Around the corner, I spotted Ode to the Elephants, a restaurant originally from Puerto Rico, hawking “Beach Thai Food.” I’d never heard of such a cuisine. At the 86th Street concession area, my mother and I stopped to study the “Hot Melon” menu at Rippers. Turns out that Hot Melon is just a fancy name for fancy drinks like the Ecuadorian, a cucumber, mint and agave juice concoction. (My Ecuadorian mother couldn’t figure out what exactly was Ecuadorian about it.) At the 106th Street stand, we stopped to read a sign at the Caracas Arepa Bar. It advertised arepas (corn cakes), empanadas and juices as “the new beach food.”
These new food venues are part of a culinary migration from other New York City boroughs that’s bringing healthy gourmet fare at beach-stand prices to a place never before known as a dining destination.
Then again, Rockaway Beach has never really been known as a destination anything. When I was a teenager, crime and drugs were almost as ubiquitous here as hot dogs and french fries. But in recent years, Rockaway has gone from bedraggled to beloved by artists, surfers and Brooklyn and Manhattan hipsters.
“It’s so much more than the food,” said David Selig, the co-owner of Rockaway Taco, who led the foodie wave. Rockaway Beach “got so sadly neglected. I think a lot of humans out there providing energy will bring it back to life.”
There were plenty of energetic humans when I visited with my mom and my brother on a Friday in June: teenagers in colorful bikinis enjoying their first days of summer vacation; mothers teaching their toddlers how to swim; children building sandcastles. The latest Rihanna and Britney Spears tunes were blaring from someone’s boombox. The water was cold and the waves were choppy, but that didn’t stop us from hitting the surf.
We were going to do our part to bring Rockaway back to life.
My mother remembers a day at the beach when I was 4 or 5 years old. Somehow, while no one was looking, I wandered away from the family group. When my mother noticed that I was gone, a panicked search party was formed to track down the little redhead in the pink ruffled bathing suit. Thankfully, I was found a short time later crying in the arms of a young female lifeguard.
Back in the early 1980s, Rockaway Beach was a scary place to misplace a child. It was full of run-down public housing and other dilapidated apartment buildings. The sand was embedded not with shells but with empty liquor bottles. It was hard to believe that in its heyday, the peninsula on the southern shore of Long Island had been dubbed the “playground of New York.” In the early 1900s, people summered at Rockaway the way they do in the Hamptons today. Then the city built more modern facilities at Coney Island in Brooklyn and Jones Beach on Long Island, luring the crowds away. Rockaway’s hotels and amusement parks didn’t stand a chance.