Two Mussel Suckers in the Land of Clam Diggers
It is said that the residents of City Island refer to the visitors as “mussel suckers” while calling themselves “clam diggers,” maybe going back to the days when clam digging was in abundance. Clam digging stopped but the name remained.
Until 1896, City Island was part of Westchester County. Then, its residents voted themselves into New York City which they are probably sorry about now considering taxes and all. Now, City Island is part of the Bronx. On the map and in the name, the place feels like days away but it’s actually less than an hour ride from our Northern NJ digs. According to the license plates of the cars parked on the streets, people take longer rides than us to get here.
The whole island is one main drag called City Island Avenue with little street outlets going East and West that end up into private docks with patios and playgrounds. The street endings are fenced and tightly guarded against tourists. Some docks are parts of private properties they are adjacent to, some belong to the community of people living on a particular block. The whole atmosphere here is that of a shore vacation town and people are very lax.
The main avenue is packed with various seafood joints, occasional antique stores, and marinas. Most of the food places are cash only and there is only one bank on the entire Island.
Of course nautical theme is prevalent all over the main drag and outlets.
At the Southern tip of the Island there are two joints — Johnny’s and Tony’s. They are almost identical in food, set up, and ambience. Surprisingly, both have been surviving and thriving here side by side for decades. Talk about a place for everyone under the sun.
After some serious considerations — not sure what they were — we picked Johnny’s and decided to go light so we can try other places.
The restaurant was packed with families, couples, and groups of friends. The weather was just right — one of those days that are not too cold, not too hot, some sun, some clouds and no wind. Lines at the counters moved at a fast pace. The only wait was for the steamers — they have to be placed in a steam oven after the order was in. That took time.
Three dozen clams — one on a half shell, one steamed, one fried — did us in for the rest of day. We are getting older and it doesn’t take much to bring us down to our knees. There were days when this would be a snack before the meal. These days are gone.
The tip of the island with Johnny’s dips right into the Long Island Sound and is swarming with seagulls. Although the weather was fantastic and, as always, we were looking for outdoor seating. Situation in the sky, plus memories of aggressive seagulls of the Jersey Shore and Maine lobster pounds made me slightly shiver. We went for outdoors anyway.
Amazingly, not a single bird flew over the perimeter of the patio. I did not even give it a thought until Tom pointed out that there was a security measure. The entire seating area was covered with fishing lines invisible to mere mortals unless they are trained scientists. How clever — the view was not ruined, neither was the food or mood.
With the World Cup underway and Poland playing Colombia, our next stop had to have a TV. Probably following City Island tradition, the place we found was called Sammy’s. It had two sit down restaurants on both sides of the road.
To one of them, a takeout location was attached — a large counter with one wall completely open to the outdoors. There were two small round tables for customers waiting for their orders and a big screen TV. Just what we needed. Ghassan, the guy manning the orders at the counter, was all smiles and let us sit at one of the tables against the wall and have our drinks. Game watching was soon overtaken by people- and food-watching. All the characters picking up their stuff would need a separate blog entry each.
It was amazing to see these hundred-plus dollar trays flying off the counter like hot cakes. Ghassan was moving with lightning speed picking the orders from the computer, shuttling ready-to-go trays from the back to the front, checking if anything was missing, talking with customers and never losing his cool. People were coming in a strong and steady stream. Stacks of cash were flying from hands to hands. Ghassan, despite being crazy busy, did not mind me taking pictures of the orders going out. So wish we could have had some of that food but we were literally sitting on the first clams we had and the last ones were still in our mouths. For us, eating was out of the question.
A few customers came for individual orders but Ghassan was mostly packing trays, and trays, and trays. Our guess was these were people from the Bronx mainland coming to pick up their party fare. Maybe church, maybe graduation. Although Sunday, some of them were very dressed up. Or maybe they were dressed up because it was Sunday.
Once the game was over, we were ready to hit the road to our next destination. But bathroom had to be first. For that, we directed into the main restaurant. What a contrast it was to the quiet of almost deserted streets! The place was mad with crowds, color, and sound. And the feel was absolutely great — so laid back and cheery.
As we walked back to our car, all these people of different walks were having their Sunday afternoon outside along the streets of the City Island.
