That’s just the carnitas I will slowly be simmering for about eight hours today.
I finally got around to watching the episode of “No Reservations” set in the Bronx last night. I had been avoiding it because everyone around here had been bitching about how wrong he got it. Also because, well, Bourdain. He has been doing shtick from day one. Initially entertaining shtick to be honest, but even the best bullshit artist will start wearing out his welcome eventually. There is a difference between being a character and playing a character and Bourdain is squarely in the latter camp. That being the case he has repeated himself too much to be very watchable at this point. For these reasons I gave the episode a pass.
As for the reaction of the locals to this episode, I should have expected it. You see, the Bronx is hard. It’s hard in a way that all of New York used to be. This is still the poorest of the five boroughs by far, and nothing comes easy here. Whereas gentrification has turned Manhattan corporate and Brooklyn into a theme park for assholes the needle has gone the opposite direction in these parts. The poor and borderline impoverished who have been displaced by the ever-encroaching wave of artisanal vinegar distillers have landed on our shores. More and more people fight for the same ghetto cribs and only the toughest dogs get the scraps. Don’t expect to come here and be greeted with open arms; much more likely you get a punch in the face. Cynicism and combativeness aren’t a pose but rather a means of survival.
So I waited to watch the episode and cannot tell you how pleasantly surprised I was. He really got it right, showing some hidden corners of the borough and celebrating the best of the present while honoring the past. He opened the show by acknowledging the Bronx as the birthplace of hip hop, and anyone from Queens who differs can shove a twelve-inch disc of “The Bridge” right up their ass. One record does not a subculture make. The Queens argument is the equivalent of claiming that Punk was invented in England: ignorant and wrong. It was a solid way to open the show and buttressed by his first stop, a visit with DJ Kool Herc.
The Herc segment was about culture; the second stop was about the food. He visited a cuchifritos joint on 188th and The Grand Concourse, right in the heart of the borough, with a local character named Baron Ambrosia. Ambrosia is the type of character one saw in abundance on the Lower East Side in the 1980’s. He’s a wacky multicultural pastiche with lots of street smarts who belongs to everyone and no one. I miss the experience of encountering someone and having no handle whatsoever on what his deal is. “Hipsters” are wearing a uniform just as much as sanitation workers are. A guy like Ambrosia is a truly unique individual whose appearance raises more questions than answers. The meal they shared was absolutely mouth watering as well, and one I will experience in the near future.
Other segments included a reminiscence of the graffiti era with Futura 2000 which felt a little wistful yet still necessary. He visited a thriving tonic business run by a Jamaican bush doctor who grew up in the same projects with surprise guest Afrika Bambaata. The segment at White Castle felt like a throwaway but I’m still always happy to see Handsome Dick Manitoba on screen. He was right to go to City Island but definitely went to the wrong restaurant there with the wrong tour guide. I could introduce him to a dozen fascinating characters who are City Island born and bred who would have been much better company for him. Although Desus was the wrong guy for City Island he was the perfect guy to tour the Jamaican restaurants and bars. Desus was incredibly charming and I’ll be surprised if we don’t see more of him in the future.
Overall I thought Bourdain did an excellent job of representing the Bronx. These shows are made on a tight schedule and budget, yet the production values were top notch. They photographed the borough quite well. Some of the bitching has been about a lack of Arthur Avenue but that’s hardly “parts unknown”. In any case there’s enough there to warrant a show of its own. Equally ridiculous are the quibbles about his overlooking the Bronx Irish. I’ve spent my share of time on Bainbridge Avenue and there’s very little of note there culinarily. The interstitials with local break dancers and rappers weren’t overburdened with talent but they were the real thing. It was also fantastic to see even a brief shot of a Boricua bicycle club. That’s the definition of local flavor.
It would take a nuanced viewer to realize just how thoroughly he covered the borough. The Jamaican segments for instance were shot both in the enclave in West Bronx as well as in the West Indian community up north off White Plains Avenue. Finally I was pleased with his inclusion of Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan both for historical context as well as a nod to the Jewish history of the borough. Doesn’t hurt, of course, that they ate at Liebmans where I enjoyed a pastrami sandwich just last Friday. Overall I give Bourdain top marks for this look at the borough that I call home.