On Saturdays and Sundays from April to late October, street food and Latin American food lovers of all stripes flock to Red Hook Park's ball fields to savor foods from the legendary Red Hook Food Vendors. Since 1974, vendors have operated on the edges of the park on Clinton and Bay Street. But it isn't the type of food you get in restaurants in the city—it's home-style and streetside cooking, traditional foods like elotes, refreshing agua frescas, enormous free-form tortillas known as huaraches, and more prepared in the traditional ways.
With the vendors kicking off their 2013 season this weekend, there's no shortage of excellent posts in the Serious Eats archive to peruse to prepare yourself for full frontal face-stuffing (for the uninitiated this 2008 post by Adam Kuban is an excellent place to start). But this year is different. In the words of veteran vendor Marcos Lainez from El Olomega Pupusas, "This is the beginning and it could be the end."
In the vendors' earliest days it was the soccer that brought the crowds, including many of the now-veteran vendors, to the park. With the lack of food options in the immediate vicinity, there was demand among the soccer players and their fans for food and drinks. Vendors responded to the opportunity and began selling traditional foods from their homelands.
The Country Boys, one of the best-known of the vendors and the first to bring home a Vendy Award, started their business with just a few tables, a couple for food prep and one for their customers. The food was cooked fresh for the customers on eye-level grills under billowing plastic tarps, and the site had a distinct open-air mercado feel similar to those one might find in Central or South America.
When the vendors first started selling in the park, the neighborhood was hardly a culinary destination. When asked, veteran vendors recall the prevalence of crime, drugs and prostitution. As gentrification came to Red Hook, it was the vendors who faced the threat of extinction when their humble market no longer fit some people's vision for the revitalized neighborhood which was attracting tonier retail like IKEA and Fairway.
For over three decades, when times were tough and the neighborhood was less desirable, the Red Hook Food Vendors operated with minimal interference from city regulators, but in 2007, changes in the permitting requirements for the park forced the vendors to have to bid to retain the permits they had held for years. As Ed wrote in the fall of 2007, "The Red Hook Ballfields, where Latino families put up makeshift restaurants serving real, honest food of their home countries, is one of the last bastions of real food to be found in NYC. If it's replaced by a Starbucks or a series of dirty water dog carts or some generic high bidder, it would be a travesty."
While the vendors ultimately won that fight in 2007, the intervening years have brought more challenges. The bid for the permits was just the beginning—soon the vendors found themselves facing increased scrutiny from the Department of Health. To comply with city regulations the vendors had to purchase carts and trucks for vending, which came at considerable cost and forced a number of the longtime veterans to retire. The vendors operate for six months of year, but they must pay insurance and maintenance on their trucks during their off season, which includes costly monthly commissary parking.
As new outdoor markets have opened and drawn more and more eaters, attendance at the Ball Fields has fallen. The long term closure of the Smith-9th Street subway station (only now reopened) didn't help. At a recent vendors meeting, the organization's Executive Director César Fuentes said, "If there's not enough support, there's not enough reason to continue as a group." Without the crowds, there will be little incentive for the vendors to apply for a new permit at the end of their season. But as the Vaquero Fruit Truck owner Everardo Vaquero, put it, "If you support us, we shall continue."
The Red Hook Food Vendors are an affordable and accessible culinary treasure. If you love the ball fields, if you've thought about going to the ball fields, or if you're just reading about the ball fields for the first time, consider paying a visit sooner rather than later. If you like it, go back again and tell your friends before it's too late.
What should you eat while you're there? Some of our favorites in the slideshow.
About the author: Alexandra Penfold is mild-mannered literary agent by day, food ninja by night. Never one to skip dessert she's the Brownie half of Blondie & Brownie, a Midtown Lunch contributor, and co-author of New York à la Cart: Recipes and Stories from the Big Apple's Best Food Trucks. You can follow her on Twitter at @blondiebrownie.