On a lazy summer Saturday, 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, open-air food market, 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 different than a museum or typical tourist attraction. I’d never been to Smorgasburg, which boasts over 100 vendors selling their scrumptious wares, so I thought it would be fun to discover it together.
Saturday: Smorgasburg 2019 in Williamsburg, New York
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.
Looking across the asphalt, 60 small pop-up food tents beckoned to the hungry. We decided to do a little reconnaissance, to take an inventory of our options. Our heads spun 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, and beef short ribs to name a few. Choosing was going to be a real bitch.
Almost everything was 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. Smart, an Instagramable dish is worth its weight in gold.
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Case in point: Wowfulls, both delicious and photogenic (note: They’re only at Saturday and Sunday Smorgasburgs). 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. Waiting times lasted as long as 15 minutes but, surprisingly, patrons just grinned and nodded their heads in acceptance. When does that ever happen?
A Little disappointed
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 but at $19.00 it was disappointing. The shallow bun was filled 2/3 of the way with shredded lettuce and then the lobster was placed on top to make it look like it was heaping. I didn’t realize the truth until I had already paid and walked away. I was not happy.
Sunday: Smorgasburg 2019 in Breeze Hill, Prospect Park
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 eat the nugget plain (sinful) or add a variety of toppings (sinful + 10).
Famous Foodies of the Future?
Walking around, I realized that many of the *kids* I saw working the booths were not just hired hands but the owners.
Everyone I spoke to was in their mid-twenties, 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 know who build apps and launch platforms.
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 I would be back.
Here’s what you need to know
The food market is open beginning in April through November (weather permitting)
Friday: Smorgasburg is near the West World Trade Center in the Oculus plaza from 11:30 am to 7:00 pm. (New!)
Saturday: Smorgasburg Williamsburg is at East River State Park (90 Kent Ave. (at N. 7 St.) from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.
Sunday: Smorgasburg Prospect Park is at Breeze Hill (East Drive at Lincoln Rd ) from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.
Note: The spot in Williamsburg is in a parking lot near little shops and restaurants. It’s in the center of the hipster, artsier crowd. There’s a beautiful view of midtown Manhattan but with few places to sit it was challenging to eat. You have to juggle your food while walking until you can a place to sit.
In Prospect Park, Breeze hill there’s a lot of grassy areas with shady trees and plenty of picnic tables made it far more family friendly.
Every vendor takes cash, most take debit and credit cards. ATMs are available in each location.
Unfortunately, pets are not allowed in East River State Park on Saturdays but you can bring your dog on Sunday to Prospect Park.
On Saturday and Sunday there are bars that serve beer, wine, and cocktails but you must have a valid I.D. proving you are 21 or older.
Nope, the food market is free to enter.
In Prospect Park, grassy areas with shady trees and plenty of picnic tables made it far more family-friendly.
P.S. Vendors at Smorgasburg are constantly changing so if you don’t see one of the sellers I mentioned above, don’t fret there will be plenty of food that will tempt you!
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