On a lazy summer Saturday in 2016, 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 different than a museum or typical tourist attraction. I’d never been to Smorgasburg, so I thought it would be fun to discover it together.
The Williamsburg Smorgasburg
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. 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; warm, flaky biscuit sandwiches, beef short ribs and savory sticky rice snacks 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
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 completely sold out.
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:
Smorgasburg is open and in full swing!
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, 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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