Sunset Park has long been a working-class neighborhood with a vibrant cultural fabric. Lately, new cafés and restaurants have popped up, spurred along by Industry City, a sprawling campus of high-end retail businesses, office space, and a chic food hall.
Along the predominantly Mexican-immigrant 5th Avenue, sweeping change hasn’t taken hold yet. On a recent weekday, a vendor at a fold-up table near the park sold elotes, or street corn, and cold aguas frescas. The name “Xochil,” the Nahuatl word for flower, graced a pizzeria, across from a shop selling tacos and masa-based snacks. Women pushed children in strollers and middle-school aged kids huddled together in groups down the sidewalks, nearly all of them chattering in Spanish.
An additional Sunset Park waterfront project, slated for completion in 2020, will create a $136-million hub for the garment industry, as well as space for television and film production. It’s leading some locals to wonder: how long will the existing community be able to afford to live here, and what will the neighborhood look like in the future?
“It does cause an impact when you start to see $15 cups of coffee in Industry City. It’s not something that our people will be able to buy,” says Adán Palermo, a lifelong Mexican-American resident of Sunset Park and an outreach worker at Uprose, a local activist organization devoted to climate justice and raising awareness about gentrification-related issues. “As we see interest and investment start to go up, our folks are left out, in keeping up with the higher rents. And it displaces them.”
While most asking rents fell in Brooklyn last year, according to NYU’s Furman Center, rents in Sunset Park rose 13 percent, a sign of the surge of development in the neighborhood. Changing demographics could mean changing dining tastes, so the time to come and sample the excellent Mexican food in the area is now. Tacos in most spots come in large and small sizes, and taquería owners, in some cases, actually live in the neighborhood. On the weekends, sidewalk food vendors set up in droves. It’s a good place to stroll and take in the atmosphere, and the views from the crest of Sunset Park.
Here are five spots to patronize while you’re there. They’re a mix of iconic neighborhood restaurants and newer places, each specializing in an informal, homestyle brand of Mexican cooking that I love.
Mi Pequeño Chinantla
Tucked in the very back of La Union Deli Grocery on 5th Avenue, Mi Pequeño Chinantla, named for owner Juan Marmolejo’s hometown in Puebla, specializes in fresh-made tamales (served daily) and mutton barbacoa sold on the weekends. A rotating list of guisados, or stewed meat or vegetables cooked in a chile sauce, changes daily—on a recent day the steak slathered in chipotle sauce tasted tart and hot and unfussy, like something my aunt would make.
It’s a bit confusing to know what to order, as a poster-board sign near the counter lists mostly quesadillas and a handful of items served on the weekends. If you go, ask if they’ve still got tamales for sale (get the tamal de rajas, a decadent mix of chicken, tomato, jalapeño and cheese) or inquire about the guisados del día, which are tastier than the quesadillas. The decor is eclectic: a few taxidermy animal heads share space with garish Mexican sombreros and potted plants. Visit while you can; Marmolejo says he’ll probably move in a few years, as his rents are getting too high for him to maintain.
Mi Pequeño Chinantla, 4011 5th Avenue, open daily 7am to 8:45pm.
Taquería El Mezcal
The house-made chorizo is the standout at this tiny, mostly-takeout spot, opened 7 years ago by two partners from Puebla and Oaxaca, respectively. Efrén Soriano, the Poblano, said agave was one thing both states had in common, hence the taquería’s name. The chorizo taco — a mix of pork, árbol chile, puya chile, garlic, onion and cumin — packs a punch of heat, without being greasy or over-condimented like other commercially made chorizos are. Order it with diced nopales (cactus). The combo isn’t on the menu, but Soriano makes an exception if you ask.
Soriano says he used to deliver food to the Latino-operated industrial businesses along the waterfront before Industry City moved in, and now when he delivers there, the character is quite different. Although his rents are going up—“it’s manageable” he says—Soriano says his American customers seem to truly like his taquería, and they talk to him about their travels in Mexico. “Maybe that’s why they like it here—it reminds them of the authentic Mexican food they tried,” he says.
Taquería El Mezcal, 3910 4th Avenue, open daily 11am to 11pm.
This neighborhood spot—with an iconic neon sign outlining a cactus, a taco, and a chile—has an almost diner-length menu, with page after page of breakfast items, tacos, seafood, main dishes, and specials. Tacos are a great place to start. The large size here comes with a bigger tortilla and occasionally guacamole, but too much guac can overpower some types of meat. Skip the one-note al pastor and get the lengua (beef tongue), a tumble of tender, steamed morsels that sing with a spritz of lime and a drizzle of the smoky house chipotle salsa. (Tip: Put this salsa on everything.) If you don’t want tacos, the green enchiladas are a solid comfort-food pick.
Tacos Matamoros, 45-08 5th Avenue, open daily 10am to 1am.
Only women staff this small, one-year-old eatery, which specializes in masa-based snacks such as tacos, quesadillas, huaraches and tlacoyos. (This is a good sign: women are considered the masa whisperers in Mexican culture.) Small touches elevate the food out of the realm of ordinary. Tortillas crisped lightly on the griddle mean they’ll hold up when you’re halfway through the taco. An expertly fried gordita de chicharrón arrived crisp and golden on the outside and fluffy in the middle, nestled with gamey pieces of pork—not too far from what you’d get near any Mexico City subway station. Unlike the forgettable carne asada that you’ll find in many Sunset Park taquerías, the meat here tastes like it truly came off a grill, with bits of steak seeped in a caramelized, blackened flavor.
Owner Carmen Reyes is from Toluca in the State of Mexico, and she says the restaurant draws all sorts of customers—Americans, Asians, Mexicans. There aren’t many tables, so be prepared to share.
Antojitos Mexicanos, 5914 5th Avenue, 718-576-3543, open daily 10am to 10pm.
Ok, I admit it—I’m a Southern California native, so the name is what drew me to this spotless, cheery taquería a few blocks from the park. The decor is no-frills; every bare wooden table has exactly one salt shaker and nothing else. The menu is long, comparable to Tacos Matamoros. It’s worth trying the tinga, a clean, subtle mix of shredded chicken in a light tomato sauce, covered in a layer of crunchy lettuce. Add spoonfuls of the house-made green salsa, flecked with bits of cilantro.
Tacos California, 4616 5th Avenue, open daily 10am to 11pm.
Lesley Téllez is the author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas. She lives in Long Island City.