Coney Island

Dollar Grub Goes on Vacation

Eating 10 one-dollar slices of pizza nearly destroyed me. “I hurt so bad,” I told my photographer Sam. We’d just completed our last Dollar Grub adventure, exploring the greasy world of discount pizza, and my stomach felt like a war zone. “I need a break from cheap food.”

Those are words I never imagined I’d utter. Over the past three-plus years, I’d filled my iron stomach with pig ears and medicinal liquor, dodgy beef empanadas and cut-rate ice cream cones. Nothing fazed me. But with bargain-basement pizza, I’d reached my breaking point. Perhaps I could take a sabbatical from inexpensive eats, or maybe a…vacation?

“Dollar Grub needs a vacation!” I told my editor. He agreed, likely feeling guilty about sending me on my pizza mission. Thus, last week I brought my appetite to New York City’s twin capitals of sunny, sandy relaxation: Coney Island and Rockaway Beach. My one-dollar limit was temporarily lifted, and I was no longer confined to eating fried dough in its many, many forms. From skyscraping tortas to luscious to crunchy arepas to cheeseburgers that, in the best way possible, recalled McDonald’s, here’s how Dollar Grub spent its summer vacation.

NOTE: Metromix has since folded and deleted all of my stories. Alas! Will try to find a way to get them back.

Gut Instinct: No Man's Island

"You're not wearing your flesh-colored bathing suit," my fiancée told me last Sunday morn.

"It's my birthday!" I said. She shook her head and narrowed her eyes as if my words were the noonday sun, a look I'll have plenty of time to get used to over the ensuing, oh, 40 or 50 years. "Just because you're turning 33 doesn't mean that you should look like you're nude. You blend into the sand." Dear readers, that's the point of wearing a scandalously short swimsuit the approximate color of a Caucasian.

Besides, with my bachelor party and the alarming number of go-go bars I've stumbled into in recent weeks—on accident, of course—nudity is my new norm. Why not pretend to wear my birthday suit on my birthday?

As it so often does, common sense prevailed. I tucked myself into my red checkered trunks and we alighted for Rockaway Beach, the site of my sandy shindig. This was a drastic departure from years past. For the last decade, I've celebrated growing closer to death by camping out at Coney Island. The goal was gorging on gallons of Coors Light, plump Nathan's wieners and top-notch tortas such as meaty, overloaded specimens sold at Alex Deli (1418 Mermaid Ave., betw. Stillwell Ave. & 15th St., 718-265-0675). After getting good and knackered, I'd let the Cyclone clatter me across its tracks till I was dizzy with glee, then pass out in a sweaty, contented, lobster-red heap on the subway home. All in all, it was a swell annual tradition.

Coney was always rough around the edges, but it had a shabby, plucky dignity—a scallywag with a fresh shave and a pressed, frayed suit. Yet as the years passed and my body slowly began to fall apart, so, too, did the amusement district. Thor Equities bought great swaths of Coney and razed the gritty grandeur, filling the empty lots with half-assed flea markets and bland, whirling rides better suited for a second-rate Six Flags. Like setting your oven to the "clean" cycle, Coney was effectively sanitized. "But Josh, there's still Ruby's and Cha Cha's," you say. True, but they've only been granted a stay of execution. At season's end they'll be killed off, victims of misguided progress. Call me morbid, but I don't like spending my time hanging out on death row.

Thus, this year I relocated my bash to Rockaway Beach. For lovers of sand, crashing surf, good eats and getting good and drunk, this is pretty much paradise. Rockaway Taco serves one of the finest fish tacos this side of San Diego, and Connolly's Bar (155 Beach 95th St., betw. Shore Front Parkway & Rockaway

Beach Blvd., 718-474-2374) pours potent frozen piña coladas topped with a cherry and a floater of rum. Sweetening the deal, this year the Rockaway Taco team has curated a crew of boardwalk vendors featuring the likes of Caracas Arepa Bar, Blue Bottle and Motorboat and the Big Banana, which serves deep-fried sea creatures and frozen, chocolate-dipped bananas.

