By 8pm on a Monday, nearly two hundred people were packed into East River Bar in Williamsburg. The line of people snaked through the entire length of the outdoor patio, the entire length of the interior bar area, out the front door, and halfway down the block. Some had been waiting for over an hour. In the days leading up to the event, popular city blogs ranging from Gothamist to Flavorpill, to Daily Candy, to FREE Williamsburg had all posted about it.
The occasion? Tacos. Specifically a pop-up taqueria event entitled “Black & Cream,” featuring black bean and cheese tacos made exclusively from locally sourced ingredients and served bythree friendly and smiling twenty-somethings in the back of a taco truck.“Hunger is the best sauce,” remarked Alex Pasternak, 29, one of the friendly and smiling taco-makers.
The delicious and successful event, deemed a “temporary taqueria” in announcements, was the brainchild of conceptual artist (and recent San Francisco transplant) Mark Gravel, 28. Gravel’s desire to do pop-up restaurants comes from what he described as “basically a kind of art-based food activism”—all the pop-up restaurants Gravel has done so far have featured bean-based meals.
“The way I see it, well-made beans satisfy the emotional and sensual values of eating as well as the economic and moral,” said Gravel. “For me, making them is an exercise in the art and economics of cooking and a demonstration of eating well and inexpensively in a local food system. So, essentially, the interaction with and discussion of beans is the food-based activism.
“The values and beliefs and philosophies about food that I hold dear to me, I want to share those with people,” said Gravel, as he served two of the eight hundred or so tacos he and his team—Pasternak and Fanny Singer, 27—constructed during the event. “Having the freedom and flexibility and creativity with a pop-up allows you to create a new menu and to conceptualize something new every time,” he said. “For me, really, it’s conceptualizing everything—the name, the music, where it’s going to be—so it all just feels right.”
Gravel’s idea is a confluence of two recent food trends in the city: taco trucks operating in the garden areas of bars—neighborhood watering holes Union Pool and The Woods also feature trucks—and the sourcing of fresh, local ingredients grown by neighborhood farmers and food artisans. It’s a recipe for economical, morally-conscious food, fun, and, apparently, attendance.
“I like to support the locals,” said Mia Azpeitia, 26, one of the three hundred-something attendees. Azpeitia, who had traveled from Manhattan to attend, explained how part of the appeal was the fact that food wasn’t coming from a conventional restaurant. “Otherwise,” she laughed, “I don’t know if it would be worth the hour and a half wait.”
Azpeitia wasn’t the only one thereinterested in supporting Brooklyn growers and businesses. “I’m interested in pop-up restaurants, in how they can draw a community together,” explained one attendee, Courtney Finn, 28. “And I specifically also like tacos.” Finn was particularly impressed with the extent of Gravel’s local food-sourcing—Mast Brothers chocolate, Eagle Street peppers, Brooklyn Grange salad greens—a growing trend in Williamsburg, she noticed, amongst people her age. The trend, according to Finn, seemed to come froma desire for creativity and “a nostalgia for how things used to be.”
Of course, not everyone was there with such considered desires. “I’m just along for the ride,” said Brian Park, a photographer who, along with his friend, had the somewhat dubious honor of being the last people in line around 11:30pm. When asked whether he thought the tacos would be worth the wait, Park shrugged. “It doesn’t seem that different than Union Pool or The Woods.” But, it was pointed out, he was still there, in the backyard of this particular bar, waiting for these particular tacos. Park smiled. “I think New York, in general, is about waiting,” he said.
Indeed, the long wait didn’t seem to bother most. “Everybody’s patient. Everybody’s just happy to stand and wait,” noted Kari Morris, a local artist and cook, who admitted to having stood across from the taco truck for the past thirty minutes, observing fellow attendees. Nearly everyone seemed friendly and, generally, eager to be in line, waiting to eat tacos, including JethroRebollar, 26, a Bushwick resident, who admitted to going back for a second (and complimentary) round of tacos. The line moved forward and Rebollar offered me the chance to cut in front of him, which I considered, then declined.
At the end of the night, Gravel and company finally had a chance to sit down and eat their creations. “There’s a lot of generosity inherent in the whole pop-up,” explained Gravel, a spirit that extended itself to numerous attendees, many of whom were given free second helpings. “I want that generosity to be make itself present throughout the whole evening. That’s why I consider them happenings, rooted more in performance art and social sculpture, where it’s the actual process of people interacting with each other and the beans.
“And you never know who you’re going to meet when you’re standing in line for two hours,” he joked.
Looking ahead, Gravel and his black bean magic will be onhand atthe Last Supper Festival at 3rd Ward in Bushwick, on Saturday, September 18th. Also on the calendar is a tentatively scheduled reappearance at Good Company on September 26th, featuring black bean Bánhmì. For updates on Gravel’s food happenings, visit www.foodsexart.com