Mexicans have become more of a neighborhood force over the last decade, the authors note. Before that, the “Spanish” in Spanish Harlem referred primarily to the large Puerto Rican community, which began gravitating to the area in the 1950s.
Just west of El Paso Taqueria, the Justo Botánica’s facade bespeaks the era when the shop was established—the 1930s—and carries everything from Jabón de tapa boca (Shut Up Soap), from Mexico, to incense to spiritual artifacts.
Walk a few blocks west to El Museo del Barrio, on Fifth Avenue across from the elegantly manicured Central Park Conservatory Garden. El Museo is one of New York’s leading Latino cultural institutions, and it boasts a great gift shop.
To enjoy more eye candy, walk north along Fifth Avenue and then head east on 106th to Park Avenue to the Graffiti Hall of Fame, lining the fences of a junior high schoolyard. Walk further east on 106th to view one of the neighborhood’s most beautiful buildings: the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, a former school that houses the Taller Boricua art gallery.
The Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, considered the patron saint of El Barrio, is the subject of a mosaic masterpiece by Manny Vega on the northeast corner of East 106th Street and Lexington. Vega calls his style “Byzantine hip-hop,” which marries the ancient art of mosaic portraiture with meaningful words—in this instance, de Burgos’s poetry.
Spanish Harlem’s cultural corridor runs along 106th Street, where Carlitos Café y Galería, just off 106th on Lexington, provides a performance space for neighborhood musicians and actors.
Among the best of the Puerto Rican restaurants, La Fonda Boricua, just past the MediaNoche gallery, dispenses with menus: ask for mofongo — mashed plantain with pork, chicken, or shrimp.
Continue up Lexington to bustling East 116th Street to fruit-juice stands operated by Mexican immigrants and the Casa Latino Music Shop, which González calls “an unofficial salsa museum.”
The corner of East 116th and Second Avenue boasts two fun cocina criolla restaurants—the downscale but yummy Sandy Restaurant and El Nuevo Caridad, adorned with baseball decor.
But in Vega’s opinion, the neighborhood’s culinary star is Itzocan Bistro, on Lexington Avenue at East 101st, which melds Mexican flavors with French technique. It’s not for the cash-poor, but “the saucier there — boy, he really knows what he’s doing!” Vega says.
As does the rest of Spanish Harlem.
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