Tuesday, March 11, 2008
If, on a snowy evening, you find yourself in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, stop by the card table set up on outside Taqueria La Mixteca, across from the park on Fifth Avenue between Forty-second and Forty-third streets, and buy a cup of arroz con leche to sip as you walk. Arroz con leche, or “rice with milk,” is a Latin American drink of warm milk, rice, sugar, and cinnamon. It can also be served firm and chilled, like rice pudding, but I prefer it warm and sip-able, a hearty substitute for hot chocolate.
At Taqueria La Mixteca, the arroz con leche is made by Caroline, a middle-aged Mexican woman with wizened skin and smiling eyes. The taqueria is a nondescript storefront nestled among Fifth Avenue’s phone-card stores, fluorescent-lit hair salons, and bodegas—if it weren’t for the red and blue thermoses set up in front, you might walk right past it.
Most of the time Caroline can be found in the kitchen, where it’s warm, a black hairnet stretched across her forehead, frying up quesadillas in a haze of greasy smoke. She doesn’t speak English, but if you poke your head in, smile, and point to the sidewalk, she’ll bundle herself up and shuffle outside to sell you a cup of her concoction.
As she dips a tin ladle into the thermos and spoons the soupy drink into a Styrofoam cup, steam rises into the chill air. Walking along the street, ice crunching underfoot, cup the drink in your mittened hands and flip back the plastic top. The sweet milk will fill your mouth as the pieces of swollen, mushy rice slip down your throat and settle like a warm blanket in your stomach. It requires almost no chewing, just a slight pressure of the tongue against the roof of the mouth to flatten the rice grains, and the combination of nutty texture and creaminess matches the biting air and soft snow that blankets the park as evening falls.