No disrespect to the gems that make up the creme de la creme of the Bronx's street food scene, but the borough's offerings for tasty curbside food are lacking. While what stands out could make it on any street corner in New York, the borough just can't compete with Queens' sheer volume of quality options. So when we find something that goes beyond the one-note, lackluster empanadas, it gets us quite excited. Enter the "East Kingsbridge Road Dominican Sweets Stand,"* a ramshackle cart in the shadow of the titular Armory.
* Our abuela's cart had no designation.
Parked just off the cusp of one of the borough's more culturally interesting intersections, the vendor's set up of a wobbly table next to a shabby cart isn't promising. The cart looks like any other you might find slinging pastelillos (empanadas), alcapurrias (beef-stuffed yuca fritters), and other fried treats (frituras) from Fordham down to Melrose. Take a chance, though, and you'll be rewarded.
Lets just get it out of the way: it's safe to say you shouldn't bother with those frituras. During every one of my visits, intermittently between the late morning and 3 in the afternoon, her savory food has looked both standard and well aged. I can't say whether she offers more variety in the morning, but I think its safe to say she isn't whipping up mangu in the early hours.
Here's what you should really be after: a couple of the tastiest, and one of the most unusual, Dominican sweets this side of the Harlem River. Take a second look at that table and you'll see a set of sweet treats: pan de batata ($8 for a pie, $2 for a slice; sweet potato cake), rice pudding ($2), maize con dulce ($2), gandules con dulce ($2), and dulce de leche ($7).
The chief draw here is the sweet potato cake, a defining desert in the Dominican repertoire that captures the spirit of its people in its warmth and relaxed, bouncy consistency. Chewy and dense, it's leagues removed from the dry, sugar bomb cakes you'll find in Dominican bakeries across the borough. It's so moist that it wets your lips at first bite, a first treat before the pleasantly gummy texture.
In spite its density, this is a light, giving cake: one that will fill you up, but not weigh you down. Currents of cloves and cinnamon run through the dough, and the sweetness, drawn out with care from the batata, complements the flavors without overwhelming them.
While the dulce de leche is, unfortunately, cloying at best, the puddings are very much recommendable. I'm a rice pudding kind of guy, that much can be said, and this one is a tribute to the power of cinnamon. But, if I had room for just one treat, I'd spring for the corn pudding (maize con dulce).
The smooth, creamy pudding isn't soggy in the least, and the corn kernels studded throughout lend pleasant textural contrast.
I've had few desserts like this soup of gandules (pigeon peas) with chunks of yuca (the most apt comparisons would be the savory-gone-sweets of Cambodia), and I'm not entirely certain how I feel about it. Who knew pigeon peas were used in desserts?
On the one hand, it has an eager, ready-to-please sweetness. But on the other, the earthy taste of the pigeon peas lingers like a stranger at your party who, while not making himself entirely unwelcome, is aggressively insistent that you know he's there. For those compelled by rarity, its a find. But others might be disinclined to bother. The flavor is interesting, undoubtedly but strangely unique, but I remain at best a skeptic.
Unless you're the kind of person who travels far and wide for pumpkin pie—or, less likely, if you happen to be a connoisseur of pan de batata—this isn't quite food that will justify a trip in and of itself. Still, that pan de batata is pretty special. Next time you're in the neighborhood, keep it on your mind.
Dominican Sweets Stand
South side of East Kingsbridge Road nr. Creston Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10468 (map)