1/2 Certain segments of the population like to brag about never setting foot above 14th Street (or somesuch nebulous boundary). Whatever (that’s actually less offputting than those who silently yet resolutely refuse to venture beyond the 11211 zip code). But if I didn’t work in midtown, it’s not that likely I’d frequent the 40s or higher on a regular basis. Upper Manhattan and the Bronx? Ok, now I’m totally clueless and a little hesitant.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made the A train journey up to Inwood for a meal. I wasn’t scared like I thought I was going to be knifed or something, the unknown just makes me nervous. I feel the same way about Staten Island (I like to believe I have a better than average grasp on Brooklyn and Queens). NYC is an insular place. I currently work in a deparment of ALL native New Yorkers, which is pretty rare in my experience (no, I don’t work for the NYPD or FDNY or the city) and I wouldn’t be surprised if many (not all, mind you) of the five were unfamiliar with the neighborhoods outside of where they grew up and/or presently reside. I only know places where friends congregate or where good food lurks.
My initial impression of Inwood wasn't bad. Of course my only exposure was walking three blocks to and from the Dykeman Avenue station but it seemed akin to Sunset Park or South Slope: a Payless Shoes, H&R Block, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Chinese take out…I’m not sure if there was a Jimmy Jazz or not but there should’ve been. Lots of chains, a little grit, and no signs of gentrification beyond 809 Sangria Bar and Grill, my destination.
You might not even notice it from the street, it’s not flashy. The brightly lit, neon heavy place with sandwiches in the window, next store, made more of an impression. And I’m not sure how well they’re attracting diners (I think they’re doing a good job bringing crowds to the upstairs lounge, which is only open the last few days of the week). Our table was the only one occupied for a spell. Eventually two couples came in and as we were wrapping up a few other groups stopped by, one with like three children under three. Dates, partiers, newborns all welcome.
I’ll admit that the prices are high for the area (my entrée was $24) but it’s not a case of unwarranted gouging. The cooking is creative and the dishes are well thought out. The style borrows from The Domincan Republic (as everyone points out, 809 is the area code in the D.R.) and beyond and manages to avoid boring mango and avocado laced pan-Latino cliches.
I might’ve gone for a ceviche if I were solo, but the arepa trio topped with tufts of ropa vieja, pork picadillo and shredded chicken were moist and each distinctly flavored.There are two ways to go with entrees: the pick your meat, side and sauce churrasco or opting for seafood. My dining companion (logically chosen as my only friend who lives in the hundreds) has a reputation for being fussy, things that lived in the water or items with bones don’t please her. I was a little nervous but she eventually settled on a medium well skirt steak with yucca fries and three colorful sauces (I couldn’t tell you what they were). She didn’t complain so I’m assuming her meal didn’t completely suck.
I was pleased with the pargo relleno, a whole crispy-skin red snapper stuffed with a seafood risotto. The lightly spiced echilado-coconut sauce tasted slightly Thai, which I loved. Sometimes, I forget the lime, coconut and chiles similarities between Southeast Asia and the Carribean.
I totally didn’t need an 809 Mojito (rum, apple pucker, peach schnapps, fresh plums and peaches) and tres leches cake. My teeth almost rotted out. I’m trying to learn moderation in 2007, though it’s slow going. I pretended that I was being healthy by only eating half my fish, never mind that it was fried and doused in creamy saturated fat.
On my (long) way home, I decided that they’re nice in Inwood. As we were heading into the subway station, a guy on his way out gave me his soon-to-expire Metrocard (this may not seem like a big deal if you’re an unlimited buyer but I’ll gladly accept the $2 gift since I’m a pay per ride gal). The train was already at the platform as we were approaching the bottom of the stairs and a guy held the doors for us. Annoying when you’re in the car, yes, but it wasn’t rush hour and the train was practically empty since it was the second stop from the end of the line. Syrupy cocktails and a few glasses of Shiraz tend to cloud my thinking in more ways than one, they also have a way of inducing rare warm, fuzzy, mankind is ok feelings. I like people so much more when I have a few drinks in my system.
So, if you ever find yourself around W. 200th Street and are craving lamb chops, onion confit, balsamic panela reduction and ajillo mashed potatoes rather than cuchifritos, 809 is probably a good choice.
809 Sangria Bar & Grill * 112 Dyckman St., New York, NY