New York Minute: Classic Coney Island

I know, I know: another post about the beach?! But who can resist quirky Coney Island?

In August, the Coney Island History Project held a ceremony to celebrate the return of the Astroland rocket to Coney. The rocket was once a main attraction at Astroland, a futuristic theme park that opened in 1962. At the time, the rocket was unusual and exciting ride. Visitors took their seats inside the rocket before it began to shake roughly; at the same time, a television screen inside the rocket played a film about space travel.

The ceremony smacked of the same restless hope that helped to shape the 1960s in America. In a way, that’s what is so wonderful about Coney Island. Visiting Coney Island’s boardwalk feels a little like taking a trip back in time. Luna Park, Astroland’s successor, may be updating the rides (check out that slick orange roller coaster in the slideshow), but nostalgia prevails in this zip code. Decades-old traditions, like riding the rickety Cyclone roller coaster or having lunch at Nathan’s, are still alive and well. Even the gastronomically-questionable Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which dates back to 1972, remains a American tradition.

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Any story about Coney Island would be remiss without mentioning the food. Here are some recommendations for classic Coney Island spots to eat when you tire of the bright sun, beach sand and carnival rides.

Nathan’s, of course, is a must. The restaurant’s chili cheese coney is messy and delicious. Nathan’s signature hot dog snaps and oozes juice, making it the star of the coney; the chili and gooey cheese sauce are just a bonus. A separate seafood bar serves up pretty tasty crab, shrimp and calamari. When I visited, they even had soft-shell crab, which was served on a soft white roll that complemented the crunch and sweetness of the fried soft-shell crab.

Near Nathan’s, William’s Candy Shop specializes in candy and caramel apples, which are topped with nuts, coconut or sprinkles. The shop also sells marshmallows, which served on sticks or rolled into balls and coated with chocolate, caramel or nuts, and typical carnival favorites like cotton candy, fudge and popcorn. The shop even sells marshmallows sticks dunked in the same vibrant red sugar that coats candy apples.

On Bowery Street, next to a string of carnival games and frozen drink stands, a taco shack serves up delicious Mexican food. Chicken tacos are flavorful, but the carnitas are a must. At $3.50 each, these tacos aren’t exactly cheap, but they’re worth it. The grill man is generous with servings of meat and a makeshift toppings bar means unlimited pico de gallo, red cabbage, radishes, crema and lime wedges. Homemade agua fresca comes in several flavors; I tried cantaloupe and watermelon on two separate visits, and both are pulpy, refreshing drinks with just a touch of sweetness.

“New York Minute” is a weekly series about my summer in New York City.

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