I’m not going to engage in a full-blown “New York vs. London food markets” rant (although I would enjoy doing that ever so much), however, in an attempt to be fair and reasonable, I will say this. There are a lot of fun and interesting markets in New York City: the Union Square farmers market always has great produce and dairy products, Eataly is every gastronome and Italophiles dream, and Chelsea Market is full of quirky things from clothes and card shops to lobster rolls and kitchen gadgets no one needs but buys because they seem cool. But London surpasses New York by a longshot just by the sheer number, pervasiveness and diversity of its food markets: Broadway, Borough, Brixton, Duke of York Square, Maltby St., Brockley, Wapping, I need not go on. There is truly nothing like London’s food markets — rich, dynamic, overwhelming and glorious.
Given this sad state of affairs of New York’s food markets, upon moving here I was delighted to hear of Smorgasburg, an all-food market located in Brooklyn featuring over 50 local vendors selling everything from Chinese BBQ pork belly hot dogs to balsamic raspberry reduction bite-size cheesecakes to maple lemonade to pastrami dumplings. In an interview with Gothamist back in 2011, Smorgasburg founders Eric Demby & Jonathan Butler (also founders of the Brooklyn Flea) discussed the surging popularity of New York markets as stemming from a desire for things that are more homemade and more local. The beauty of London food markets lies in the fact that the city is so multicultural and so diverse in its culinary offerings, that the international has become the local. This is reflected throughout its food markets stretching from North, South, West and East: to get “local” food does not just mean buying baby new potatoes and runner beans grown from a farm in England (although that’s awesome too) but rather trying all the different cuisines and dishes of people with different cultures and backgrounds who have made London their home. It’s great to see New York heading in this direction with markets like Smorgasburg, which has met with great success since opening in 2011.
For the food crazy generation that loves taking pictures of everything it eats, Smorgasburg is one of the only havens in New York that resembles those beloved food markets of London. There’s plenty of food to snap photos of here but you’d be hard-pressed to find a seat in which to sit and enjoy said food. For some strange reason there is nowhere to sit at this market despite there being plenty of room in between stalls to have some picnic tables and chairs. The market takes place in an empty lot on the Williamsburg waterfront overlooking the East River – a beautiful view. Too bad you have to stand to enjoy the food and your view.
As always, as beastly as the beast is, there is a limit to daily food intake so here I present to you a snapshot of the Smorgasburg experience on an extremely cold day in Brooklyn.
Mimi and Coco make “Teriyaki balls” which are based on a traditional Japanese comfort food, Takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made of batter and filled with minced or diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger, and green onion. Takoyaki are brushed with takoyaki sauce, similar to Worcestershire sauce, and mayonnaise. The takoyaki is then sprinkled with green laver (aonori) and shavings of dried bonito (katsuobushi). To be honest the topping looks a bit like crushed Fritos. Mimi and Coco claim to customize their teriyaki balls to New York’s “diverse eclectic taste” so it’s not that far-fetched of a theory.
In most parts of Japan, people don’t treat Takoyaki as a meal but rather something you get from street vendors at festivals and events, which seems to translate quite well to the American street food market culture.
The highlight of the day was the much-anticipated infamous ramen burger, a ground beef chuck patty sandwiched between two craftily formed buns made from freshly cut ramen noodles accompanied by a delightfully scintillating shoyu glaze. Shoyu is slightly sweeter than soy sauce but still has that salty kick to it — it’s like the best parts of hoisin and soy sauce combined — pure heaven. Slap a piece of cheese on the burger and you’ve got a foodie market dream meal come true. The “noodle buns” are confusing and delightful all at the same time, the cheese seems like it won’t work here but it so wonderfully does — It is easy to see why the ramen burger was voted one of “The 17 Most Influential Burgers of All Time” by Time Magazine. Now, the ramen burger would be perfection if it wasn’t for the fact that it is so bloody greasy it’s almost nauseating. Getting that last bite out of the grease-soaked wrapper is damn near impossible too.
The menu sign at this stall cheekily indicated that they would charge each person $2 for every photo they take of the ramen burger cooking process. Funny guys.
The disappointments of the day were the macaroni and cheese from Milk Truck, the blandest macaroni and cheese I have ever had the misfortune to taste, and the Mexican Italian sandwich, Cemita, from Cemitas. Now I’m no Julia Childs or Ina Garten but mac and cheese is pretty hard to screw up — I mean it’s pasta and cheese. I am still contemplating how I managed to polish off an entire container of what is described on the menu as macaroni with aged cheddar, gruyere & asiago cheeses blended into a béchamel sauce, topped with fresh mozzarella and house made bread crumbs, and felt as though I were eating just plain pasta with absolutely nothing on it. The picture below actually very accurately captures the taste of this dismal letdown in visual form. Milk Truck, may I introduce you to some important players in the mac and cheese world? Salt, pepper, maybe even mustard powder, cayenne pepper, nutmeg.. ever heard of any of those? Mind you, this was also the longest queue at Smorgasburg (security actually had to bust out some baricades to control it) because for some ridiculous reason, the vendors were cooking each mac and cheese order individually, instead of cooking the pasta in mass quantity, which would be the normal way to do things when you’re trying to quickly feed lots of people. It’s actually almost impressive a) how long I managed to wait for this and b) how dull this mac and cheese was. I’d love to know the recipe they use for this so I can make it my business never to repeat it.
Now the idea behind the cemita is a brilliant one. Its 10 layers include bean spread, mayo, lettuce, onions, tomato, avocado, oaxaca cheese, chipotle, and your choice of southern fried chicken, carnitas, chipotle chicken, or barbacoa all shoved in the middle of a soft eggy seeded bun ($9). You get ready to unhinge your jaw to take a bite of this bulky beauty expecting an explosion of Mexican flavors when all you get is an overdose of shredded lettuce and a less than inspiring bite of non-juicy barbacoa that all falls down the front of your shirt. The sandwich is extravagant looking with a taste that doesn’t match. This should be the bees knees of the sandwich world — Mexican soft taco meets gigantic looking Italian hero — but alas, Cemitas does not deliver. Maybe the breakfast cemita is worth a shot — eggs, beans, cheese, chorizo, pico de gallo, and tater tots — but I won’t hold my breath. Or spend the $5.50.
Smorgasburg has now shut for the winter BUT the Winter Flea + Holiday Market is now open in Crown Heights with 100+ vendors, a mini-Smorg, and Berg’n (beer hall woot woot). So if you’re hungry for a bite of Smorg this winter you can go there every Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm on Dean Street in Brooklyn.
Feel free to tell the beast what food vendors are your favorites and least favorites — comment on this post or email thoughts, complaints and contemplations to firstname.lastname@example.org
East River State Park
Closest subway stop: Bedford Avenue