There was a small booth on Dyckman street where corn along with other farm fresh goods were being sold. Across the street a vendor was selling roasted corn and batata (sweet potato) cooked on a gas grill. Further down the block another vendor had homemade empanadas hanging on hooks inside his makeshift cart. This was the scene I encountered on Dyckman Street on a humid summer evening on the way to Cachapas y Mas, the Veneuzuelan fast food place Zio had chosen for our group.
Besides the abundance of corn, Dyckman Street, in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan was bustling; teeming with urban humanity—the street congested and loud with honking livery drivers. On the sidewalks, microscopic shorts for women hugged tightly over curvy female mannequins, while for men there were flamboyant, colorful dress shirts on racks. Wedged between the retail stores were an assortment of fast food fried chicken places, Dominican bakeries, and a number of Latin-style steakhouses; in other words, my kind of street.
Cachapas y Mas was clean, with a row of wooden picnic tables along with a few smaller, plastic-topped tables and chairs. A slick, flat screen television broadcast soccer from a Spanish language station. The menu was displayed on a digital screen above the cashier that electronically would shift from a picture of “cachapas,” to one of “patacones,” to one of “arepas,” and finally to “yoyos;”
I did scant research once Zio announced his pick, but enough to learn that the food was Venezuelan and that the specialty were meats sandwiched between either griddle toasted corn cakes (arepas and cachapas) or fried green plantains, also known as tostones (patacones) or yellow plantain, i.e. maduros (yoyos).
Our group of five, soon to be six once Rick arrived, grabbed one of the picnic tables and added two of the plastic chairs at either end to accommodate all of us. From where I sat, my eyes were just not up to the task of reading anything from the digital screen so I got up for a closer look.
The “man in charge,” either the owner or manager, noticed my curiosity—and my trusty camera—and offered advice. He suggested a drink called papelon to start. Over the din and through his accented English, he explained that the drink was made from lime with brown sugar—two of my favorite ingredients. How could I resist?
The papelon was a bit too sweet for me, but I found it refreshing. A little less sugar and maybe a shot or two of rum would have transformed the drink into a very exceptional cocktail.
I brought the drink back to the table. A line to order was beginning to form. Though proper etiquette would have us wait until our party of six arrived; we were still waiting for Rick, but Mike from Yonkers and Zio, especially when noticing the line, would never let etiquette stand in the way of their gluttony, immediately got on the line.
Eugene, Gerry and I shook our heads at the rude behavior of our comrades.
“No class,” Gerry said, glancing at the time. “It’s not like Rick is more than a few minutes late.”
“I know. It’s pitiful. Sad, really.” I added while shaking my head at their disgraceful behavior.
Eugene said nothing; instead he rose and joined the line.
I sipped my papelon, squinted at the digital menu again, peered out onto Dyckman Street and not seeing Rick, took my place on the line behind Eugene.
As the line moved slowly forward, I turned around. Rick had arrived and was already on the line, a few spots behind me.
Yoyos or patacones? Those were the two finalists. But stuffed with what? They all pretty much had the same choices; cheese, ham and cheese, chicken, shredded beef, roast pork, steak, chorizo, grilled chicken or, if you had a thing against meat, and if you did, why were you here, then there was the avocado salad arepa offering.
I decided on a shredded beef patacone along with a pastelito; an empanada like snack the owner recommended that was stuffed with meat and cheese. What harm would a little more grease do?
All of us returned to the table to wait for our names to be called with our orders. Of course, Mike from Yonkers and Zio were first. Both ordering cachapas; Zio’s stuffed with chorizo, Mike from Yonkers with shredded beef.
Zio generously offered me a taste. The corn cake was slightly sweet and dense, but rich with the flavor of fresh corn. It complemented the salty chorizo perfectly. While they ate, I dug through the pastelito. It reminded me somewhat of a meat and cheese calzone, but with a Latin flair.
I heard the Spanish sing song of my name and shot up from my seat returning moments later with the patacone. Using the plastic fork and knife provided, I tried to saw through the fried green plantain. Both utensils were not up to the task, bending to the tough tostone exterior. Giving up, I ate it how it probably should have been eaten; like a sandwich. And though I was able to maneuver some of the juicy shredded beef into my mouth, much of it dropped onto my plastic tray.
Zio easily finished the chorizo cachapas, but despite its gargantuan size, it just was not enough for his prodigious appetite. “I need more,” he mumbled and got up and ordered a beef empanada. The ground beef, onions and spices stuffed into a cornmeal pastry.
After taking a few bites, Zio put the empanada down. “It has a distinctly Alpo-like flavor,” he commented.
He offered the remains of meat pie to me. I took a bite. “Hmmm, maybe, but it’s the best Alpo-like empanada I’ve ever had,” I said approvingly. The cornmeal pastry was crunchy with bits of coarse ground cornmeal and the meat was pungent, even aromatic, I was guessing from the amalgam of spices.
We make quick work of the cachapas, patacones, and empanadas and soon the dirty paper plates and napkins were piled high on our trays. With the exception of not experiencing a yoyo, I was more than satisfied with Cachapas y Mas.
As I made my way to my car, I could feel the patacone and all the other bites I had at Cachapas y Mas laying heavily in my belly. The buzz on Dyckman Street had subsided somewhat. I noticed that though the men’s flowered dress shirts had been removed from the street, the microscopic shorts on the female mannequins were still on display. Dyckman Street, I realized, was a place for those with better self control than I. I would be back. But it wouldn’t be soon.