4 Street Fairs, 1 Block Party, 2 Beer Gardens, and 3 Bars in 1 Day

by Jason Roth on July 14, 2009

Bastille Day came early for me this past Sunday.

Bastille Day, Manhattan

Bastille Day, Manhattan

Not that Bastille Day is something I’ve ever had an urgent desire to celebrate at all, but what the hell. I already planned to visit the Burmese Water Festival downtown, so what’s a few dozen blocks? Unintentionally, the day turned into a three-borough, outdoor food and drinkfest on crack. Just metaphorically, of course. (The Bronx wasn’t one of the three boroughs.)

For logistical reasons (we were driving from Queens), we started the day uptown at Bastille Day on 60th Street. I quickly realized that the idea of a street fair is far superior to a street fair. There was hardly anything to differentiate this particular street fair from every other generic street fair, with the exception of an average lounge singer, more crowds (it was on a street rather than an avenue), a few French nonprofits, and crêpes for sale. Actually, scratch that last one. I think I was even able to buy crêpes at the Zimbabwe Gay Irish New Year Fest.

Merguez on a baguette

Merguez on a baguette

What I could only get here at the Bastille Day celebration, though, was a merguez sandwich. Merguez is a North African sausage that has made its way to France as a prominent street food. A mild pepper sauce was poured on top, and that was it. The sauce adds enough moisture, plus the sausage itself is pretty moist, so together with a fresh, crispy baguette, it made a good start for the day.

Fresh meat.

Fresh meat.

Hey, what’s that? Jesus Christ, it’s another street fair. Indeed, an even larger street fair, of the generic variety, was located on Madison Ave., from 57th through 42nd. Perhaps its grandiose name, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations Festival, was what allowed the organizers to grab so much more real estate than the French expats. Yes, you could buy crêpes, but we opted for the yakitori.

Next up was the Burmese Water Festival, which is a fancy name for “a bunch of tents in a parking lot and a lot of Burmese people”. You might argue that said tents must be on an actual “street” for me to refer to this as a “street fair”, but I’m going with the rule that anything on pavement counts.

Hanging with the Burmese.

Hanging with the Burmese.

The food highlight was a Burmese (warm) noodle salad, which had a total of 11 or 12 separate ingredients. You might be able to make out six ingredients in the aluminum tray below, and then there are at least five plastic containers next to it. The lady then mixed everything with her (gloved) hands, and I gave her the four bucks for this pretty decent sized portion.

Ingredient #816 being added to the warm noodle salad.

Ingredient # 7,502 being added to the Burmese warm noodle salad.

Burmese noodle salad.

Burmese noodle salad.

I’m going to sound like a killjoy, but with all the garlic and some sort of dry, powdery stuff that acted as artificial Parmesan, this dish reminded me of spaghetti. Yes, it was more flavorful than the average bowl of pasta, but I can say it screamed something very exotic compared to other pasta dishes I’ve had, even, say, pad thai. And there was a little dry, hot pepper in it, but it wasn’t very spicy. Nevertheless, it was tasty, and definitely qualifies as good street food in my book: a nice carb content, good flavors, a little greasy, and cheap.

That T-shirt goes well with a nice, cold, cup of orchid juice.

Can't let those orchid juice purveyors know who's critiquing the orchid juice!

We picked up a couple cold glasses of a bright, green concoction called “orchid juice”. It was cold, sweet, tasted of bubble gum, with a slight, perfumy aftertaste. (Yes, presumably from the orchids.) While we chowed down on the noodles under one of the tents, some girl next to us got doused with an entire bucket of water in a stealth attack that I could only assume was retribution for some past offense. I assume that only since she looked annoyed, but not surprised, and she didn’t tear off after the perpetrator. Oh, that’s the other thing that made this a “water” festival, by the way: water fights. A lot of the kids had water guns, and you had to be prepared to get caught in the crossfire every now and then. (It’s funny how it gradually dawned on us why all the water guns were present… oh, I get it, water festival…)

We watched kids play an interesting (Burmese?) playground game, and listened to a rather statuesque (in the immobile sense) singer or two, singing what I was convinced was Burmese country and western. And then… off to Brooklyn, and back to Bastille Day.

I think I stumbled upon the existence of the Cobble Hill Bastille Day celebration while Googling for the address of the Manhattan version.

Bastille Day festival, Cobble Hill

Bastille Day Festival #2: Smith Street, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

It turns out, they claim, that this Smith Street festival is the largest Bastille Day celebration in the United States. I was skeptical it would be bigger than the Manhattan one, but indeed, it was freakin’ insane.

Bastille Day Festival #2: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Some guy named Gigantor and a bunch of other Bastille Day celebrants.

Not sure if Peruvian shrimp civiche is a traditional Bastille Day dish.

Not sure if Peruvian shrimp civiche is a traditional Bastille Day dish.

The distinguishing characteristic of this particular street festival was that most of the street was covered with sand. Something like 80 teams were supposedly on hand to go head to head in pétanque, virtually identical to the Italian bocce, as far as I could tell. Note to future street fair organizers: leave your damn street open. Trying to squeeze by a giant sandbox via a sidewalk full of ten billion Brooklynites was not my idea of summer fun. Granted, maybe it was the lack of booze in my hand, and others were certainly taking advantage of the suspended “no drinking outdoors” law on this day. Our chosen street food was the very traditional Bastille Day dish, Peruvian shrimp civiche, with the taste of tomatoes and avocado, and a little too sweet for my taste. The shrimp, thankfully, wasn’t terribly overcooked as is often the case, so it was more than tolerable just for that reason.

To get a little air, we walked away from the crowds and towards the smaller, omnipresent crowds of the non-street fair part of Smith Street. What’s that? Another street fair? No, given it’s petite size, I’m going to have to call this a Bastille Day block party.

To small to be a street fair, so I call this a block party.

Too small to be a street fair, so I'm calling this a block party.

More merguez. Can you eat enough of this stuff?

More merguez. Can you eat enough of this stuff?

The entertainment at this street fair, I mean block party, was probably the best so far. I’m not sure why a Latin jazz band qualifies for a Bastille Day event, but they got a crowd of female salsa aficionados up and dancing, so it was fine with me. The snack we shared while listening to the music was another version of a merguez sandwich. This one was just served with mustard, and though the baguette kicked ass, the sausage was mushy and less flavorful than the other one we had. The interborough battle of the merguez sandwiches went to Manhattan.

I’m going to say a block party is more my style, mainly just because the crowd wasn’t as bad. Regardless, it was time for beer. Karen had heard that Bar Great Harry had a draft beer selection, so we headed over, a bar on the corner of Smith Street and Sackett.

Bar Great Harry: a view from my stool.

Bar Great Harry: a view from my stool.

Not a Rodenbach.

Not a Rodenbach.

My only tactical error was picking the Otter Creek Imperial IPA. This strong, warm, beer was not the ideal choice to refresh myself on a warm day. My problem is that I have to go with any cask conditioned when it’s available. But a good bar, with a couple dozen or so American craft beers, and decent music. (Astro Zombies, one of my favorite Misfits songs, was playing at one point.)

The question now became: what else could we cram into this particular Sunday? Karen had another good idea: the beer garden in Astoria we had heard about. As someone who still has the image of two country’s versions of Hofbräuhaus burning in my head, when I hear “European style drinking establishment”, I picture “big”. I.e., I was skeptical. Amazingly, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden (actually a Czech and Slovak place) actually delivers.

Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, Astoria

Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, Astoria

The garden is huge, easily holding a few hundred people, and more impressively, it was nearly filled on a late Sunday afternoon. A decent cover band played, and Karen and I enjoyed a couple light, Czech beers. (A much better choice this time.)

Just blocks away from the Bohemian Beer garden was a newer, hipper competitor, Studio Square Beer Garden. Two beer gardens in nearly the same town (the latter is in Long Island City), and both packed with beer drinkers on a Sunday. Incredible. Studio Square had a younger crowd and even more people. We estimated six or seven hundred people, easy.

Studio Square Beer Garden, Long Island City

Studio Square Beer Garden, Long Island City

Maybe it’s because I’m older and more boring, or just because I’m already hitched, but I preferred the Bohemian joint. I preferred the live band, and there’s something about pop/club music being played through speakers that kills the mood at a beer garden. But I won’t knock it too much, it was, after all, a huge place that served beer.

We headed back to Forest Hills, where we figured we’d take things to extremes and finish off the day at our favorite local spot, Irish Cottage. We left after half a beer due to it being completely dead and some sporting event blaring on the TV, and moved over to Tap House, a somewhat new place on Austin St. which eliminated the lameness of the previous bar and installed real beer taps and actually draws a crowd. We grabbed a stool at the long bar, and finished off a pretty damn successful summer Sunday in NYC.

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