Stepping out of the subway station at Church Avenue and McDonald is like entering Immigration at JFK at midday. Just as soon as you’ve established your place in line—or on the sidewalk—a rush of new passengers arrive, and you’re left guessing: Where did your plane come from, anyway?
Kensington, like Brighton, was named for an English equivalent in order to attract homebuyers, in this case, the posh neighborhood of Kensington in west London. Kensington, London is bordered by places like Knightsbridge and Notting Hill, Chelsea and Earl’s Court; Kensington, Brooklyn is bordered by Windsor Terrace to the north and Ditmas Park to the south, Flatbush and Prospect Park South to the east. In place of Marks & Spencer, there’s a hivelike buzz of intercontinental shoppers in all stages of their day, popping in and out of stores as varied as their heritage. When Kensington was developed in the late 19th century, there surely was no concept of what the neighborhood would become—the crossroads of countries, a confluence of cultures, an ethnic food shopper’s paradise.
Ten countries in five blocks rolls off the tongue like gulab jamun, but a veteran hunter could find many more. Exit the Church Avenue F/G and start your shopping at Bangla Nagar Grocery (85 Church Avenue) for South Asian, specifically Bangladeshi groceries. Multi-pound bags of cheap, colorful lentils and rice put Kalustyan’s to shame; check out the dry goods for date molasses, flours, and the type of imported goods I find hard to resist for their packaging alone (Indian psyllium husks in Victorian-era attire). Exotic fruits and vegetables include bitter melon, often eaten as a digestive aid; Chinese okra; and burro bananas, a stubby variety recently described as “a cross between a lemon meringue pie and a banana cream pie.” Since Bangla Nagar carries both Bangladeshi and Indian groceries, I count this as two countries.
For sustenance, stop by the Church Street outpost of Kabir's Bakery (97 Church Avenue), an eight-store mini empire spanning Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Long Island. It’s unimposing from the outside, but one dollar buys you a crisp and mildly spicy vegetable samosa, and their tea is highly praised. If you’re looking for sweets, Kabir’s offers a plethora of subcontinental sugar bombs, including four or five kinds of burfi (a sort of fudge), from almond to pistachio; carrot halvah, gulab jamun, laddoo, jalabi, and chamcham (the preceding all involving some sort of dough ball, honey, and/or rosewater); and kalakand, made of sweetened cottage cheese. No additional countries for the list here, but perhaps a diabetic coma.
Skip across a few continents and veer a bit left on East 2nd for Mexican Grocery and More (326 East 2nd Street), a small butcher/grocer that blends in with its residential neighbors. Go for its collection of obscure spices, which line a full wall of the store, to stockpile corn tortillas, or for the cheese case, which includes a sublimely moist and crumbly queso fresco (Brooklyn made). No jet lag, but one more country down. Heading back to Europe, Dinosha Albanian Village (319 Church Avenue) is a halal meat market with groceries on the side—pickles, preserved fruits and jams, kefir cheese, kashkaval, palm oil, vegetable ghee, and fresh bread. Creamy Turkish-style Ömur yogurt is $2.99 for a two pound container. Though it carries a variety of imported goods, I’m counting Dinosha as countries number four and five.
Directly next door, Bastek (321 Church Avenue) brings us to number six, with its slightly overwhelming assortment of homemade and imported Polish products. Browsing canned meats and smoked fish, dry goods, fresh pierogi and stuffed cabbage, sausages, and homemade coffee cake and donuts, it’s hard to focus on just one purchase. If it has to be just one, make it the spicy kielbasa, which practically bursts with fat and spice. If it can be two, get some pierogi as well. A neighborhood mainstay, Golden Farm (329 Church Avenue) rounds out the top ten. Aside from its status as the locals’ general-purpose grocery store, Golden Farm also carries Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Turkish, and Israeli products (self-advertised on the awning); light digging also turned up suluguni, a pickled Georgian cheese akin to a very salty mozzarella, as well as several types of herring, piles of packaged sausage, imported sheep cheeses including the delicately earthy manouri, Ukrainian cookies, and halvah. The store’s produce selection is also particularly good.
It’s worth revisiting Mexico at Plaza 5 de Mayo (415 Church Avenue), an unprepossessing store with an unparalleled selection of loose dried peppers, sold by the pound. A $5 bag of anchos will make a winter’s worth of chili—you can’t get that at the Fairway. Other more obscure products include huitlacoche and canned squash blossoms. Mazowsze Polish Deli (420 Church Avenue) may suffer slightly from its proximity to Bastek, but it has one ingredient I’ll always return for: giant lima beans, critical when making Greek gigantes with tomato, difficult to find in the city, and $2.49 a bag at Mazowsze. The deli also carries a large selection of Polish cheeses, saurkraut, and imported sodas. View 5 Blocks, 10 Countries in a larger map.
If you'd like more tips on restaurants and shopping in the area, visit Kensington and Windsor Terrace Offer a Wide Variety of Culture for a Great Price.
This post was updated Spring 2012.
View 5 Blocks, 10 Countries in a larger map