Each Saturday and Sunday in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook, mom-and-pop food vendors host a Latin smorgasbord on the sidelines of community soccer matches, and the pupusas and grilled corn become the main event. The tradition, which has been going since the seventies but has piqued the interest of New Yorkers only in the past few years, is a lot like Red Hook itself: authentic, overlooked and chock-full of homemade specialties.
The south Brooklyn neighbourhood was settled early – in 1636 – and by 1850 it was one of America's busiest ports, full of hard-drinking longshoremen. A century later, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway severed the gritty neighbourhood from the rest of the borough, and the area spiralled further downward.
(For a glimpse, watch Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando.) As recently as a decade ago, old-timer cabbies would refuse your fare to this neighbourhood; crack dealers outnumbered grocery stores.
Much has changed – you can now find a dozen varieties of imported olives and bicycles made from bamboo within blocks of each other – but cobblestone and defunct railway tracks are still underfoot. The arrival of NYC supermarket Fairway and, last year, IKEA gave the area a bourgeois update – but it has retained a crafty spirit. The landmarked Beard Street Warehouse, once home to coffee and tobacco, now houses artists' studios, woodworking shops and the gallery of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. Christie's has taken over one warehouse to store art and antiquities, microbrewery Sixpoint Ales another.
The past few months welcomed a spate of new shops and restaurants including screen printer Foxy and Winston and a Stumptown Coffee roastery. The next few will bring a café addition to the roastery and the opening of carnivore-pleasing restaurant Grindhaus.
But the best thing in Red Hook is still free: This is the only spot in New York with a full frontal view of Lady Liberty.
ONE IF BY SEA Honour the neighbourhood's nautical roots by travelling to Red Hook by water. IKEA sponsors free ferries from Wall Street nearly twice an hour on weekends; the passage is a brisk five minutes and offers a whirlwind glimpse of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. The other reasonable option is via taxi; public transit in the area is limited to local buses. www.nywatertaxi.com/commuters/ikea.
PLAY BALL From June through Nov. 1, the Red Hook Ball Fields hosts dozens of vendors who serve homemade tacos, huaraches, pupusas and more. If you're not hungry, go for a refreshing tamarind agua fresca or a sliced mango doused with lime juice and chili powder. Bay Street and Clinton Street. redhookfoodvendors.com.
ON THE RISE Baked is what happens when ad guys devise a neighbourhood bakery. It's both slick (it has an orange lacquer door with a stylish antler handle) and tasty (house-made granola and vanilla marshmallows are perfect to-go gifts). 359 Van Brunt St.; 718-222-0345.
LOOK BACK Alluring 19th- and 20th-century curios are on offer at Erie Basin: Furniture mixes with jewellery that is both enchanting and macabre, such as a Victorian mourning ring that is embedded with a pinch of the deceased's hair. 388 Van Brunt St.; 718-554-6147; eriebasin.com.
MADE BY HAND Find handmade women's and baby clothing and accessories at Tiburon, which uses the talents of the neighbourhood's many crafty residents. Pick up a handful of Red Hook postcards – delightfully honest photographs that depict graffiti-marred buildings and IKEA shopping carts. 392a Van Brunt St.; 718-913-4484; tiburonbrooklyn.com.
CLEAN IT UP The soaps from Saipua are almost too pretty to unwrap. The storefront, which was recently designed using reclaimed barn boards, showcases the outfit's lush floral arrangements, too. 147 Van Dyke St., 718-624-2929; saipua.com.
SWEET TOOTH The quirky counter at Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies offers just one menu item in a couple of sizes; scarf down a tart or “swingle” in case your dinner destination runs out of key lime pie, a well-known Red Hook export. Pier 41, 204 Van Dyke St., 718-404-6911.
A DATE WITH LIBERTY Continue west down Van Dyke to Valentino Pier at sunset. Pass through the pocket-sized park to the pier, where families picnic and fishermen sway to mellow boom-box tunes, rod in one hand, paper-bagged beer in the other. You're so close to Lady Liberty, you can almost touch her.
A LITTLE KOREA Red Hook claims one much-lauded temple of cuisine: The Good Fork. It's a memorable diner-style room and much of the produce hails from a nearby farm. Korean-style steak and eggs with kimchi rice is the crowd-pleaser. 391 Van Brunt St.; 718-643-6636; goodfork.com.
ONE FOR THE ROAD Indulge in a nightcap at newly opened Fort Defiance, which serves Colonial-themed beverages and a 23-ounce highball dubbed the Sumo Collins. Think of it as Tom's hefty brother. 365 Van Brunt St., 347-453-6672; fortdefiancebrooklyn.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail