“My favorite? I don’t like doughnuts,” he replies.
“He also doesn’t like feta cheese,” a customer chimes in.
The counterman shrugs. “Get a twist.”
I do, and my 70-cent selection is a beaut: It’s braided like challah, heavily glazed and pillow-soft. The donut sends my blood-sugar levels rocketing and makes me happy as a puppy, a sweet ending to a day made sweeter by my pocketful of jangling change.