2006_7_GothamArepa.jpgImagine a very special hot dog vendor—one who bakes the bun and forms the sausage to order right before your eyes. This kind of immediacy to your meal is hard to find on the street. But not if you venture to Red Hook Park. On weekends a veritable caravan of Latin food stands sets up beneath a giant tent the length of a city block, and all of the food is cooked right here. Head for the lady making arepas on a makeshift griddle. Choose your filling (pork, cheese, or both), and stand back to watch as she scoops a ball of corn masa dough from one container, massages it into a disk, envelops the savory filling, and slaps it down on the griddle. A couple minutes later, she’ll flip it, when the underside has achieved a lovely brown crust. For $1.50, the arepa is served with a huge garnish of what could be south-of-the-border slaw—shredded cabbage and carrots doused liberally with a mild chile-tomato sauce. The arepas here are worlds apart from those pre-formed patties ubiquitous at street fairs now. These little cakes manage to be both creamy and tender as well as chewy and crispy all in one bite. These arepas, a meal in themselves, express a different style than those of the legendary Arepa Lady, which are more like snacks.

If somehow one of these won’t fill you up, take a tour of the other stalls, where you’ll find plantains in every form, deep-fried flautas, tomato-drenched seviche, and tacos made from tortillas formed on the spot. They all cater to the families (primarily immigrants from across Latin America) who gather here to play and watch soccer matches on the surrounding ballfields. The vendors are mostly women, and their setups have the familiar feel of a backyard barbecue, with card tables for customers to sit. There’s a camaraderie here you could never find at say, Yankee Stadium. If you’re not a Spanish speaker, you may feel out of sorts, but the vendors are quick to oblige any request. You get the sense that they set up camp here not just to make an extra buck, but to satisfy the homesick cravings of their compatriots.