"I want Rockaway Taco!" my sweetheart told me not long after she arrived at the beach. Her obsession with the shack's fish tacos borders on the fanatical, like a convert to a culinary cult. "Hon, the lines are too long," I told her. Thanks to The New York Times' endless slobbering over the Rockaways, it's nigh on impossible to nab a taco in less than 45 minutes during the weekend. "I want them, and I'm starving."

Oh, no. A famished fiancée is the worst kind of fiancée. When hunger strikes, she turns stark raving mad—a calorie-deprived Jekyll and Hyde act. "Baby, it's my birthday," I said, gesturing to the crowd of people drinking Miller High Life as if it never went out of style. "I can't leave." "You can send someone to get you food," she said, once more proving her marriage-worthy merit. A friend was sent via bicycle to the Caracas Arepa stand (Beach 106th Street at the Boardwalk, 718-474-1709) for several of the namesake corn cakes that are split and stuffed with a mélange of meats, veggies, beans and cheese. In two shakes of a lamb's tail, we received fat, palm-size arepas bulging with soft cheese, avocado slices and plenty of fried plantains. The sandwich was fatty and salty, crunchy and creamy—a symphony of scrumptious contrasts that, dare I say it, knocked the socks off a Nathan's hot dog.

"To new traditions," I said, opening a can of High Life and drinking in the day.

Read—and vote for—the original c0lumn at the New York Press website.

New York Press' Gut Instinct: So Long, Ruby's

Photo: JoshandJosh.typepad.com

Fall's bitter wind bit my neck, numbed my fingers and turned my cheeks beet-red as I biked to Coney Island to say goodbye to the good times.

Last week, Coney Island overlords Central Amusement International--the New Jersey-based operators of Luna Park, themselves a subsidiary of Italy's Zamperla--announced that nine boardwalk establishments would soon bite the bullet. Among the establishments with no place in Coney Island’s supposedly glitzy future: dive bar Cha Cha's, Shoot the Freak, food stand Paul’s Daughter and Ruby's Old Tyme Bar and Grill. In other words, Central was ripping out the boardwalk’s still-beating heart.

True, the boardwalk’s pulse has long been feeble, but this feels particularly cruel, like dismantling grandpa’s pacemaker just to get your mitts on the inheritance—in this case, blue-chip boardwalk property. It’s been reported that Central wants to replace these viable businesses with an ocean-view sit-down restaurant and a very large sports bar. Nothing says revitalization like watching the Knicks bumble away another game in spitting distance of the Atlantic surf.

This news struck me with puppy-hit-by-a-car grief. Ruby’s, Shoot the Freak and Cha Cha’s embody the gritty, gruff ethos of the pleasure district once described as Sodom by the Sea. It was a licentious land of hucksters and cheap thrills, cocooned in bright lights and cotton candy. By the time I arrived in New York, in 2000, Coney’s heyday had faded like a month-old circus playbill pasted to a wall. But there were still go-karts and merry-go-rounds, batting cages and games of chance, roller coasters and whirling rides designed to make you lose your lunch—a Nathan’s hot dog and a cold Bud at Ruby’s.

Photo-lined and cavernous, Ruby’s has served as the boardwalk’s nerve center and clubhouse since 1934. On sunny days, shirtless men with bellies like furry beach balls sit outside, smoke cigars and sun themselves leather-brown. After the Mermaid Parade, hundreds of garishly dressed sea-maidens and mermen swarm the bar for liquid sustenance. Ruby’s cocktails and beer warm up the Polar Bears after they dive into the arctic Atlantic on New Year’s Day. On his birthday in July, my friend Matt bikes to Ruby’s to slurp oysters and beer. Ruby’s is tradition.

And Ruby’s won’t go down without a fight—or at least a banging last party, as I discovered upon arriving at the boardwalk last Saturday. Though the bar has shuttered for the season, Ruby’s reopened for a rally. Outside the bar, Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers played tunes of honky-tonk and heartbreak.

