Crawling My Way Down Kingston Avenue
By Malky Lowinger
The second annual Kosher Food Crawl was held on a chilly and overcast Sunday afternoon but that didn’t stop over three hundred foodies from joining the event, which was held to benefit Toys for Hospitalized Children, an organization that needs no further explanation. I join the fun and visit the food establishments on one of the Crown Heights community’s busiest streets only to discover that this community is the home of some of the kosher consumer’s favorite food hot spots and that the selection is diverse, satisfying, and refreshing.
Rabbi JJ Hecht is an organizer of this unique event together with … who developed the JMenu App which allows you to conveniently order kosher food from a local eatery. They share a passion for good food and for innovative fundraising. I run into Rabbi Hecht at the Taste of Crown Heights headquarters and he tells me that the demand for tickets to this event far exceeded their expectations. Over three hundred people are participating in the event, most of them from outside the immediate area. “We have a large representation from the Five Towns, Great Neck, and Flatbush,” says Rabbi Hecht.
My first stop is Mendy’s @ The JCM, where I meet Natie the owner. The place is bustling with activity, filled with both my fellow Crawlers and families who are enjoying an early dinner. Natie serves me a lovely selection of his favorite dishes – falafel balls with techina, creamy butternut squash soup, his signature fries, and a mini burger topped with pastrami and fried onions and grilled to perfection. He tells me that he’s already dished out 235 of these trays and expects to serve about 65 more before the day is over. He also proudly shows me a plaque which declares Mendy’s the winner of last year’s Kosher Food Crawl competition.
I move onwards and easily spot my fellow Crawlers on this busy street as they are sporting their official A Taste of Crown Heights shopping bags. It’s clear that everyone is taking this event seriously, gathering around the various booths and ordering their favorite fare. I pass Ess And Bentch, where a woman is standing outside the store distributing fresh falafels, Israeli salad, and onion rings which look home made and divine. She has plenty of ‘customers’.
Rabbi Hecht tells me there’s lots of action just a few short blocks away so together we visit the corner of Kingston and Crown Street, where three food tents are set up for our enjoyment. The girls at Dean Street Café are offering a nice selection of glazed donuts. Most are topped with the traditional chocolate, but there’s also an assortment of orange and cherry flavored glaze. They recommend the cherry, but I try the orange instead. It’s surprisingly citrus-y in flavor and I especially enjoy the satisfying light crunch of the donut itself.
Ingenuity is king at the Kosher Food Crawl, and thus do I discover a whole new concept in chulent prep called Jew Stew. I speak to Meir who explains that he offers ready to cook chulent that is vacuum sealed in a bag with all the ingredients already combined. “All you have to do is add water.” The stew is frozen and very convenient for travelers or for those rushed Erev Shabbos afternoons.
The chulent is wholesome and satisfying but soupier than I’m accustomed to. That’s not a problem, Meir assures me, because the amount of water added can be adjusted to taste. Jew Stew is currently available in Classic and Gluten free varieties.
While I taste the chulent, I meet State Senator elect Zellnor Myrie who will be representing this district and is using this event as an opportunity to meet the community and pose for some photo ops. He tells me the food he is tasting is excellent. It’s being offered at the Mama Kitchen tent, where three lively and cheerful proprietors are scooping out stuffed grape leaves, vegetable stew, and homemade couscous. These guys believe in customer service with a smile, dancing to the music that’s being played out here in the street and merrily welcoming all Crawlers. I later discover that they have indeed won the Kosher Food Crawl competition.
A Taste of Crown Heights isn’t just about the new and the innovative. It also celebrates the traditional. I cross the street and travel back in time. There at 320 Kingston Avenue, the Raskin family presents a variety of flavored herrings, thoughtfully providing the kichel to go with it. They also offer gefilte fish in classic and salmon varieties and have assembled a lovely pre-set Shabbos table in front of their store.
But I’m most intrigued by the faded awning that hangs over there, which has probably been there for decades. It brings this Crawler back to simpler days when nobody ever heard of the word Foodie and Crawl was something you watched a baby do. I peek into the store and am gratified to see that same retro old world charm still exists within.
There are twenty five food establishments participating in the Kosher Food Crawl but I haven’t got time to visit them all and am especially disappointed to miss the shuttle bus that transports Crawlers to Alen-bi, probably the jewel in the crown of the Crown Heights food scene. But I don’t leave before I stop into Wine By The Case where a bevy of Crown Heights hipsters are sampling the merchandise. No sense in walking away from this opportunity, so I ask the proprietor to pour me just a bit of his most popular product. He offers me a shot glass with a tiny sampling of hot cinnamon vodka which is surprisingly smooth with a rich cinnamon flavor. Dessert, if you will.
My Crawl has ended but the festivities continue as a panel of Executive Chef judges will choose winners of the Kosher Food Crawl in several categories. But really everybody is a winner today, and not just because they are assisting a very special cause. Today we recognized the diversity, the ingenuity, and the rich culture of the kosher food industry in this community. And that’s certainly a reason to celebrate.