People participate in the West Indian American Day Parade marking the Labor Day in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City on September 04, 2023.

People participate in the West Indian American Day Parade marking the Labor Day in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City on September 04, 2023.

Photo by Leonardo Munoz / AFP.

The Best Food We Ate at the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn

If you are a New Yorker, the West Indian Day Parade is the single best eating day of the year. Here were the best things we ate during the 2023 iteration.

Versions of the celebration have existed for nearly a century, but the current iteration of the West Indian Day Parade — a carnival cutting across Crown Heights every September on the first Monday of the month — is just over 50 years old. The event is uniquely and unusually authentic in its framing as an American holiday, in that it recognizes a pan-diaspora — a collective identity shared by dozens of nations — that still respects, and celebrates the individual identities within that collective.

The day means a lot to Brooklyn. It’s been consecrated by no less a dignitary than the current focus of the JAY-Z monument at the mouth of Eastern Parkway. It’s an opportunity to see the incredible costuming of dancers playing mas, as steel pan bands perform from truck beds and DJs spin timeless dancehall, soca and kompa hits out of immense, mobile sound systems. Though there are technically several weeks left on the calendar and the forecast — as far as the borough is concerned — it is the closing bell of this glorious, relaxed mid-year season. And it is also the single greatest eating day of the year.

Even in a city as high quality and diverse in concentrated spaces as New York, the food options along Eastern Parkway every Labor Day are special. And not just in the many nationalities serving their cuisines, block to block, shoulder to shoulder. Some of the vendors — set up in these outdoor kitchens, perfumed by a mist of rendered chicken fat frying on charcoal, on the north and south medians that separate the six-lane parkway from its two, one-way service roads — are mobile extensions of actual brick and mortar restaurants. But many are not.

Some are extensions of elusive food trucks. Some are primarily home cooks, emerging from nearby apartment buildings, who will do side gig event catering, or sell plates out of their apartments. They took their residential equipment, folding tables, and plastic cutlery cases out of storage, put down the requisite $800 for rental space, gave proof of their (easily obtainable) license to sell food, workers comp, and health insurance, and set up to pursue their passion and make a little extra hard earned money over one crazy day. It is a motley pro-am that annually showcases chefs whose food you’ll never have access to again. So I pitched my editor a proposal to walk the parkway, sampling as much of its splendor as I could, and he accepted, extending me a generous $100 budget.

A brief aside on methodology: There is, what I’ll call, a base, “standard” menu at any takeout Caribbean restaurant in Flatbush, which extends to the parade food stand offerings, a ubiquitous staple menu of proteins composed of some permutation of: jerk chicken, stewed chicken, goat curry, oxtail, pepper shrimp, and “fish” (usually fried snapper) escovitch.

My goal was to find foodstuffs outside this setlist of tried and true standards. I’m sure there was jerk chicken available that is even better than my Peppa’s, or whatever place you deem the most reliable in the city. I don’t have a go-to West Indian Day Parade stand I hit every year. I’d just be picking places at random, and didn’t want to explore the dozens of jerk chicken options to try to find the “best” (a quixotic pursuit), but rather use this exercise to showcase the incredible variety of options you can’t regularly find at most places any other day of the year, even in a Caribbean food hub like Flatbush. Cool? Let’s eat.

Yah Suh Nyce- Jerk Pork, $15

jerk pork with rice

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

Yah Suh Nyce is a Jamaican restaurant a few miles from JFK in Queens. What drew my eye was their Jerk Pork, a limited item that has theoretical representation on several take-out menus, but is always sold out in Flatbush. When I’ve seen Jerk Pork in the past, it’s typically a large shoulder, jerked and smoked too hot, with delicious bark, but dried out and chewy. These were pork leg chops, and an order was a single steak cut into chunks with a cleaver, drizzled with jerk sauce and laid over rice and peas made soupy with stew chicken gravy (upon request).