Most of the restaurants on the island have outdoor seating and because the weather was so fine the indoors were mostly empty but outside there were people even though it was still too early for dinner and too late for lunch.
And of course, like in every respectable shore town, there is a required ice cream parlor.
On the way back to the car, two Japanese girls performing in a studio-gallery The Starving Artist made us pause in front of the door. Locals waved us in, pulled up some chairs, and we watched the performance.
Here’re some City Island finest making sure mussel suckers behave, park, and drive appropriately. We behaved and did not get in trouble.
Lately, Tom and mine routines shifted and we happen to do things and go place during the off hours. It’s actually not that bad because we almost always avoid crowds and never need reservations. By the time we started moving towards our next destination, cars really started pouring into town. But we were done and done!
Our next stop was a Jamaican restaurant in Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx. Don’t even remember what got it on my list — probably Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” Somehow it stuck in my mind that there was dancing at that place so there we went — Barry’s Restaurant. Google maps could not locate the place by the name. This did not stop us — we entered the address.
As we got out of the car, I could see Tom’s face change. The look was somewhat like: ok, you got us here, how do we walk into this? Or out? Honestly, I got the same feeling but it was too late to turn around. We were in front of the door and couldn’t pretend that we got here by mistake. There were only two doors in the wall next to each other: Barry’s Restaurant and The Church of Jesus Christ. We parked in the front and walked in. Now, it was a matter of principle — we drove here, we gotta go in.
The room was a little bigger than my kitchen: a counter and two tables covered with vinyl tablecloths featuring sunflowers. Right by the front door, there was a DJ.
The crowd was about our age, mostly men, and it was more than obvious that everyone knew everyone. Maybe because the crowd was on the older side, the place made me feel safe. There was some light dancing going on. It was like walking into someone’s family room. They were as polite as it could be but they couldn’t hide smiles and questions in their eyes: who the hell are these two stray sheep that wondered in and what are they doing here. In a good way, though, without condescension.
It felt like we as a newcomers had to say something first so I came to the oldest guy and said: “Hi, we are new here, will you accept us?” And he gave me a hug. The other guy pulled up a chair for me, the other one got up and gave his chair to Tom. In a few minutes, their wives pulled in, we were introduced, and the rest was history. Tom got a beer and I got wine with no plans for food. Our plan was to have a drink, spend there a few minutes, and move on. Locals started buying us drinks and wanted us to try their food that was still cooking so we stayed longer.
As the clock was ticking and we had to leave to get home not too late, the restaurant’s chef invited us into their kitchen in the back and let us try all that absolutely amazing jerk pork and goat stew that were on the stove for tonight. I’d say Jamaican people are the friendliest and warmest people I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s all that sun…
Here’s Tom in the kitchen of the restaurant tasting hot off the fire jerk pork. I made it at home before but the taste of this, the real one, was absolutely amazing. Even though we were still not up to dinner we could not resist.
More food was absolutely out of the question but since we were in the Bronx — how often do we wonder out here — we wanted to cross one more place off the list and stopped by Cuchifritos, the pork and all things fried capital of the world.
We got some deep fried offal and blood sausage to go for tomorrow’s lunch and took a walk around the block.
And again it looked like we hit our off-hours timing. When we walked in the place was empty. In a matter of minutes, as it was almost 6 PM, the place filled up to the brim.
Here’s a thought-provoking concept of “99 Cents and More” that opens up all the possibilities to the owner. Hmm… How high could and would they go? And what do they have in there?
Interesting buildings and even more interesting characters.
It always is amazing and inviting when people produce these spontaneous parties, without frills or effort, or even proper place. Just a bunch of friends, or family, or both get together just because it’s Sunday afternoon. Kids, adults. Chairs. No chairs. Doesn’t matter.
Commotion by one of the doors made me pause. It seems that’s how it happens in the Bronx: something draws you in, you get to the door and those inside pull you in — to party!
This place was opening the next day and here are these guys — the proud owners. Having walked in their shoes once, I felt the air of anticipation in the room. That brought some memories from my four and a half years ago. Wishing them all the best! Now we definitely have to come back.
As the sun was going down and Monday was rolling upon us, we got into the car and flowed into the Bronx traffic to find our way home.