Rockaway Beach

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.

A Fish Taco Find on the East Coast

In America’s culinary landscape, San Diego stands apart for its fish taco, a beach-friendly feast that’s more magical than a dolphin leaping over a sunset: a chunk of fried or grilled fish cocooned by warm tortillas, crowned with crunchy shredded cabbage, luscious cream sauce and perhaps a sprinkle of zippy salsa and a fresh-lime shower. Done right, the filling fish taco is a concert of contrasts — hot and cold, crunchy and soft, spicy and soothing. Legend has it that the handheld meal was born in Baja California. San Diego surfers, returning from chasing the Mexican state’s tasty waves, brought an appetite for this surfside sustenance back across the border. The taco swept the city like a tidal wave, and now there are hundreds of humble shacks and white-tablecloth restaurants alike serving the signature Southern California dish.

If I had my druthers and a thousand dollars, I’d book a flight to the West Coast and fill my gut with fistfuls of fish tacos. It’d be a perfect summertime splurge. But I’m a freelance writer. My three-digit bank account nixes spur-of-the-moment indulgences — well, at least till I sell a kidney. Thus, my pilgrimages must remain closer to my Brooklyn apartment. Luckily, there’s a bit of the West Coast fish tacos in an unlikely part of the Big Apple.

It's found at Queens' Rockaway Taco, and the rest of my write-up awaits over at Food Republic. Curious? Eat it up!

New York Press' Gut Instinct: Rockaway Eats

This picture is amazing on multiple levels. Show me the guns!

Last week, I rented a three-bedroom apartment a block from Rockaway Beach. Save your quips and sharks, housing projects and Ramones songs. For this fan of sand, surf and clams, Rockaway Beach is paradise.

Every morning, I awoke around dawn and brought my boogie board to the Atlantic, located a block from my abode. I fearlessly rode fierce waves, screaming with kind of childlike glee I thought had vanished when my armpit hair sprouted. Innocent abandon is tough to re-create when you’re no longer innocent.

“Is that why you’re having a cocktail at a.m.?” my girlfriend asked on maybe third, or fifth, day of our stay.

“It’s vacation, baby,” I replied, sipping tart gin gimlet nice and slow.

When on holiday, it’s socially acceptable gorge on deep-fried shrimp, ice cream and booze before noon. A vacation should blow restraint and routine to smithereens. Goodbye, calorie counts and self-control. Hedonism, you’re in the driver’s seat. It was pretty easy to pleasure myself at Rockaway Beach. When I wasn’t gliding across waves, was exploring area eateries and bars. By now, Rockaway Taco is old hat. I won’t bore you with stories of fish tacos as crisp tortilla chips. Instead, I’ll discuss The Tap & Grill (97-20 Rockaway Beach Blvd. 98th St., Queens, 347-246-6769).

Once, the Rockaways contained a terrific amusement park called Playland. Its Atom Smasher roller coaster climbed high above the Atlantic, before whistling down. There were games of chance and batting cages. Then, in 1985, the amusement park died so condos could rise. Nothing remains except for a sign at the Beach 98th Street stop announcing Playland.

However, several couple blocks from station you’ll spot Tap. It’s one of the scant remaining amusement concessions and, since 1934, the Rockaways’ oldest clam bar. I wish it still looked that way; since its Depression inception, it’s been renovated: tropically painted walls, TVs broadcasting horse races, tiled floors. Nonetheless, there’s handsome wraparound wooden bar and prices frozen in time. Pints of Michelob run three bucks, while half pints cost $1.75. Pay more, but feel like you’re drinking less.

“They go down easy,” the bartender explained to me one noonday, when I was gathered at The Tap with fellow vacationers.

“I see,” I said, watching a septuagenarian couple slurp halfsies, then order another round. We, too, bought beer—full pints, mind you—then ensured we had our daily allotment of grease. The Tap makes arteryhardening into an art form. Beer-battered onion rings were malty and crunchy. Clams were shucked, battered, then given a quick hot-oil bath. Even the fat fish taco was friedgolden precision.

When on holiday, it’s socially acceptable to gorge on deep-fried shrimp, ice cream and booze before noon.

“How’d you like it?” the bartender asked. I pointed to my plate: all oily crumbs. Along with grease, the Rockaways offered a wealth of drinking dens. Rogers Irish Tavern proved welcoming, with paint cleaner-strength cocktails and free peanuts. Irish Circle was welcoming, if pricey and TV stuffed. Lifeguard and surfer hang Connelly’s had a perfect frozen piña colada. Bungalow Bar provided brilliant sunset views of Jamaica Bay. But my dive-loving heart pounded hardest for Kerry Hills Pub (115-10 Rockaway Beach Blvd. betw. 115th & 116th Sts., 718-318-1964; Queens).

It’s a dank cave decked out with dusty Irish signage, stained-glass chandeliers and a mural of women writhing on a boat. One afternoon, I sat beside elderly men with grey hair and skin watching the Yankees game. “Come on, pinstripes. Hit the ball!” boomed a beefy gent who looked like a cop gone to seed. I ordered a buck-fifty half pint of Bud served in a slender frosty glass. It tasted good, better than crappy quaff had any right to taste. It’s dive magic.

Keep prices basement low, and even shitty beer can evoke champagne.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” asked a gentleman to my right. His arms were as skinny as pretzel sticks, his mustache recalling walrus tusks, his back bent like a tree battered by sea breeze. “Do you like tanks?” he asked. He brandished a book entitled The Tank Killers. As a wee lad, I gobbled up my local library’s illustrated books on warfare. I was fascinated by World War II German field marshal Erwin Rommel, whose ferocious Panzer tanks ground across Northern Africa like enraged elephants. But I didn’t utter a peep. Instead, I shrugged and drank my beer. It was as cold as my questioner’s response.

“All I asked was, do you like tanks?” he spat. He clutched his glass like a weapon, one I never read about but understand well. “Hey, I do like tanks,” I said. In a dive, customers only want a cold, cheap drink and a little common ground.

“I like tanks,” he said. His face contorted into what I assumed was a smile.

I smiled too, as my sunny beach afternoon disappeared in a dark dive, one half pint after another.

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