Caribbean

Gut Instinct: Oh, Baby

I'm coming for your womb!

To the long, irrational list of substances I despise, allow me to add champagne, that celebratory bathwater better suited for spraying than sipping.Though bubbles can be as invigorating as a Coney Island plunge come January, I find champagne’s dry sourness as noxious as Glenn Beck. When toasting, I favor effervescent Stoudt’s Pils—a lively low-alcohol beer that doesn’t cause a temples-crushing hangover—to champagne’s morning-after gift.

Nonetheless, a confab last week demanded I drink the French swill—namely, my Paris-dwelling friends Bati and Emily. After half a decade hunkering down in Crown Heights, the twosome relocated to Paris last year, citing jobs and socialism. “Sure, you’re not going to make as much money as in the United States, but you’ll have your health care covered,” Bati told me at the time. “And if we decide to have a baby, the birth costs will be covered.”

“Babies are…great!” I said, mustering all the enthusiasm I’d have for a proctology exam. At 31, I’ve watched a growing number of married friends drop like dominoes into family life, popping out newborns with assembly-line precision. On one hand: Puppy dogs! Rainbows! Dolphins leaping in the ocean! Completing the circle of life is a marvel, made doubly special by your intimate relationship with said friends. On the other hand: Oh, no! Birth is the death of your old life and the beginning of a new one. Daddy no longer has time to slug pints with his pals, especially with diapers to be changed and colicky infants to soothe—darn good reasons to drink.

You could say I’m selfish. And that I’m frightened of fatherhood. Ding. You’re correct on both fronts. New York City is a land of arrested adolescence, of gelled-hair men in their forties hitting the clubs in search of women young enough to be their daughters. If I were back in Ohio, I’d be an old maid, my girlfriend’s womb looked upon like the barren Gobi Desert. But in New York, there’s nothing wrong with delaying marriage or baby making. Hell, after three-plus years of coupledom, my girlfriend and I are only now entertaining the idea of owning a dog. It’s baby steps, minus the baby.

Back to Bati: We arranged for dinner at The Islands (803 Washington Ave., betw. Eastern Pkwy. & Lincoln Pl., Brooklyn, 718- 398-3575), Prospect Heights’ finest Caribbean canteen. At its core,The Islands is a takeout joint, where lamb, chicken and shrimp are jerked fiery and flavorful. But up a narrow flight of stairs awaits a lowceilinged hideaway with seating for 15.This intimacy, combined with the restaurant’s BYOB policy and service as slow as the shifting Tectonic plates, makes for long, alcohol-lubricated affairs. It’s normal to polish a six-pack before meals arrive, creating a scrum for crisp chicken, tender oxtail and fluffy mac ’n’ cheese.

Upstairs, our nine-person crew sat in our customary spot near the window. Outside, snowflakes swirled down as if God suffered serious dandruff. I grabbed a Dale’s Pale Ale, a nicely hopped brew that debunks the notion of crapped canned beer. “Put that down,” Bati ordered. “We’re celebrating.” He brandished champagne and uncorked it, releasing a puff of pressurized air recalling a smoking gun. He filled eight glasses, leaving one empty.

Perhaps someone else doesn’t like champagne, I thought, reaching for a full glass.

Though I dislike the hooch, it’s a littleknown fact that the eighth deadly sin is wasting booze. Bati hoisted his goblet as if it were the Olympic torch. We followed. “It means a lot for everyone to come together tonight,” Bati began, his voice cracking like broken glass. “It’s so great to see everyone’s faces.” We clinked. We sipped. I teared up. If nothing else, at least alcohol allows me to express my emotions.

Through misty eyes, though, I noticed that Emily sipped water. “Where’s your glass?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “We have some other good news, too,” Bati began, pausing beats: “Emily is pregnant.”

My gut instinct was to make snide, inappropriate comments such as, “Someone’s firing with a loaded six-shooter” or “You hit a hole-in-one.” But Emily beamed like a thousand-watt light bulb. Here was happiness in its purest state.Why spoil it with rotten words spoken out of insecurity? I smiled and finished the champagne, its taste, for once, slightly sweet.

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Gut Instinct: Sleazy Does It

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Everything tastes better after a bike ride—especially cheap Caribbean cuisine

Thank heavens for my thick, meaty thighs. They power my rusty 10-speed to far-flung locales like Pelham Bay and East New York and Richmond Hill, Queens—my peddling destination one recent weekend.

This Punjabi, Trinidadian and Guyanese ’hood was hosting Phagwah, the Hindu festival of color welcoming spring. Kids and adults shower one another with brightly pigmented powders and vividly dyed water. Participants resemble casualties in a Crayola factory explosion.

“You’re too clean!” screamed a teen, Super Soaking my gray sweatshirt with an eggplant burst.

A rainbow-messy elementary-schooler dumped red liquid down my back, before blowing green dust across my specs. I pondered planting my Chucks up his posterior, but my fury was tempered by a timely offering of food.

“Have a samosa,” said a beatific man with an enlightened man’s prim smile. He was standing behind a table loaded with coffee, soda and fried Caribbean delights sealed in Ziploc.

“What’s it cost?” I asked, cautiously extending a red-stained hand. I didn’t want to be suckered into a $6 snack.

“Nothing. It’s free,” he said. “We try to make the world a better place. Eat, eat.” He handed me a samosa, fried pholourie fritters and channa, spiced chickpeas.