The pork was somewhat unevenly cooked (depending on your definition of doneness) resulting in a few tough bites on the edges. But the chop was forgiving, and at the center, close to the round bone or slivers of fat, were as meltingly tender as brisket directly out of a smoker. Some of that border fat was smoked to a pleasant taffy consistency, cut with a particularly peppery and not overly punitive jerk sauce.

TNT Pineapple- Oxtail Rice, $25

meat with Pineapple sauce

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

This isn’t exactly a criticism, but an observation gathered from years of perusing these stands is they are fiercely traditional. The menus generally adhere to simple, classic preparations of the staple dishes of their respective cuisines. There is a great deal of cultural value in this, preserving tradition and catering to what could be a conservative clientele who wants the dishes they grew up with prepared and served in the precise manner they are accustomed to, but the small sample size success of TNT Pineapple suggests there could be a market inefficiency ready to be exploited for chefs willing to experiment with unconventional flavors and presentations unafraid of a little flare.

The business is a food truck that appears to be primarily based out of Harlem, and had what I’d characterize as a slightly more organized and professional sheen, a 10-foot-tall inflatable cylinder with their logo printed on it advertised their business and helped them stand out on their strip, not far from Yah Suh Nyce. Their trademark dish is a choice of protein, over a choice of rice and peas or jasmine rice, stuffed into a pineapple that has been cored and griddled cut side down. I paid a little extra to try it with chunks of braised oxtail, which are then blasted with a BBQ sauce and a sweet/hot honey mustard sauce.

The result is a gravy of the commingled meat juices and sauces that is pretty sweet, but the spice, presumably from scotch bonnet in the sauce, and the mustard adds a critical tang and becomes something like a complex teriyaki. The vehicle of the pineapple didn’t contribute much that was discernible amidst the very loud stew of flavors, but it didn’t have to, it’s a showstopper meant to draw the eye. I would conservatively say over the hour or so I passed the pineapple around the small crew I had assembled to help me out with this exercise, 30 people stopped and asked where we had gotten it. I was thankful we hit it early, before the massive line formed.

Caribbean Street Eats Food Truck- Bake and Shark $15

Fried Bake and Shark sandwich.

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

Bake and shark is a Trinidadian delicacy. Chunks of shark are battered and fried, then stuffed in a fried bread pocket. Caribbean Street Eats Food Truck was the only stand on the Parkway I saw selling bake and shark, which is impressive because even without the competition, they had a dedicated chef in the back whose only job was rolling out the balls of dough before handing them over to the cook working the fryer station.

I got my shark fully dressed with garlic sauce, pepper sauce, tamarind sauce, and veggie sauce. The fried shark had a roasted, meaty, swordfish-like consistency. In the fresh fried bake pocket, topped with a cucumber relish and a escovitch vegetable slaw, it ate like the world’s greatest fish taco, every element crucial to the perfect composed bite.

Stacy’s Catering- Curry Crab, $10

Curry crab in a platter

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

Stacy’s was one of those sporadic “caterers” I referred to in the intro. The closest thing to a website I could find were posted Zelle and Cash App QR codes, and when I asked if she had a restaurant or food truck, Stacy laughed and said she was opening one with me.

Curry crab is one of those dishes that will pop up on roti shop menus as a once-a-week special, typically over a weekend. They’re tiny blue crabs served in the shell, in some cases with the entire crab intact, which we got several of. I’m not afraid of the skewed effort-to-reward ratio crabs demand, but there’s an extra barrier when they’re street food smothered in a spicy, muddy, cumin-laced yellow curry, like this one. It would’ve slapped over some rice, at a table, wearing a bib or a Hazmat suit to control the mess, but we found it to be less than ideal food to attempt eating standing and leaning over the curb on the corner of Brooklyn Ave and Eastern Parkway. To Stacy’s credit, the crabs weren’t overcooked, as they often can be, and the morsels we were able to “cleanly” abstract were delicate and sweet. Really, as the kids say, it was a skill issue.

