One of the Bronx's most exciting secrets—well known among the more intrepid eaters and local boosters but far from common knowledge—is that the borough is home many of the New York's 200,000 Garinagu*. The city plays host to the largest diaspora of Garinagu in the world, their presence evidenced by the flapping of their black, white, and yellow flag at the Central American Day Parade, the Garifuna Settlement Day gala, and other cultural events. But in spite of their significant presence, there is currently no restaurant serving their cuisine here.
*Most Bronx Garinagu, the plural for Garifuna, are from Honduras.
In the late 2000s, a pair of Garifuna restaurants cropped up in the neighborhoods of Woodstock and Foxhurst. But neither survived long, both vanishing into the murky waters of the Bronx River seemingly as quickly as they emerged. The more celebrated of the two, Garifuna Star, shuttered in less than a year, leaving the layman without a chance to revel in the promised flavors of one of the city's most unique cuisines. (Earlier yet there were whispers of Garinagu barbeques held in St. Mary's Park, but several summer investigations proved fruitless.) Consequently, Chicago's Garifuna Flava may be, to my knowledge, the only restaurant serving Garifuna food in the United States. Mike Sula's review, which goes into detail about several important dishes offered at Flava, is a great primer.
I'm sad to say that I never made it to either of the Bronx's Garifuna restaurants, distracted as I was by cheap beer and eggplant rollatini. I have since sometimes wandered the streets in hopeless pursuit of dabuledu (a coconut and ginger treat), always to end up where I began: with a grumbling belly. What I have since learned has been in spite of my untested taste buds.
So it was great surprise that, while on a stroll down from El Nuevo Bohio to Lechonera La Pirana—a porky turf-and-turf afternoon even Ron Swanson could get behind—that I stumbled upon a pair of makeshift, curbside grillers. They were, my suspicions confirmed, Garinagu. Were they then, I wondered, the fabled grillers of St. Mary's Park? The block, wedged between an empty lot and a strip of green space adjacent to Southern Boulevard, became a gathering spot for the local community early in the afternoon. I imagine that similar scenes play out on the beach, the lot's shrubs and weeds standing in for palm trees.
I made a mental note and moved on, vowing to return, but not certain whether to expect much. You won't be finding dharasa, a kind of Garifunan tamal made of green plantains, or hudut, fried fish poached in coconut milk with mashed plantains, much less the traditional mortar and pestle with its elongated stem. What you will find is carneada, or grilled steak. Each vendor—the north grill manned by three women, the south by a husband and wife*—prepare platters of typical foods. (This is not, however, the Honduran plato tipico.) Each ($13) consists of a large serving of steak chopped up by a cleaver, with several sides. The mom and pop tack on chismil, a salsa of chopped bell peppers, tomato, cilantro, and white onion marinated in lemon juice and spread over the steak, and mixed into the rice to great effect.
* For posterity's sake, lI'll refer to them alternately as the north and south grill. They have no other names.
After trying both platters, I found the south grill to be the better. While the steak from the north grill tasted as of I had been drowned in Worcestershire sauce, the south grill's meat exhibited more restraint. (Unsurprisingly there were no traces of sour orange juice.) Cosmis was ladled on top, and out came the pickles: slices of jalapeño from the peanut butter jar, shredded cabbage, and rings of onion. These were not your typical magenta, but a bright and lucid orange (here my interest was piqued.) The flavor was bright and sweet, with a little citrus, but I couldn't get an answer on what went into making them. In each case, the meal is rounded out by homemade plantain chips that cry out for a crisp lager.
As exciting as it is to stumble upon Garifunan cooking, nothing especially interesting is happening here. Is the food worth recommending? It's rather conventional fare, but satisfying stuff, and for those nearby and in need of a big meal, the food will do you right—even though the company is the best part of the meal.
I'm happy to find these people who are doing a wonderful thing for their community. But, alas, we haven't found Garifuna yet—at least not the culinary heights we know it can reach. For that, we'll have to wait patiently until April.
Between 175th and 176th Streets on Southern Boulevard, Bronx, NY 10454 (map) ; weekends only