Mexico and Brazil in Da Bronx

Our arrival at Pique 86 could well have been accompanied by a fit of pique! This authentic Mexican Yelper’s favorite within blocks of The New York Botanical Garden had its gates closed and also an unpromising “closed” sign on the door. This was the only destination the Chef had researched. We went up to examine, and we were able to open the door, only to be greeted by a blast furnace of hot air in the small, unairconditioned restaurant. “Hola” I called out. “Esta abierto?” A young woman in a red tee shirt greeted me. She spoke no English, so I jumped in with fractured Spanish, asked if they would be opening and, if so, could they put on the “aire.” We had a comic interchange that involved me standing on a chair and pointing at various buttons on the small air conditioner. She, in turn, called a colleague to ask how to turn the AC on. And lo and behold, the air did blow to our corner table, and two ice cold glasses and a Negro Modelo beer appeared within minutes of establishing that Pique 86 was indeed open for business, albeit at noon on a Sunday, two hours later than Yelp specified in its hours listing.

Just like we, as a couple, have a nose for a clam shack, the Chef is practiced when it comes to seeking out the best authentic Mexican food in all five boroughs, but especially in the Bronx, where he is well travelled and I am not. In Spanish as in English, “pique” means resentment and umbrage, ,but it also can mean “a narrow trail,” and trust the chef to find this small unlikely spot for delicious comida on the narrow trail of rag-tag shops and restaurants between the Bedford D stop and the NYBG. I ordered two tacos with “todos” (everything) ($3.25ea), a pork pastor—pork with pineapple, my favorite meat + fruit combo—and carne asada, grilled steak morsels. The Chef ordered pork sopes ($8.00), two large puffy cornmeal cakes (think Mexican polenta) layered generously with chunks of tender pork, and all the elements of my “todos” tacos: lettuce, cilantro, tomato, and the luscious “crema.” We asked for tomatillo and red salsas, which were excellent accompaniments, and started with a side of Guacamole ($4.00),which came with those great fried chips you can only get at an authentic taqueria. A Mexican soccer game was about to begin on the large flat screen TV behind us, and it was amusing to watch lone men come in, sit down, and start watching without ordering anything. As I chatted to the waitress in my rusty Spanish, which was getting better by the minute, and watched her interactions with the Mexican men filing in, noted the obligatory Frida Kahlo shrine on the wall, I felt like I could well have been back in Mexico City, where, at that very moment, my daughter was having a last-minute vacay.

Texting Tamales in Tandem

As it turns out, while the Chef and I were trying to keep pork and lettuce from spilling out of our hands, our daughter Julie’s texts were pock-pock-pocking on my phone. I’ve had the good fortune to visit Mexico City twice, so I was thrilled to see she had warmed to the city as I had. What fun to be eating Mexican food in the Bronx and downloading our daughter’s real-time pictures of a farmer’s market in Mexico, of a man making her tamales de seta (with mushrooms) and another of a taco spread with ruddy orange pumpkin mole (spread over “charred water flowers” Julie told me later; I looked up and they are hibiscus!). I know my daughter felt torn on such a short trip with only three full days for exploration. She didn’t go to the places that everyone goes to—the pyramids of Teotihuacan, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, the Centro Historico; and the Ministry of Education that houses Rivera murals was closed. However, it turns out that she saw a good bit of “la vida” of Mexico City in the city’s Parque Chapultepec and wandering the neighborhoods. While we ate in the Bronx version of a Mexican taqueria, Julie kept sending pictures of a typical Sunday in Parque Mexico in Roma: of stray dogs up for adoption, teens doing acrobatic routines, ballroom dancers , kombucha makers, soccer players, and men pushing a miniature bus full of squalling toddlers.

From Mexico 2010s to Brazil 1970s

After our satisfying lunch, we went a few blocks but traversed below the equator and back decades in time to Brazil in the heyday of Roberto Burle Marx’s modernist landscape creations during the 1960s and 1970s. Again, we had a concurrent experience with our daughter, stopping to admire two beautiful and lithe samba dancers at the entrance to the NYBG’s Roberto Burle Marx show . Because this stunning show is running until September 29, I’ll take this opportunity to say run, don’t walk, from your great authentic taqueria lunch at Pique 86 to the NYBG. Burle Marx was a landscape artist, ecologist, naturalist, modernist, weaver, painter, visionary! He worked for the Brazilian government after the military coup in 1964 and managed to gain an official platform for both his conservation activism and modernist vision, leaving his mark in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and more. In these days when the Amazon is being burnt at the rate of a three football fields a minute while Brazil’s leader and our own do nothing but fan the flames, it’s good to note that Burle Marx was the first person to call attention to the need to preserve Brazil’s precious rainforests. Thanks to the well-heeled patrons of the NYBG, palms, cyads, bromeliads, elephant’s ears and, my favorite, the polka-dotted philodendron Burle Marx discovered and named, were carted up from Florida and other tropical climes on flatbed trucks and installed over a period of three months. They remind us what the world could well lose—and fast.

For some reason I had never warmed to the NYBG, feeling it was too overwhelming compared to its counterpart in Brooklyn. However, on this visit, in perfect summer weather and walking the vibrant patterned walkways of the Burle Marx exhibit, I decided to join then and there. The price of a ticket goes toward membership. I’m already plotting my visit to Japan via the D train, with a stop at Pique 86 to visit Mexico en route. The NYBG hosts a Japanese chrysanthemum or “Kiku” show from October 25 through November 17. Vamanos! 来て(Kite), Venha Visitar! Come visit!