Sassy's Fishcakes- Spicy Fish Cakes, $18

Fried fish cakes

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

Sassy’s is a pop-up and catering company that specializes in a single item. This was the consensus favorite for good reason. The fritters are fried to order, spooned out of a mixing bowl where the batter composed of salt cod, aromatics, and chilis are whipped fresh. The product is airy and light. They’re briny hush puppies that sponged a healthy squeeze of garlic-rich hot sauce, but retained a cakey middle and crispy edges.

A Nice Couple Outside of De Hotpot At the Flatbush/Washington Fork- Chicken Foot Souse, $5, Phlourie, $3

Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.

So, the quiet part of this exercise is the food is arguably just as good if you just canvas the neighborhood of Flatbush, between a perimeter of actual Flatbush Avenue, Lincoln Road, Church Avenue, and then as far east as you’d like, Brooklyn or Albany Avenues are fine cutoff points. On your walk, you’ll find dozens of people on side streets, maybe in front of their buildings or not far off, with grills they bought from Lowes, or actual drum smokers, selling one or two specialties. The reason why I limited the rest of this list to the Parkway was because these independent contractors, and their menus, and their locations, are not fixed nor is their presence reliable, and I wanted to highlight the parade as well as present an experience that could be theoretically replicable for a reader with a long memory and the good fortune of these vendors returning next year.

I was looking for curry shrimp, a dish I had stupidly held out on ordering because it was fairly prevalent early in the day on the north side of the Parkway. If I had been thinking, I would’ve realized: A. These stands prep to sell out, and by 5:00 that’s what was happening, because having any leftover product could be disastrous to their bottom line, and B. Cooked shrimp should not, and won’t be held in a tin foil hotel pan in 90-degree heat that feels like 1,000-degree heat, for hours.

But I still had some discretionary budget, so on our walk home, my wife and I were looking for curry shrimp, but found this dessert/snack instead, sold from a folding table on the sidewalk, courtesy of a lovely Trini couple.

Souse is a dish that can take many forms, but typically is a brine of either pig or chicken parts. The couple had both pig and chicken feet souse on offer. We went with the poultry, with an ounce or two more of a particularly fiery pepper sauce than was recommended. Chicken foot souse is a challenge: You have to navigate a claw shaped tangle of sinew, cartilage, and a casing of chewy, absorbent braised fat to get to the scant tender meat, but there is pleasure in the effort, working the foot like gum to sort out the edible bits and juicing salty, sour and spicy flavor throughout. It’s perfect drinking food.

The pholourie are small tamarind-tinted spheres, which were served in a ziplock bag and soaked in an infinity pool of pepper sauce, tamarind sauce, and mango sauce. They are the runt cousins of the festival, a sausage-shaped length of fried dough that I’ve never been a fan of, meant to soak the aggressive sauces and spices that dress the proteins it's served with but often both dry and greasy. Pholourie, perhaps because of its smaller surface area and reduced cook time, doesn’t suffer the same issues. It can serve the same purpose, as a compliment to a protein, but also works independently, as we had it: Juice balls that land somewhere between dough-based candy and garlic knot.

Summer 2023 ended suddenly. It always does on Labor Day off Eastern Parkway. My wife and I walked home, picking at pholourie out of its bag and gnawing on pickled chicken feet out of a plastic solo cup. We had been beaten down by a day under an intense sun, by a day navigating a dense flood of human traffic, by a day of candy-colored bathtub cocktails pushed from seemingly every angle, in quarter water bottles and clear plastic pouches. Our kids had been gone for nearly two weeks, traded between her parents out of state and my parents upstate, but would be back tomorrow, followed by public school resuming in New York on Thursday. In a few hours, Eastern Parkway would be empty, traffic flowing and garbage piled, waiting for collection. Until next year, as we say in Flatbush, “Party done.”


Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.