A sign announced SHAME ON YOU, ZAMPERLA, while balloons offered the terser SUCK IT, ZAMPERLA. Attendees stepped right up to sign a save-Ruby’s petition, then sauntered to the bar for a beer and whiskey, which disappeared quickly. You could call it a drowning of sorrows. I call it a celebration of life. You best believe I’ll have keg of beer at my funeral.

I left Ruby’s to survey Coney Island. In the winter, Coney often looks desolate, like a boarded-up mining town gone bust. But today, Coney felt eerier and emptier. Vast lots where go-karts once raced sat empty and razed. The historic Bank of Coney Island was half demolished. For rent signs cloaked countless buildings. A lone car tooted its horn. Over the last decade, I’ve watched Coney Island get chipped away bit by bit by developer Joe Sitt. But this felt different: a wholesale whitewashing of the past in order to create a new future, one featuring condos that tower taller— and shine brighter—than the Cyclone.

I walked to the ocean and turned around to take in the view. From a distance, the music was faint, and Coney looked small, as insignificant as a gnat. This summer, I traveled up and down the Jersey Shore, finding thriving, raucous, neondrenched boardwalk scenes in Seaside Heights and Wildwood. “This is what I wish Coney Island was like,” my friend Corin told me, as we strolled past Seaside Heights funnel-cake stands, saltwater-taffy shops, arcades and water slides. It was as tacky as a polyester bellbottom suit, and I loved every sensory-overload minute. New Jersey has embraced the boardwalk, in all its trashy, separate-you-from-your-paycheck glory, while New York hopes to destroy its boardwalk culture and replace it with an antiseptic upgrade. The city cares about its historic structures, not its historic restaurants and bars. Goodbye, Ruby’s. Hello, T.G.I. Friday’s?

I headed back to the wooden boardwalk, which will soon be replaced by concrete. By now, paving over Coney’s past only seems appropriate.

Read—and vote for—the original column at the New York Press website.

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Get Shorted

It is true.

It was an oven-like afternoon at Coney Island, and hell had seemingly frozen over.

“I have $40 toward the first round of tortas and huraches,” my friend Matt said.

“What’d you just say?” I asked. It was my 32nd birthday party, and perhaps my advanced age had caused sudden hearing loss. Or maybe it was the copious intake of Coors Light at the beach.

“I have $40 for Mexican food,” he repeated. Color me confused. As charter members of the Cheap Bastard Club, Matt and I like to play an unofficial game we call “out-Jewing.” This penny-pinching diversion is miserly fun for everyone! How’s it work? Well, let’s say you split a couple orders of spicy noodles at X’ian Famous Foods, chased by several cumin-spiked lamb burgers. The bill is $13—$6.50 apiece. the winner would give $6, thereby saving 50 cents. Sure, it’s a small sum, but it’s a big victory for a cheap bastard.

For example, last week at Spuyten Duyvil I mistakenly ordered a round for Matt and myself. I bought Stillwater Stateside saison, made with wine-esque Nelson Sauvin hops, while Matt requested a summery ale from Greenport Harbor. His cost $6. He gave me six dollar bills, as wrinkled as dishpan hands. “what about the tip?” I wondered, as he wandered out of earshot. My cold beer was little consolation to the additional cost.

But now, Matt had a change of fiscal heart. Perhaps he’d won the lottery, or his grandparents had sent him a check for his birthday. Oh, how I loved when my grandparents sent me those $50 checks. For a moment, I’d feel wildly wealthy, like scrooge McDuck diving into his money bin.

“Thanks for the birthday food, Matt,” I said, genuinely touched.

He paused for a beat. “That’s money from last night.”

The previous eve, 19 of us dined at my favorite Caribbean restaurant, The Islands. As if the luscious, coconut-creamy calypso shrimp and lip-singeing jerk chicken are not lure enough, the Islands is also BYOB. You can dine and imbibe in the tree house–like upstairs for hours, not worrying that each beer will add $6 or $8 to a tab—the costly bane of every restaurant birthday dinner.

