New York Press' Gut Instinct: Pony Up for Dinner

Just horsing around. Photo: flickr/pkmousie In my checkered history of inappropriate utterances, this assemblage of nouns and verbs seemed positively innocuous: “Hon, I’m going to the racetrack today,” I told my girlfriend. She pursed her lips, her eyes slitted to the approximate width of paperclips.

“Uh, what’s wrong?” I inquired. It wasn’t like I was jaunting to Thailand as a sex tourist. My sights were set on the far reaches of Queens, where a few friends would bet a few bucks on the ponies at the Aqueduct Racetrack. Sure, our wagers would be fueled by bottom-shelf beer and bourbon, but I kept that to myself. It’s the little white lies that keep relationships cruising along. Yet ours had endured a head-on collision.

“I thought we’d spend a quiet day together—just the two of us,” she said. I nodded, knowing what she meant. We’ve spent the last two months in a near constant state of culinary travel. Over Christmas, we adventured across Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, where I devoured pounds of tender cochinita pibil. That was chased by a trek to North Carolina, where we ate steamed oysters by the bushel. And just last week we hit Portland, Ore., where I guzzled hoppy craft beer by the gallon and she stuffed herself with a river’s worth of smoked salmon. I know I’m drinking white whine here, but it’s been months since we’ve sat down to a home-cooked dinner.

“And you want to spend the day at the racetrack with your friends,” she said. Point taken. I decided to make amends. “When I get home, I’m going to make you eggplant Parmesan,” I said, naming one of her favorite feasts. Her icy eyes softened, hit by a sudden heat wave of the heart. “With extra mozzarella,” she said. “I like mozzarella.”

Before things got too cheesy, I took off to the track with a quartet of close associates, none of whom are gamblers. Curiosity, not a quick buck, lured us to the Aqueduct, alongside the opportunity to drink in public. Like the casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Aqueduct attendees—a mixed ethnic bag of graying men chomping unsmoked cigars, wearing ancient sports-team jackets and clutching racing programs—are allowed to wander the multilevel concourse with beer, wine and liquor in hand. Hell, I think it’s encouraged. After all, one must be booze-deluded to drop a $5 bet on a horse with 50–1 odds.

We came bearing baddecision fuel: specifically, flasks filled with Benchmark bourbon, which costs about $8 a bottle at Astor Wine & Spirits. Benchmark ain’t bum juice; it’s one of the best values in bourbon. The brand is crafted by the estimable Buffalo Trace distillery, and its inexpensive spirit boasts plenty of juicy, tongue-basting, brown-sugar sweetness. A few nips of that 80-proof stomach-stoker, combined with a 24-ounce can of Coors, provided me with all the liquid courage I required to place $2 on a long shot named Haughty Princess.

She lost. So did Vivant. And Half a Note. And Smokin’ Conrad, whose fast start led to a slow finish. “To the glue factory!” I shouted, ripping up my ticket and scattering the pieces like confetti. My compatriots fared little better. The big winner walked out with an extra $4. The big loser was down nearly an Andrew Jackson. I lost $8, but I’d gained an inflated sense of self-worth thanks to the bourbon. “Can we get a bite to eat before we head home?” I begged, needing to soak up my sauciness with some food.

We left the track and steered toward adjacent Liberty Avenue. The main drag of Ozone Park teems with terrific Indo- Caribbean eateries, specifically Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar (131-18 Liberty Ave., betw. 131st & 132nd Sts., Queens, 718- 323-5990). With pulsing music and neon aplenty, Singh’s feels more like a nightclub than a restaurant. But its steam-table eats are the star. We scarfed ourselves sober with rich, unctuous goat and oxtail curries, fluffy doubles overstuffed with tender chickpeas and forearm-size shanks of aloo pies painted with mashed potatoes and lip-blistering Scotch bonnet–pepper sauce.

For us losers, this was a winning meal.

Back home, my girlfriend was waiting near the door, Sammy the wonder mutt by her slipper-clad feet. “Did you have fun?” she asked. I weighed my answer carefully. “Not without you,” I said, pecking her pucker and shuffling to the kitchen. I put on my apron and peeled and sliced the purple eggplants. Then I salted the aubergines and submerged them in frigid water, hoping a little time would remove the bitterness.

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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.