From The Conservatory Garden to El Barrio

Sunday, July 23rd, 2006 | All Things, Eats, NYC History

For the first time in days, I woke to a day that was neither ridiculously hot nor ridiculously wet. Decided to take advantage by spending the day wandering around the city parks.

I gathered up my crochet and a couple of magazines and hopped the 2 to Central Park North. Living near the lower regions of the park – though still considered “uptown” in somewhat skewed Manhattan parlance – I’m less often in the northern, more pircturesque, end of Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original Park design ended at 106th Street; In 1863, the city purchased an additional 65 acres of “rugged” land, to extend the northern boundary to 110th Street, bringing the Park to its current 843 acres. The highlight of the extension is the 11-acre Harlem Meer, a converted swamp that in March through May is stocked with bass, carp and catfish, for the public’s catch and release fishing pleasure.

Harlem Meer Ducks

From there, it was a short stroll to the Conservatory Garden, Central Park’s only formal garden.

The six-acre garden is so named for the massive glass conservatory that stood on the same spot at the turn of the 20th century. During the Depression, when upkeep of the facility became too expensive, the conservatory was demolished and replaced with the present Garden, which opened to the public in 1937. The entrance on East 105th Street is marked by a black wrought iron gate that once graced the entrance to the Vanderbilt mansion.

The Conservatory Garden is popular with local artists and both amateur and professional photographers. This afternoon, I came upon just one couple taking their wedding photos – for $100.00 per half hour permit (yes, I’d looked into it); in the past I’ve counted up to half a dozen brides and grooms. Peak time is probably in the Spring when the Garden’s 20,000 tulips are in bloom, and the paths are lined with flowering crabapple trees, which were planted in the 1930s and early 1940s as part of the federal WPA projects under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Or in the Fall, when the leaves change color and the 2,000 Korean chrysanthemums are in season.

Conservatory Garden


The English Garden’s Burnett Fountain depicting Dickon and Mary from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s book “The Secret Garden”

Burnett Fountain

I picked out a bench under the shade of the pergola and set out to make some progress on KG’s baby hat. I’m reading the pattern wrong, I think. The hat I’m crocheting seems way too large for a newborn’s head. At least I’m hoping so – for KG’s sake.

Conservatory Garden

By mid-afternoon, my hunger proved too distracting to continue crocheting. And I had taquerias on the brain, since reading this weekend’s New York Times California Coast taco crawl article, which mentioned Julia Child’s favorite taco stand, La Super-Rica Taqueria.

But of course, I’m not in Southern California. The next best thing: far in feel from but near in geography to the formal gardens is the heart of El Barrio (Spanish Harlem), a vibrant neighborhood where casual, authentic Mexican joints abound.

Prior to my visit uptown, I’d read about El Paso Taqueria, located at 104th and Lexington. The Times – gee, two mentions in one entry – called this “extremely plain yet bustling little corner spot” “one of the best restaurants in the area.” And of course, as any of my friends will tell you, that’s all the endorsement I need. Kidding, people.

I was seated at a window table, and after perusing the offerings, I decided upon the first item on the lunch menu: the chilaquilescon carne enchilada (spicy pork) and green tomatillo salsa. No drinks were listed, so when I asked the friendly waiter for a recommendation, he suggested the “horchata.” Not knowing what that was, I tried to ask – en español – about the ingredients; instead he offered to bring by a sample of the iced, creamy-looking white concoction.

I took a sip: muy delicioso – not unlike a liquified rice pudding, I thought. I later learned that a horchata is a Mexican drink made from rice and blanched almonds, flavored with combinations of vanilla, cinnamon and sugar. It has the consistency and appearance of milk, but is apparently dairy-free.

I signaled my approval to the waiter, who smiled and promptly delivered a tall, brimming glass. The refreshing horchata made a heavenly accompaniment to the spicy, tangy – and enormous – chilaquiles that arrived at my table minutes later.


There is a Spanish saying: Cuando hay hambre, no hay mal pan (When there is hunger, there is no bad bread.). But even if I hadn’t been starving, I would have savored every bite. I’ll have to try out that theory the next time I’m in the neighborhood.

There's 1 comment so far ... From The Conservatory Garden to El Barrio

July 25, 2006

Your life seems so filled with food and joy. Someday I’ll be happy too.

Go for it ...