When the check arrived, the bill neatly broke down to $20 a person, tip included. That was a teensy sum for a three-hour bacchanal. Everyone anted up an Andrew Jackson. I gathered my bag, ready to waddle home. “Hold on,” Matt said. “We’re short $40.”

“Who didn’t pay?” I said.

“Don’t worry, baby,” my girlfriend said, soothing my inner indignant beast. “It’s your birthday. We’ll take care of it.” Five-dollar bills were passed forward, and soon the deficit was a thing of that past. Still, it left a bitter taste in my mouth—or maybe that was just acid reflux, from three too many five-alarm chicken wings.

But the beauty of the digestive system is that no matter how much you overindulge, you’ll be ravenous again. By the next afternoon, I was hungering for huge tortas from Alex Deli (1418 Mermaid Ave. betw. W. 14th & W. 15 Sts., 718-265-0675). Planted a couple blocks from the Coney beach, the teensy Mexican storefront serves skyscraping sandwiches piled with avocado, stringy Oaxacan cheese, refried beans and your favorite flesh. I like spicy carne enchilada best, but juicy al pastor is equally excellent. at $5 apiece, they’re the best boardwalk-area bargain—and my cheapskate-in-arms was going to buy me one! It was too good to be true. It was.

“I forgot that I had $40 in my pocket last night,” he admitted, his cheeks reddened by sun and slight embarrassment.

I was just tipsy enough to be incensed.

“You overcharged everybody!”

“They just paid it forward,” he said.

“Now, what do you want to eat?”

“Carne enchilada,” I said. We called Alex and, in Coors Light–accented Spanish, placed our order. Matt abandoned the beach to retrieve our food, returning with arm-straining bags of grease-stained pleasure. I bit into my torta, relishing the piquant pork, creamy avocado, zippy salsa verde. It was perfect fuel to survive another four hours basking in the celebratory sun.

“How is it?” Matt asked.

“Tastes like a million bucks,” I replied, wiping grease from my lips, “or maybe just 40.”

Read—and vote for—the original column at the Press' site.

Gut Instinct: Counter Intelligence

Like Cinderella’s gown reverting to rags, I feared July 17 would transform me into a haggard wino with a bulbous gut, Shar-Pei wrinkles and a hairline hiding behind my earlobes.

“Happy birthday, old man,” my girlfriend says that morning. “You’re now—”

“Don’t say it.”

“You’re now—”

“Don’t say it,” I plead.

“You’re 30.”

I remove the blue bed sheet and scrutinize my carcass. Aside from dilated blood vessels pinpricking my chest and shoulders and crinkly crow’s-feet, I remain remarkably preserved—perhaps God’s payback for making me 5-foot-4 and furry as an Arctic critter.

“See, 30 isn’t so bad,” my girlfriend says.

“You’re only saying that because you’re 30.”

“Maybe. But aren’t you excited for your party?”

Damn straight. For eight years, I’ve hosted my get-older bash at Coney Island. The formula: swill lakes of beer, ride the Cyclone and urinate in the ocean. Not necessarily in that order.

The most necessary ingredient is beer. To stock up (and avoid the beach beer surcharge), I turn to Park Place Food Corp. (539 Park Place at Classon Ave., B’klyn; 718-399-9055). Since 2003, this 24-hour Crown Heights bodega has sustained me with meaty sandwiches and bargain beer. Twenty-four-ounce cans of Coors cost $1.25. Today, on this most special day, I want them cheaper.

“Can you cut me a deal?” I ask the mustached counter guy. He owes me. I know his secret.

Several years ago, the counterman asked my bygone roommate Cory to hang out.

“Sure,” Cory replied, “let’s watch a movie.” The counterman came over. They retreated to Cory’s cramped room.

“Got any porn?” the counterman asked.

