A few years back, I remember reading about a cupcake bakery that was popping up in an Upper West Side hair salon. “Gross,” I thought to myself. “Will our appetite for novelty food ever be sated?” It’s certainly true that a food-obsessed culture can get silly, slobbering over the next exclusive dinner in a frozen underground river or a battleship. Eater’s hysterical pop-up restaurant generator skewered the trend pretty effectively.
I find it easy to be dismissive of coolhunting, but then I recently stumbled on a line halfway down the block, leading to a tiny kitchen behind a small service window. “Why are all these people lined up what am I missing is this The Next Thing I must know!”
The window in question is on the corner of St. John’s and Kingston in Crown Heights. When I first spotted the crowds, I had just eaten a large meal. Still, I almost got in line for dinner #2 because WHAT IF THIS IS MY ONLY CHANCE TO TRY THIS THING AND IT’S THE BEST THING AND MY LIFE HENCEFORTH WILL LACK MEANING IF I MISS OUT?! I didn’t even know what kind of food they sold.
“Jamaican food,” a guy in a shamrock-green tracksuit told me a few days later, when my curiosity drew me back. When I asked him what’s good, he laughed and shook his head. “It’s all good, my man.”
Options were slim. I wanted jerk chicken (not just because it’s one of the only Jamaican foods I know), but the unsmiling old chef told me “No jerk chicken today.” Stewed chicken it was, four pieces, with a lumberjack portion of rice and beans. I wolfed it down on a nearby stoop, brushing stray beans into the bushes.
It was a solid meal — tender, well-cooked chicken with a perfectly seasoned side. But you know what? My neighborhood is lousy with good Jamaican restaurants. I told my friends that the secret stoop chicken tasted better than all the others, but I honestly don’t know if that’s true. It’s impossible to extract my fleeting sense of being cool from the experience of the food itself.
The takeaway: That air of mystery and exclusivity might have unfairly enhanced my dinner perception. I’m a sucker, just like everyone else.