There comes a time every spring when the weather begins to swelter, and a first visit to the beach is required. Last week was that week, as the temps soared to 80 and beyond, and I set out for Coney Island. My objective was to take a stroll on the boardwalk, but also to check out the neighborhood’s current food scene. I brought a friend with me to help eat, but also a backpack in case there were leftovers — and there certainly were.
Riding at the rear of the F train to the end of the line, we got off at the Mermaid Avenue exit in the middle of the island’s residential district, a thoroughfare dotted with bodegas selling sandwiches and modest eateries of a varied sort. We stopped first at Mi Candileja, a Dominican café that had been around 20 years or more but was revamped early in the pandemic. Just past the front door, a well-maintained steam table offered eight immediately available selections. The pernil pork roast ($10), flaunting swatches of crisp brown skin, was irresistible, and we came away with a carryout container.
Squatting on the sidewalk in the shade of a hair-styling parlor, we excavated the garlicky pork with our fingers — it wasn’t till later that we found the utensils and napkins wedged in the bottom of the bag, and gobbled the achiote-tinged beans, which were just as spectacular as the pernil. Across the street, we spotted a very tiny storefront with the rather generic name of Juice & Tacos. It, too, appeared to be fairly new. Inside, a tiny space was mainly filled with glass cases showcasing fruit salads in plastic cups, fresh mango sprinkled with chile, chicken and beef empanadas that looked homemade, and beverage fixings that included Mexican cocoa, oatmeal, and instant coffee lined up on shelves.
There were several types of tacos ($3.50 each), of which we selected longaniza. The tacos were well-stuffed with a very chunky and chile-laced sausage; one came sluiced with the loose guac sometimes used on tacos. These were irresistible, salty and delicious, and we considered returning to the storefront and getting more tacos (the beef empanada was only so-so), but instead, we forged ahead. Mermaid Avenue was lined with small delis, and we popped into each hoping to find at least one still selling the historic roast beef sandwich with fresh mozzarella and brown gravy, favored by beachgoers a half-century ago and still served at John’s Deli in nearby Gravesend, but came up empty.
Eventually, we drifted northward through a neighborhood of small, two-story houses jammed close together to reach Neptune Avenue, a broad street lined with autobody repair shops overlooking Coney Island Creek, which used to separate the island from the Brooklyn mainland. Our objective was Tontonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano, which has been open since 1924 and is one Brooklyn’s greatest pizzerias (it’s also one of the few in the city still using a coal-burning oven). Sadly, we found it closed, and checking both Instagram and Facebook posts, there was only a sad notice dating to last April. Will it ever reopen, we worried?
Zigzagging our way toward the beach, we looked through several neighborhoods and found lots of closed stores but nothing promising foodwise. Our next destination was Dona Zita, a 12-year-old Mexican counter among the carney attractions in the back alleys of the beachfront. Despite the fact that most of the rides were operating only on weekends until Memorial Day, there were customers among the row of outdoor tables.
The menu is limited to outsize quesadillas, tostadas, tacos, gorditas, flautas, tortas, and cemitas — the iconic sandwiches of Puebla, made on round seeded rolls and flavored with the distinctive fresh herb called papalo. We ordered one made with chicken cutlets ($12), and also grabbed two Mexican hot dogs, one topped with fresh pico de gallo with plenty of jalapenos, and the other with crumbled chorizo that wasn’t quite as good as the one we’d eaten at Juice & Tacos, but it still did the job.
The hot dogs were fine, but what blew our minds was the cemita, even bigger than previous examples we’d eaten. Heck, the Oaxacan cheese itself would have been enough to make a good-size sandwich, but it was supplemented with chipotles, purple onions, avocado, a giant wad of papalo, and a stack of razor-thin chicken cutlets that mainly provided crunch. Between us, we managed to finish half of the sandwich, but stashed the rest away in the backpack.
From there, already sated, the rest of the expedition was a blur. We stopped at the Paul’s Daughter stand right on the boardwalk, which once had a little bald man on top holding up a hamburger. Alas, the little bald man was gone, but the stand had been completely renovated and looked gleamingly new. Our plate of raw clams ($9) — a Coney Island classic — was perfect in its freshness and briny flavor, the little bivalves actually sweet and not bitter; while the swirling chocolate-and-vanilla soft serve cone ($5) was exactly what you’d expect it to be and nothing more or less, mainly wet and cold.
Answering the clarion call of the strolling cotton-candy salesperson, I bought a blue bundle ($2), worrying if I’d picked the best color. Don’t worry, she assured me, they all taste the same. Now was the time to try and walk off some of the food we’d eaten, so we clambered up and down the boardwalk, noting that a few of the children’s rides were operating, and most of the people moving along the boardwalk had kids with them, often in strollers. We noticed that many independent food vendors had set up right on the wood-planked walkway, selling churros, carved mangoes on a stick, and dripping red wedges of watermelon.
Our last stop was to be Nathan’s, to split a final frank before hopping on the F again. It was 5 p.m. as we descended the ramp from the boardwalk and headed for Surf Avenue, but as we reached Nathan’s, a giant crowd converged all at once and instantly formed a long line to wait for the five cent hot dogs that had been advertised. Slightly disappointed, we hopped on the train and went home, but planning to eat several franks on our next visit to Coney Island.