“Uh, no,” Cory said. “Let’s watch Point Break.” Cory flicked on Keanu Reeves’ surfing flick, featuring numerous shirtless moments.

“Did I ever tell you about my blow job?” the counterman asked, perhaps stirred by Patrick Swayze’s fuzzy torso. “Some guy at my store wanted to give me a blow job. I sat on the ice cream freezer and, he, you know…” The counterman’s head bobbed in the international sign of oral pleasure. Cory concentrated on Keanu.

“Ever blown a guy?” the counterman asked. Cory shook his head. “Never just a little?”

“Let’s watch the movie,” Cory said, as they silently observed Swayze surf into the great beyond.

“How about a buck a beer?” I ask the counterman today. “I’ll buy 50.”

He ponders my offer. “$1.10 each?”

“One dollar.”

“OK, only for you, my friend,” he says. “Tell Cory I say hello.” I overload my granny cart with cheap liquid pleasure, and my motley birthday posse subways it to Coney Island. The sun is blazing. The sky is blue. We plant my birthday flag—sparkly fabric featuring my image hoisting kielbasa like a greasy trophy—and commence beer intake. Hours evaporate. Sand is flung. I wrestle partygoers with Hulk Hogan abandon.

“Honey, you should probably eat some food,” my girlfriend says. My eyes are as glazed and red as candied apples.

“Beer is food.”

“Not today.”

To stave off drunken doom, food troops stomp to…Nathan’s? No way, wiener: La Plaza Doña Zita (Bowery St. betw. W. 12th St. & Stillwell Ave., B’klyn). This Mexican stall specializes in chewy corn quesadillas ($4). A griddle-crisped moon is packed with mushrooms, fiery chicken and queso fresco, then folded and showered with cream fresca, cotija cheese and lettuce.

“Uh, where’s the silverware?” I ask upon receiving my spicy quesadilla.

“Eat with your hands, animal,” my girlfriend says. Like a toddler, I sloppily smush quesadilla between my lips. The treat is crunchy-gooey goodness, with a hint of heat. I burp in appreciation.

“More beer. It’s my birthday!”

“First wipe your cheeks,” my girlfriend says, napkining off creamy schmutz.

The sweaty, sunburn-y day sludges toward dissolution, as do I. Watching a 30-year-old binge with college-freshman abandon is barely more appealing than a Verne Troyer sex tape. Amid youth’s blossom, debauchery appears rebellious and debonair. At 21, nothing was more punk rock than when my pal Steve upchucked, then tinkled, between several subway cars. Wild days! But as years mount, common sense suppresses self-destruction and hangovers become skull-bludgeoners, drunkenness seems less ha-ha than: “Maybe he needs help.”

“Stop thinking so much,” my friend Aaron says. “It’s your birthday. You’re supposed to be a moron.” He hands me another beer.

“You’re right,” I say, cracking another Coors, maybe my seventh or 11th. I’m already feeling dumber.

“And you know what else you gotta do on your birthday?”

“Oh, yes.”

With bare feet and sunburned shoulders, we rush to the Cyclone. Kiesters are planted on the antiquated coaster. It clanks skyward, providing eagle views of ant-size beachgoers, the yawning Atlantic, the imperiled amusement park, and then—woosh—we plummet toward our reckless future.

Gut Instinct: Nice to Meat You

Rummage through my dresser drawer’s crumpled sweatshirts and faded, crotch-frayed jeans, and you’ll find a sparkly fabric rectangle that I affectionately call my “meat flag.”

It displays a picture of me grinning with serial-killer glee, hoisting taut, pink kielbasa above my head like a trophy—a picture taken seconds before I swung the greasy lengths like nunchaku onto a glowing-red grill.

“Grilling might be the only time you’re truly happy,” my girlfriend says.

“Except when I’m drunk,” I add.

Sweet lollipops, I love to grill. Invite me to your barbecue and I’ll liberate spatulas from lesser men and dole out my medium-rare rapture. The secret is grade-A meat, a mixture of deliciousness and minimum expenditure that requires a field trip to distant Brooklyn. For my Memorial Day weekend provisionary run, I enlist my pedaling pal Aaron.

