In my checkered history of inappropriate utterances, this assemblage of nouns and verbs seemed positively innocuous: “Hon, I’m going to the racetrack today,” I told my girlfriend. She pursed her lips, her eyes slitted to the approximate width of paperclips.
“Uh, what’s wrong?” I inquired. It wasn’t like I was jaunting to Thailand as a sex tourist. My sights were set on the far reaches of Queens, where a few friends would bet a few bucks on the ponies at the Aqueduct Racetrack. Sure, our wagers would be fueled by bottom-shelf beer and bourbon, but I kept that to myself. It’s the little white lies that keep relationships cruising along. Yet ours had endured a head-on collision.
“I thought we’d spend a quiet day together—just the two of us,” she said. I nodded, knowing what she meant. We’ve spent the last two months in a near constant state of culinary travel. Over Christmas, we adventured across Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, where I devoured pounds of tender cochinita pibil. That was chased by a trek to North Carolina, where we ate steamed oysters by the bushel. And just last week we hit Portland, Ore., where I guzzled hoppy craft beer by the gallon and she stuffed herself with a river’s worth of smoked salmon. I know I’m drinking white whine here, but it’s been months since we’ve sat down to a home-cooked dinner.
“And you want to spend the day at the racetrack with your friends,” she said. Point taken. I decided to make amends. “When I get home, I’m going to make you eggplant Parmesan,” I said, naming one of her favorite feasts. Her icy eyes softened, hit by a sudden heat wave of the heart. “With extra mozzarella,” she said. “I like mozzarella.”
Before things got too cheesy, I took off to the track with a quartet of close associates, none of whom are gamblers. Curiosity, not a quick buck, lured us to the Aqueduct, alongside the opportunity to drink in public. Like the casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Aqueduct attendees—a mixed ethnic bag of graying men chomping unsmoked cigars, wearing ancient sports-team jackets and clutching racing programs—are allowed to wander the multilevel concourse with beer, wine and liquor in hand. Hell, I think it’s encouraged. After all, one must be booze-deluded to drop a $5 bet on a horse with 50–1 odds.
We came bearing baddecision fuel: specifically, flasks filled with Benchmark bourbon, which costs about $8 a bottle at Astor Wine & Spirits. Benchmark ain’t bum juice; it’s one of the best values in bourbon. The brand is crafted by the estimable Buffalo Trace distillery, and its inexpensive spirit boasts plenty of juicy, tongue-basting, brown-sugar sweetness. A few nips of that 80-proof stomach-stoker, combined with a 24-ounce can of Coors, provided me with all the liquid courage I required to place $2 on a long shot named Haughty Princess.
She lost. So did Vivant. And Half a Note. And Smokin’ Conrad, whose fast start led to a slow finish. “To the glue factory!” I shouted, ripping up my ticket and scattering the pieces like confetti. My compatriots fared little better. The big winner walked out with an extra $4. The big loser was down nearly an Andrew Jackson. I lost $8, but I’d gained an inflated sense of self-worth thanks to the bourbon. “Can we get a bite to eat before we head home?” I begged, needing to soak up my sauciness with some food.
We left the track and steered toward adjacent Liberty Avenue. The main drag of Ozone Park teems with terrific Indo- Caribbean eateries, specifically Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar (131-18 Liberty Ave., betw. 131st & 132nd Sts., Queens, 718- 323-5990). With pulsing music and neon aplenty, Singh’s feels more like a nightclub than a restaurant. But its steam-table eats are the star. We scarfed ourselves sober with rich, unctuous goat and oxtail curries, fluffy doubles overstuffed with tender chickpeas and forearm-size shanks of aloo pies painted with mashed potatoes and lip-blistering Scotch bonnet–pepper sauce.
For us losers, this was a winning meal.
Back home, my girlfriend was waiting near the door, Sammy the wonder mutt by her slipper-clad feet. “Did you have fun?” she asked. I weighed my answer carefully. “Not without you,” I said, pecking her pucker and shuffling to the kitchen. I put on my apron and peeled and sliced the purple eggplants. Then I salted the aubergines and submerged them in frigid water, hoping a little time would remove the bitterness.