This week, we're going to turn two preconceptions around.
The first deals with the area of the Bronx. You know, the Bronx. The Yankees, the Bronx Zoo, @BronxZoosCobra ... and a lot of unflattering Hollywood portrayals.
The second concerns the “travelogue” television show style, which can be pretty awful. Such programs often send dull hosts to faraway places where you'll never get to go, and serve them expensive foods you probably couldn’t afford to try. All the while, the hosts hyperventilate over the opulence and splendor. And all the while, the viewer feels inclined to doze off.
That's not likely to happen during an airing of "Bronx Flavor," hosted by the self-avowed "quaffer of culinary consciousness," Baron Ambrosia.
He takes viewers on his quest for the best in all the cultural areas the Bronx makes home, and occasionally has to face down mortal enemies like Burgomeister Burger, Lankey the Leprechaun, and the man who tried to steal The Baron’s sandwich title, Al Kajowski (in season one, episode 5’s "The Rites of Sandwich").
Appearing on the NYC Life TV station , the BronxNet station and the Bronx Flavor website , "Bronx Flavor with Baron Ambrosia" is a totally different kind of travelogue—it’s funny. It’s never boring and it presents food and sights you can actually visit for yourself (without going into debt).
In a conversation with Patch, the Baron himself (actor and filmmaker Justin Fornal) discussed the show, the sights, the sounds and tastes of the Bronx. And that's why we've selected the Bronx itself for this edition of "Day Tripper," a weekly look at destinations that are out of town, but in reach, and worth the trip.
DAY TRIPPER DIGEST
Estimated Travel Time: About an hour and a half, by car.
Why it’s Worth the Trip: “I can find no greater place to call home,” Fornal said of the Bronx. “When I’m here and I’m walking around the streets, it feels so much like home. There’s such a rich, undiscovered cultural tapestry here. That is what is so rewarding. There are great communities all over but it’s dumbed down, it’s watered down. It’s Disneyworld and Times Square. Those aren’t experiences I’m interested in. I’m into pure, visceral, uncut experiences that are also positive. That’s what I believe can be found here in the Bronx.”
How to Get There from Here: Detailed driving directions (using Neerob, one of the Baron's suggestions for dining, as a destination). Wikitravel has other suggestoins for getting into town.
You’ll Probably Get Hungry: How about three recommendations (out of many worthy options) from Baron Ambrosia?
“Neerob, which is a Bangla Deshi restaurant on Starling Avenue. It’s just an incredible place. Every day he does a different assortment of very regional Bangla Deshi dishes. Everything is always fresh and there’s always something new and exciting going on.” (Neerob will be featured on a future episode of the show.)
“One of my other haunts is Xochimilco, a Mexican spot on 653 Melrose Ave. They do a lot of great Southern Mexican dishes. If you call ahead, they’ll make you some particular specialties that aren’t on the menu. That is a place I always enjoy going to.” (Season three, episode 24, "Joe Bataan Stole My Girlfriend.")
“188 Cuchifritos, on 188th Street on the Grand Concourse, is just classic Puerto Rican soul food. You go in there with just seven bucks and you get this monstrous plate of flavor. I’ve been going there for a long, long time. If I don’t go to eat there for a few weeks, it’s like a homecoming when I step in there.” (Season two, episode 12, "Cuchifritos of Love: Platinum Edition.")
“Those are three reliable spots,” Fornal said, adding there are many, many more places to choose from.
The New York Times—speaking of Baron Ambrosia on Bronx Flavor as well Underbelly NYC, the podcast on which the Baron character originated—described the current show this way in July, 2009: "Flashy production numbers aside, at bottom Bronx Flavor is an effort to educate and entertain without pretension."
This is mostly true. What is certain is that even jaded Jerseyites, flipping channels in the evening hours, would find the show bizarre, ridiculous and fun. Fornal gives the highest tribute to the places he explores, but in his purple topcoat, fuzzy hat, and other accoutrements, he makes the “educational” component extremely easy to take through self-deprecating humor and joyful silliness.
However, it is never at the expense of the restaurant and shopkeepers, for whom Fornal has clearly discernible affection.
"(The Baron) is what you see in all story-telling cultures. He’s the spirit of mischief," Fornal said. "His heart is in the right place but sometimes his passions get the better of him. However, the food must always have our utmost respect and reverence. It’s crucial to the structure of this that the food is treated with such respect. The food has to be exalted."
A memorable episode finds the Baron succumbing to his passion for a Jamaican specialty, cowfoot, and slipping into a full-blown withdrawal, begging the shopkeeper for more.
"Cowfoot was funny because I basically came out in my underwear and a long-sleeve T-shirt and …” Fornal said, hesitating a moment. “They knew, but … it’s like a game of telephone. You meet with one person and you assume that person translated the message to everyone else. But of course, when you go to film, that one person is not there that day, and you walk in [wearing] your underwear, a long, ripped T-shirt and a sock-hat.”
Fornal said he feels the Bronx gets a bad rap.
"One thing I find is that most of the cinematic representations we have of the Bronx, especially the negative ones, are oftentimes created by people who have never visited here. I just finished up my first comic book, 'The Adventures of Baron Ambrosia', with Ray Felix," he said. "He is Bronx-born-and-raised. I’m not, however. I chose to come here. Anyway, we’re going through all these [other] comic books ... and everyone uses the Bronx as the go-to [expletive]. Ray’s looking at the books and he’s saying, 'This guy’s never been to the Bronx, this guy’s never been to the Bronx,' and we’re laughing."
"It’s sad that people don’t take the time out to go outside of Yankee Stadium to see what a wonderful and diverse community we have here," he said.