“We’re heading to meat heaven,” I say, as we aim toward the Atlantic Ocean. “But first, we must snack.” Upon entering Russian Brighton Beach, we pit stop at M&I International (249 Brighton Beach Ave. betw. Brighton 1st St. & Brighton 1st Pl., B’klyn; 718-615-1011). M&I’s a bastion of smoked fish, pickled vegetables and pierozki ($1.25 apiece). They’re deep-fried oblong pies packed with cabbage, potatoes or “meat.” Which meat?

“Meat,” says a thick woman wearing a hairnet, manning the sidewalk-ordering window.

“Delicious,” I say, as she fills a plastic bag with pies. We bring them to the boardwalk.

“Should they be so…greasy?” Aaron asks. Oil drips onto wooden planks.

“Just eat,” I say, as we chomp in unison.

“It’s dessert and dinner all in one,” Aaron proclaims—funnel cake with a meat chaser.

“And you’re complaining?”

“Not at all,” he says, fingers glistening in the sun.

Covered with a greasy sheen, we continue our trek to my grilling secret: Coney Island’s Major Prime Meat Market (1516 Mermaid Ave. betw. W. 15th & W. 16th Sts, B’klyn, 718-372-8091). I first found Major four summers prior when, following a lobster-red beach afternoon, I stumbled into the sawdust-strewn shop. I was intrigued by Major’s shop window filled with vintage Coney photos, but my heart swooned for silver-haired proprietor Jimmy Prince, a fixture since 1949.

“You looking for a steak?” he asked, immaculate in a button-down and tie.

I was.

“I’ll be right back.” He sliced me a hefty sirloin beaut, marbled with marvelous fat.

“Cook it right, and you won’t find a finer steak,” he said.

I did. He was right. I’ve returned to Major again and again, whenever my meat lust demanded satiation. Like today.

“I’ll be with you in a moment, fellas,” Prince says, as we swing inside. Prince smiles—he’s always smiling—and shuffles into his walk-in cooler, where his meat (prime only, thank you) dry-ages and develops a dense, concentrated flavor. We sway to big-band music and examine canned goods and produce until Prince reappears, hands on hips.

“I need burgers,” I announce.

“We can do that,” Prince says. He lugs an antiquated grinder into the walk-in. He returns with a fat, red lump of fresh-ground beef, which he hand-stamps into patties with a steel contraption. He displays the thick, third-pound patty like a parent proud of his son’s straight-A report card.

“That’s beautiful,” I say, nearly choking up. I want to hug him. He’s the butchering grandpa I never had and never knew I needed.

“I only use prime chuck. It’s the perfect mix for juicy burgers.”

“Ten, please,” I say, wiping away a drop of drool. Prince grinds and presses, presses and grinds, and passes us our patties (about $4 a pound). They’re separated by wax paper and placed into brown paper bags, lovingly folded like a child’s school lunch.

“Have a safe ride, fellas,” Prince says paternally, as we head to the burgers’ final destination: Bushwick Country Club (618 Grand St. at Leonard St., B’klyn, 718-388-2114). This Williamsburg dive offers two-for-one happy hour (until 8 p.m.), a six-course miniature golf course and grills.

They’re hot. They’re primed. They sizzle as I gently lob my patties onto the grill, like I’m launching the world’s costliest Frisbee. I let grill stripes accrue, then I flip the burgers—just once, and no pressing out precious moisture. Their smoke is a Siren’s lure.“Can I have one?” a random bar-goer queries.

“Of course not,” I reply, sliding burger onto bun, a juicy torrent staining the white bread brown. Ketchup? Mustard? No need. I bite, and rich, mineral-y, meaty goodness gushes over my chipped incisors and craggy mandibles. Grill season, I think, as I cram my maw with flesh tender and flavorful enough to convert a vegetarian, has officially begun.