My gifts were cold but satisfying in that homemade way, with a fiery sauce that wrestled my tongue into submission. I had another samosa, then a third.

“Hungry?” the man said, appreciatively.

“Just warming up,” I said, decamping for Liberty Avenue. The low-slung block is a patchwork quilt of restaurants, fabric shops and green grocers selling four-alarm peppers. Liberty’s as vibrant as Roosevelt Avenue, and offers cheap-grub huts like Singh’s Roti Shop (118-06 Liberty Ave. betw. 118th & 119th Sts., Queens, 718-835-7255). It contains countless mirrors, green neon and a CD shop run by a bearded youngster. His Caribbean discs bear titles like Ram Session 2000 and feature glistening women writhing against guys’ barnyard-animal loins.

I only craved meat warming behind a glassed-in buffet: conch, chicken, goat and shrimp, or perhaps shark or tubes of blood sausage, a mealy nightmare that tastes like a paper cut. Instead of appeasing my inner vampire, I tore into a shrimp roti (a burrito-like pancake filled with crushed chickpeas, $6.75) as spicy as the crustaceans were small and springy. My double ($1) was spongy, the chickpeas meager and mild, while the aloo pie ($1.25)—a split length of fried dough swollen with mashed potatoes—was incendiary and mushily, greasily addictive.

Know what wasn’t? “Jalebi,” a frizzy-haired grandma suggested for dessert. She pointed at an orange pretzel-like jumble resembling funnel cake.

“For serious?”

She nodded and skedaddled lickety-split, perhaps cackling as I bit into the jalebi ($2). Rivulets of syrupy, sugary oil rolled down my cheeks, like the world’s foulest tears. My jalebi met the garbage and, after taking a final glance at the Caribbean Style CD’s plump tushies and wiping up, I wheeled home. Sleep? No. Time to grab unstained clothes, my girlfriend and pal Julie. Today’s gluttony—and sleaziness—still had legs. Quick quiz: What’s got boobs, great beer and tasty bar food?

Barrette (601 Vanderbilt Ave. at Bergen St., B’klyn, 718-230-5170). Come Saturday, this red-and-black, sorta-sordid go-go bar offers edibles until 3 a.m., $5 microbrews and ladies gyrating to soul, rock and ’60s tunes on a glittery stage the size of a sideways coffin.

“Boobies,” I said breathlessly, sliding into a booth big enough to give birth.

“Yes, yes, they are,” my girlfriend said, watching a sparkly dancer’s tasseled pasties toss willy-nilly.

As a taken man, I grasp any opportunity my girlfriend gives me to ogle bare flesh. I celebrated with a bitter Avery IPA ($5), followed by Captain Lawrence’s zingy Belgian Liquid Gold ($5). Oh, heavens, I was happy: I was living out my soft-core porn fantasies, like the penetration-free, soft-focus flicks I peeped on Cinemax long after my parents slept.

To keep intoxication at bay, we ordered a buttery challah grilled cheese ($3.50) as big as my noggin’. The mini Portobello sandwich ($4.50) was ’shroomy and agreeable, while the kielbasa ($4.50) was a joke.

“They’re like Jimmy Dean breakfast links.” Julie said, equally mocking our “pretzel” plate ($2.50): broken, hard nubs served with several scoops of mustard. However, sledgehammer-strength Avery IPA soothed our complaints, eased my bike-weary muscles. We sunk into our booth, guzzling suds and studying jiggling flesh until the hours grew big, then small, then big again, the holy day devolving into a holy mess.

Dollar Grub: Nostrand

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If there’s ever a block to buy one-buck grub and stuff your gut, it’s Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue. While the avenue winds from industrial Williamsburg to the fishing boats of Sheepshead Bay, the finest (well, cheapest) vittles and tonics are found around Fulton Avenue and Eastern Parkway, where Bed-Stuy meets Caribbean Crown Heights.
Ten-dollar bill in hand, I begin my journey at the slim Ali’s Trinidad Roti Shop (1267 Fulton St., 718-783-0316), where I wait 15 minutes behind patient dreadlocked men to order pholourie. I’m passed a Ziploc bag packed with eight fried-golden orbs of split-pea flour painted with sweet chutney. My fingers get sticky as I stuff my face with warm, doughy goodness and step lively to A & A Bake and Doubles (481 Nostrand Ave., 718-230-0753).
This takeout-only joint is chockablock with folks shouting orders at an aproned trio constructing doubles. Two pieces of fried flatbread called bhara (hence, doubles) are filled with curried chickpeas and pasted with fruity chutneys. “Pepper?” asks a cute, harried worker. Indubitably. The potent hot sauce turns this soft, napkins-necessary snack into a belly-burner.
Tongue-cooling relief arrives at dingy bodega Jalal Express (628 Nostrand Ave., 718-756-0999), home to Ginseng Up beverages. They pair ginseng’s power with cola! Lemon lime! Orange! I select ginger, and color me impressed: Smooth ginger is married to mellow carbonation, creating a refreshing soda alternative.
I sip blissfully as I enter Mega $.99 (553 Nostrand Ave.), which advertises “EVERY ITEM $.99 OR PLUS.” While the owners lack grammar prowess, they’ve assembled a schizophrenic food selection. Crisp plantain chips and canned meats beckon. I opt for cuttlefish basting in their own black ink. It’s like eating softened Bic pens.

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.

Two bucks.

No thanks, I reply, wandering off in search of something just a little bit cheaper.