A few weeks ago on a lazy Saturday afternoon, my sister Lisa and I subwayed our way to Brooklyn’s East River State Park in Williamsburg to check out Smorgasburg, a popular hipster-ish food market (there were a lot of man buns walking around) I’d read about but never explored. It was part gourmet food court, part culinary crystal ball and utterly delicious.
Lisa was visiting from Maryland and I was in host mode. I wanted to show her a good time and she wanted to do something a little different from a museum or standard tourist attraction. Since I’d never been to Smorgasburg before I thought it would be fun to discover it together. It was a perfect day, the weather was mild and sunny and a relief from weeks of a debilitating heat wave.
We arrived at noon and the parking lot the event occupied by the waterfront was already buzzing. Within an hour it would be wall-to-wall people and slightly difficult to navigate but it was the weekend and we were in no particular rush.
Chicken sandwich from Charli’e Chicken
Looking across the asphalt, 60 small pop-up food tents beckoned to the hungry. Feeling a little reconnaissance was in order we strolled up and down the aisles taking an inventory of our options, our heads spinning from all the interesting choices — no run-of-the-mill hotdogs from this bunch.
There were Ramen burgers (huge line at this one), Filipino spring rolls (a.k.a Lumpia), crispy home cut fries paired with gourmet sauces; warm, flaky biscuit sandwiches, beef short ribs and savory sticky rice snacks to name a few. Choosing was going to be a real bitch.
Everything seemed to be homemade or created on site. Half the fun was watching the food being prepared. Aesthetics were clearly a priority and each order was painstakingly presented as if chef Gordon Ramsey were looming over their shoulders. Lets face it, an Instagramable dish is worth its weight in gold.
Case in point: Wowfulls, both delicious and photogenic. Every person I saw that bought one did a round of photos before digging in. For those not familiar, a Wowfulls begins with a 1950’s style Hong Kong egg waffle (think Belgium waffle except round and an outy not an inny) that’s slightly crispy on the outside and sweet and soft on the inside. Add a giant scoop of ice-cream, fresh strawberries, a healthy dribbling of chocolate or caramel sauce, powdered sugar, rainbow sprinkles, et voilà, a WowFull. It lives up to its name.
As the crowd grew, lines formed quickly. “It’ll be at least 10 – 15 minutes” vendors would say and, surprisingly, patrons just grinned and nodded their head in acceptance. When does that ever happen?
I finally opted for a lobster roll with a toasted New England bun from Red Hook Lobster Pound. I’d been craving a roll all summer. The lobster was fresh and great tasting, what there was of it, but at $19.00 I was disappointed to find that the shallow bun filled 2/3 of the way with shredded lettuce with only a few pieces of lobster placed on top to make it look like it was heaping. I didn’t realize until I had already paid and walked away. I was not happy.
Lisa, being a good sister, shared her Charli’s Chicken with me and it was honestly the best fried chicken I’ve ever had; I kid you not. All organic, the breast and drumsticks were the size of a small car and incredibly juicy. On the outside, the extra crunchy crust had a zesty kick made from a secret blend of ‘spices infused with buttermilk.” The toasted buttermilk cornbread on the side, lightly sprinkled with a hint of sea salt, was delectable.
Two weeks later I returned to Smorgasburg, this time on Sunday and a different location: Breeze Hill in Prospect Park. Most of the vendors were the same (vendors can do one location or both at their discretion) and the natural setting was more serene than the frenetic energy of the scene in Williamsburg.
A few new dishes caught my eye. There was mofongo: a popular Puerto Rican dish made with mashed green plantains and garlic topped with chicken and a spicy sauce. I admit I didn’t try it. There was a long line (which says something positive) and I didn’t have time to wait.
There were South Philly Cheesesteaks (the real deal with melted cheese whiz) that looked delish. At Jianbing (pronounced Jen-bing) they served a Shanghai-inspired breakfast food by the same name. Reuben, one of the co-founders told me to think of it as a Chinese crepe. It’s made with a whole egg, sweet & savory sauce, scallions, cilantro, a homemade chili sauce and a thin piece of fried dough, (“the cracker”) to give it a crunch, wrapped together and cut into two mouth-watering pieces. If you wanted a little protein you could add chicken, bacon or tofu to the mix.
For anyone with a sweet tooth, the options were just as plenty. The donuts from Dough were the size of my head in tantalizing flavors such as Hibiscus, Passion Fruit and Salted Chocolate Carmel. Bite-sized gooey butter cakes at Gooey & Co (just love that name) drew a crowd. Customers could the nugget plain (sinful) or add a variety of toppings (sinful + 10).
Famous Foodies of the Future?
Looking around I was struck by how young most of the vendors were and after a little investigation I learned that they weren’t hired hands, they were the owners. These businesses weren’t extensions of successful franchises hiring college kids to run their booths, they were small start-ups run by hopeful entrepreneurs (helped by their friends) who were in the thick of things. They were greeting customers, mixing ingredients or cleaning equipment. Whatever needed to be done. Everyone I spoke to was twenty-something or at the most an early thirty-something. All of them had big ideas, guts and ambition. Aside from the fact that they were slinging ingredients instead of code, their confidence and savvy reminded me of the techie whiz kids I’ve come to know building apps and launching platforms.
While I waited for my lunch to come out of the fryer, I introduced myself to Charli of Charli’s Fried Chicken, a gracious and impressive 24-year-old, working the tent with her mother and stepfather. Charli had worked in the restaurant biz when she was younger, moving from server to management relatively quickly considering her age, yet she knew she wanted something of her own. Her goal: to open a Shake Shack esque restaurant for Chicken. Within two and a half hours she sold out of food. I think she’s got a shot.
Yiming Hiu, one of three partners at Wowfulls, grinned from ear to ear when he spoke of their plans to open a store in lower Manhattan before the year’s out. I assumed that meant they’d graduate from Smorgasburg but the team intends to stay. He said the intimate setting provides an invaluable connection to a range of customers to try new ideas and get instant feedback. That’s above and beyond the benefits they get from the exposure, social media and word of mouth.
All I knew is that I would be back.
Here’s what you need to know
Bad News: The last outdoor Smorgasburg is on October 29 at the East River State Park location and Sunday October 23 in Prospect Park. (My bad, I should have gone earlier.) 11am – 6pm.
Good News: Beginning Nov 5 thru March 26 on the weekends, Smorgasburg moves inside to Skylight One Hanson, the majestic Fort Greene landmark in the Williamsburg Savings Bank Clock tower. If you’re in town, I highly recommend it. It’s smaller than the outdoor version but I’m sure it’s just as yummy.
The 411 on the outdoor locations if you decide to go next year:
The spot in Williamsburg is near tons of great little shops and restaurants and is in the center of the hipster, artsier crowd. Smorgasburg is located in a parking lot next to the water with a great view of midtown Manhattan across the river. There’s few places to sit so you’ll find yourself having to juggle your food while standing or walking. When it gets crowded that’s a challenge. It’s the busier venue of the two and has a decidedly urban vibe.
The Prospect Park location is just that, the tents are set up along a circular drive and in the grassy center there’s a lot of picnic tables and shady trees. I saw more families and small children there. It’s less frenetic which I enjoyed and though less trafficked according to the vendors than Williamsburg it still felt like something was happening.
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