A weekend ritual: A&A Bake and Doubles
Posted on February 14, 2015 | By ebassford | 3 responses
It’s hard to get me out of the house before sundown on a Saturday. I generally try to sleep as late as possible and remain in bed until some social obligation compels me to shower and dress and go out into society with my fellow humans. Most of my week involves the company of other humans. Saturday afternoons are important. For the last few months, one of my favorite ways to spend this time has been a trip to A&A Bake and Doubles. It’s delicious, cheap food that is very hard to find elsewhere, and it’s just a long enough walk to make me feel like I got some exercise without seeming prohibitively far. You can stuff yourself for under five dollars, and a lot of it is even vegan, if you care about that. I do not, which is fortunate, because they do some great things with fish.
A&A is tiny, about the width of the doorway, and offers no indoor seating. Outside is a rickety table with a bench and two chairs, but most likely you are taking your food to go. The line stretches outside, but it moves quickly, so there is no time for indecision. Know what you want when it’s your turn to order, and if you have a question make it snappy. Also have a plan B and a plan C, because all the food at A&A requires exhaustive preparation in advance and they often run out of one thing or another. They are closed Sundays, and close in the afternoon every other day, sometime between 3 and 5 as far as I can tell. The food served here is traditionally breakfast food, and even though I’d love to have it for dinner that’s not what it’s for. “Bake” in this context refers to various kinds of bread. If you don’t specify which kind of bake you want, you’ll be getting fry bake, which is sort of fluffy and oily like a biscuit. There’s also sada bake, which is more like a sort of thick pita, and coconut bake, which I have yet to try because every time I’ve thought to ask they’ve been out already. From this I can deduce that coconut bake is very tasty and requires extensive preparation. Maybe someday I’ll make it there before noon. The woman I share my office with at work is Trini, and she advised me to get a bake with salt fish. I am pretty sure “salt fish” refers to cod, and I have since also tried salmon, egg, and corned beef. The fish is sort of a paste rather than discrete chunks, and contains a lot of sauteed onions. It is very salty and very fishy, in a good way, and the thick, chewy, oily bread provides an awesome mouthfeel. Thanks, Food Network, for teaching me the word “mouthfeel”, even though I sort of feel like an asshole using it. Pictured here is a bake with salt fish, though I would later come to prefer the sweeter and less overtly fishy salmon option. Get it spicy.
But really the thing to get is doubles. Doubles is both the singular and the plural; “I’ll have a doubles” and “I’ll have two doubles” are both grammatically correct. Doubles consists of two basic elements, bara and chana. Bara is a flat fried bread with an unbelievably fluffy, pillowy texture. Chana, just like in Indian cuisine, refers to spiced chickpeas in sauce. A healthy serving of chana is sandwiched between two bara, hence “doubles”, though some places will just make one larger bara and fold it in half. On top of your doubles you can get tamarind, sweet chutney, and pepper. Get all three; it’s all about the contrast. “Pepper” here refers to a very spicy hot sauce made with scotch bonnets, not the dry spice itself.
Doesn’t look like much, right? Sort of like a full diaper? Trust me on this. This is one of the tastiest foods you can buy, anywhere. A perfect balance of sweet, savory, and spicy with a unique and awesome texture. If you like Indian food, you’ll love it, but there are some flavors in there that are unique to the Caribbean and don’t taste like Indian food at all. Why does everyone not eat this all the time? It continues to baffle me. Someday society will catch on, and I would not be at all surprised to see a Chipotle-style fast casual doubles restaurant in the next twenty years. Fuck that place, I’ll still go to A&A. This food is pretty heavy, and for a normal appetite one is enough. But no one has ever referred to my appetite as normal, and if I’m making the trip I’m getting two things. Two doubles is too much food for me, as much as I love them; I have a hard time getting past one and a half. So most of the time, along with my doubles, I get an order of pholorie. Getting more than two things for yourself is pushing it, because none of this food keeps well. It is street food, meant to be consumed immediately. I’m sure all this stuff will taste good later, but the texture will be shot, and that’s a big part of the overall experience.
As you can see, pholorie are little round balls with stuff on them. The stuff, as far as I can tell, is the same tamarind/pepper/chutney combination you get on doubles. The pholorie themselves are a whole different animal, though, much heartier and chewier than the other things on offer. The closest thing I can think to compare them to is a sort of savory zeppole or donut hole. They are a beautiful golden brown color, which I assume comes from annatto and turmeric like a Jamaican beef patty, and they come in a little Ziploc bag with a fork. A serving of 8 is a great snack, for about two bucks if memory serves. There are a few other good foods I don’t have pictures of. Aloo pie, a sort of long, flat knish-like thing that is sliced in half and filled with chana. It’s tasty, and far less messy than a doubles, but potatoes don’t have that magical texture that bara does, so I usually skip it. Saheena is a sort of fist-sized lump of fried dough that looks a little like pholorie dough, except spinach is incorporated into the dough. This, too, is sliced in half and stuffed with chana and/or whatever else. Also very good, just not my favorite. At this point I have had everything except the coconut bake, and whatever you get you won’t be sorry.
Today is Valentine’s Day. A cynical capitalist holiday, to be sure. A crimson schlock-show to distract the masses from the misery of a long winter, to sell them greeting cards and waxy chocolates and doghouse roses to present to their mates as tokens of mutual participation in commerce. A celebration of the patriarchy and its longstanding tradition of offering shiny baubles and sweets to women in exchange for access to their vaginas. A day when God help you if you have to go to the pharmacy and just get something normal in a reasonable amount of time. Et cetera. But let’s be real, when I’m in a relationship I’m on line at Jacques Torres with everyone else. I think it’s stupid, and usually the woman I’m dating also thinks it’s stupid, but I also get a kick out of feeding a woman chocolate and such, and probably she likes eating it, and we can have sex maybe a little more mindfully and intensely than usual, so why not do the thing everyone’s doing? So are my strident pinkofeminist objections legitimate, or purely defensive because I’m single? Can it be both? Can’t I just have a normal Saturday? I want to go to A&A. I catch the B44 along Nostrand, a scenic trip despite the grey sky. I get off at Halsey and make my way to the familiar door, waiting outside for the line to move. A woman tries to cut in front of me to order a few plain bara so she can put in her own chana, which sounds to me like the height of hubris. You think you do a better job than A&A? Plus they run out of bara before anything else, so you’re putting some future patron in a bad position. Get in back, I was here first. I order a doubles with everything and a pholorie, my first choices. The doubles comes expertly wrapped in waxed paper, and I open it immediately to eat while walking. I have just recently gotten the hang of eating these without getting them all over myself. To unwrap the whole package at once is foolhardy; you have to open one end to expose the doubles and pull it back gradually as you eat. At the end you’ll have a little chana left over in the wrapper, which is worth gracelessly sucking out. A final burst of scotch bonnet comes with it. My hands are sticky with tamarind when I open the pholorie, which mercifully come with a fork. They are a rich golden color, soaking in rich chutney that squeezes out like water from a sponge when you bite into them. Perfect. I walk all the way home, still sticky. Sometimes I forget that small pleasures like A&A are available to me all the time. It’s worth remembering. Perhaps I’ll get some writing done today.