NEW HAVEN – I leave my car on a gray Saturday at Long Wharf and head to the water. It’s low tide, and a white egret presides over the sandbar — not a typical beach day, but a family I meet there has come for the fresh air.
“Are the food trucks a draw?” I ask.
They reply enthusiastically. They are hoping to check out the Caribbean Pizza truck. I make a note to do the same.
I stop first at La Chalupa, where I ask María Corona what everyone who comes to her truck should try.
“As we are a Mexican truck, it would have to be tacos.”
“La Chalupa is a family business,” Corona tells me, as her husband, Ponciano Hernández, rolls out the awning to shelter customers from the impending rain. Her food is 100% Mexican, she says, from the seasoning of the meat to the salsa.
“Hemos cuidado eso … que tenga lo original.” They’ve taken care that we, their customers, will have the chance to taste the original.
The three tacos in my to-go box have double tortillas — a crispy-not-crunchy one on the outside — with thin but substantial layer of Oaxacan cheese, beef birria, and a generous topping of cilantro and chopped onion.
Bírria, a recently popular Mexican preparation, is made by braising meat slowly with spices.
María tells me that these are actually “dipping tacos.”
The recipe for the accompanying consommé is a family secret, she says, but includes garlic, onion, and a variety of dry chiles. It’s delicious, savory not salty, lending moisture and depth of flavor to the bírria. The green salsa is delightful, subtly smoky, and not to be overlooked.
I sip on a not-too-sweet agua fresca de tamarindo.
At Caribbean Pizza, Estefanie Ramirez tells me I should try the Tripleta, a white pie with steak, ham and chicken, topped after cooking with lettuce, tomatoes and Puertorican sauce — a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise.
About ten minutes later, I’m presented with a twelve-inch pizza, generously-topped and cross-hatched with sauce. A layer of mozzarella has been dotted with the three meats. The contrasting crispy lettuce and tomato reminds me of childhood steak and cheeses on the beach. The best part? The crust. Slightly crispy on the outside, even with a few raindrops mixed in, and a deeply satisfying chew.
Estefanie tells me the wood-fired oven is from Italy.
On a roll now, I chat with Ed Sweeney and try a hot dog.
“Regular mustard or spicy?”
“Been at this for 61 years,” he tells me, but says the time goes by fast when you’re doing what you love.
At El Rinconcito, they tell me they are out of churros, so I order fried dough and a cup of the mango spears that are lined up in enticing rows of bright yellow at eye level.
While I wait, I chat with another customer who tells me he lives just a five-minute drive away and comes here a lot. His wife has a craving for nachos, he says, so it is Taco Bell or here. He walks away with an added bonus, two virgin piña coladas.
The little maraschino cherry in the middle of the fried dough is charming, the powdered sugar combines with the oil to form a glaze, and the taste is, well… of course it’s good. My mango is perfectly ripe, and I’ve ordered mine “completo” with Chamoy sauce and what I assume is Tajín seasoning because it’s red and the zesty lime flavor gives me a welcome kick.
The women at the counter window are surprised that I’ve never had Chamoy, which I later learn is a Mexican street food staple made from pickled fruit — in this case, tamarind.
“It must be so much work to peel and cut all these mangoes,” I say.
One of the women holds up a sturdy-looking peeler. It’s not so hard, she tells me. The owner of the truck replaces the peelers every week.
I finish with a post-postre lobster empanada from La ChickyMunchy, inspired by the two anglers ahead of me in line. “What are you fishing for today?” I asked them. “Anything that bites,” they reply cheekily before letting me take their photo.
La ChickyMunchy describes its cooking as “authentic Puerto Rican Food, Grandma Style.”
Eduard Aguayo hands me a full-sized empanada in a paper bag. It’s warm. I take a bite, steam escaping, the dough crisp. I make a “yum” noise.
I ask about the lobster meat filling, which is “guisado” or braised.
“I feel like I’m tasting a hint of tomato sauce?” I ask uncertainly. He says no, but his wife Jenny nods yes behind him. “She’s the one that makes them,” says proudly. “Everything is homemade.”
I linger over my empanada — which cost only $5, by the way – and listen to exchanges with other customers. One asks about the sopa de salchipapa. They’re out. But Eduardo has suggestions of other platos, in a way that makes you feel truly en casa.
As I start to go, I take one last look. The mood is relaxed, jovial, family-friendly, umbrellas bobbing along despite the weather. People feasting in their vehicles. Some dining alone at their steering wheels, taking a quiet moment. One person is smoking a cigarette, listening to reggae music.
Long Wharf is a place to stop when I want to dine with intention, whether I have twenty minutes or two hours, to breathe the sea air, share a good meal, thank the chef, and bear witness to others doing the same.