Photo by Tejal Rao
Andrew Field loves the Rockaways. "Why would you go all the way to the Hamptons, when you could just take the subway here?" He makes a list: the beach, the waves, the bird sanctuary, the cycling, the people, and the food. He's not an impartial judge of the last item on his list--Field is the chef at Rockaway Taco, a taqueria near the shore that opened last summer.
It's my first time on this narrow peninsula that belongs to Queens but points back to Brooklyn. It's gray today, drizzling. The ocean is at the end of the block and it smells like a pot of mussels. The abandoned bungalows have boards on the windows and wildly overgrown gardens. In the apartment building across the street I can see into a woman's bedroom. She's fastening her wig and lighting a cigarette at the same time.
"It's an amazing neighborhood," says Field, "and this block has changed a lot since we starting selling tacos. People hang out more now."
"Mexico was my university," he says earnestly, "it was my business school, foreign language school, cooking school, everything."
Field lives next door in a white washed house and keeps a small apiary on his roof. In a month or so it'll be time to harvest the honey, though he's not sure what the honey is for just yet. "We'll figure it out later. If there's any left. Problem is, David really, really likes honey."
That's David Selig, who bought the Rockaway Taco space, once a long defunct Italian deli, three years ago. Last summer Selig and Field turned it into a taqueria with a focus on local produce--cabbage from Blooming Hill Organic Farms (who set up a mini market stand by the taqueria), eggs from Manny Howard and Knoll Crest, and tomatoes, jalapenos, and cucumbers from pots on the roof supplemented by Brooklyn's Added Value garden.
The fish taco ($3, $1 extra for fresh guacamole) is a hot tortilla glove around a crispy piece of tilapia. Field has plans next taco season to work with the New York Harbor School, a Brooklyn public high school with an educational emphasis on the city's waterways, to source more local fish. And he has plans to go off the grid too, using a homemade power device that runs on vegetable grease.
Sustainability aside, the food is fresh, tasty, and full of soul. I put spoonfuls of the spicy green salsa on the very simple chilaquiles (fried tortillas soaked in a spicy tomato sauce and topped with a fried egg). Field's rendition is just that--no cheese, cilantro, or avocado--and I wonder if all these omitted toppings are even necessary. The snack is unexpectedly brilliant, like a tambourine solo at the symphony.
Field's father helped him get his first job at a hotel, as a dishwasher. "I was 15 and it was awesome," he says. "One day, out of nowhere, someone asked me if I knew how to cook. I said no way, man, but then it just kind of happened."
At 19, Field left Florida for Toronto, working at a local restaurant for a year. From there he packed up and moved to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, for four years. "Mexico was my university," he says earnestly. "It was my business school, foreign language school, cooking school, everything." Certainly, his Spanish accent is impeccable and he gets a maniacal gleam in his eyes when he talks about fresh masa.
When the summer season ends here at the Rockaways, Field will go back to Mexico to cook for a few months, research, and gather new recipes. Last year he alternated between Brooklyn pizza joint Roberta's and neighborhood restaurant Vinegar Hill.
I don't have anything to trade in at the book and surfer magazine swap by the counter, so I buy the copy of Victor Pelevin's Babylon for $2. Like all the books here, it's printed with a cute, toothy shark logo--which the drizzle washes away.
Rockaway Taco's got the logo--and a blog--but it seems like the local EMTs stopping in for lunch comprise the restaurant's real advertising efforts. One lunch rush starts like this: an EMT in line picks up his radio and says, "Hold on, we're getting lunch." Within minutes more EMTs arrive in pairs, like human antennae, broadcasting a single message across the Rockaway radio waves: tacos.
As the rain picks up, surfers, cyclists, and families on foot duck under the shack's painted white roof. Girls take off their shoes and kickstand their bikes to get in line and order. The block smells of fried fish and I get the slow, dreamy feeling of being on holiday.
"In September we cut back to five days a week," Field says, "when it gets really quiet, we close." I'm concerned: what will happen to the bees on the roof? "A lot of the bees die off," Field explains, "but the strongest stay with the queen, buzzing together for warmth all winter. They're basically the hardest working Rockaway Taco employees."