A ride down the long escalator is the first sign there’s something different about the DeKalb Market Hall that opened last week. Each stall seems cast upon the poured-concrete floor at random, as if the layout had grown helter-skelter as spaces were staked out.
There are some good features and some bad features, but the overall experience is positive. For one thing, the offerings hit a higher level of scrumptiousness than at most other food courts in town, matched only by Chelsea Market. (Note to Bourdain about his upcoming food hall: These are the ones to beat.) The mix of operators is unique, with lots of veteran brick-and-mortar establishments represented alongside start-ups, and fewer of the habitual small-space operators you expect to see at every new food court.
The Arepa Lady (Maria Piedad Cano) has traveled from Queens to make her first food-court appearance, while Lioni Brooklyn Italian Heroes has arrived from Dyker Heights, complete with flashy neon sign. Williamsburg’s Bunker churns out banh mi, while Fletcher’s slices brisket smoked in Gowanus. Ample Hills scoops ice cream, Steve’s slings key lime pies, while BK Jani cooks up Pakistani curries and kebabs. Many further Brooklyn establishments are also represented.
Katz’s Delicatessen is certainly the anchor and it generates lines despite the coterie of experienced carvers hard at work. But already in the first few days there are a half-dozen stalls that generate long lines. A large proportion of stalls are making good solid food rather than going for the gimmicks.
The biggest drawback is that overcrowding is already a problem. The seemingly random layout of booths creates bottlenecks where lines and migrating diners intersect. No maps are posted, making guests wander aimlessly looking for specific booths. Other drawbacks include the usual high prices and lack of seating. There are two tight dining areas furnished with a few picnic tables, makeshift bleachers, and cheerless standing counters flung in awkward locations. A few stalls have stools.
Here are the seven best things I ate during four afternoons of grazing DeKalb Market Hall soon after it opened.
Arepa de Choclo at the Arepa Lady — Yes, you can have your arepa (a yellow Colombian corncake) topped with all sorts of meat and poultry stews for an additional $7 or so, but stick with the basics: the hand-patted arepa de choclo ($5.50) is sweet and rife with corn kernels. When it’s folded over the salty cheese filling, the effect is sublime. $5.50
Yellowtail Roll at Daigo Hand Roll Bar — Many food court stalls sell raw fish in various guises, be it poke, ceviche, carpaccio, or tartare, but let’s be frank: encumbered with thick sauces or strong seasonings, much of it is not quite fresh enough. This booth provides pristine seafood, wraps it in nori with vinegared rice, and hands it across the counter without further ado. $5.50
Chopped Brisket Sandwich at Fletcher’s — The sandwich couldn’t be simpler, or richer: a generous wad of expertly smoked beef brisket sliced and then chopped, hiding a good deal of fat among the fleshy shreds of meat. Don’t let them put any barbecue sauce on it, because the sandwich is already perfect. Skip the pickled onions, but do request the pickle. $13
Potato Pierogis at Pierogi Boys — The set-up is brilliantly simple. The Polish stuffed dumplings called pierogi are manufactured from rounds of rolled dough right before your eyes, stuffed with meat, potatoes, or mushrooms, and boiled on the spot, then topped with caramelized onions and sour cream. You’ve never had a fresher pierogi. $7
Fried Chicken Scallion Pancake at Wilma Jean — The fried chicken hot out of the fat is unimpeachably crisp and flavorful. Deposited illogically on a scallion pancake with greenery and mayo, the flavor is stunning, and one makes a balanced meal. Well, maybe not. $9
Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup at Hana Noodle Station — You won’t find a better version of this classic soup from Central China. The hand-pulled noodles are plump, the beef appropriately diverse (a bit of tendon here, a bit of brisket there), and the dab of hot paste in the center sets the bowl on fire. $9.75
Key Lime Pie at Steve’s — These pies are a beautiful yellow color as a result of the actual Key limes used to make the custard. Yes, the tiny pies are expensive — as is all the food at DeKalb Market — but, really, this is as much of an intensely flavored pie as you want to eat. $5.50
And What About Katz’s?
Pastrami Sandwich at A Taste of Katz’s — Despite worries to the contrary, the sandwiches offered at the Katz’s booth are comparable to those on the Lower East Side, and the pastrami is every bit as good. However, something is lost in the translation. Lack of direct contact with the carvers means you don’t get exactly the sandwich you want, and in the early days the place couldn’t keep up with the demand for pickles. One day, they had only sours, and no half-sours or pickled green tomatoes. When I bought the sandwich the next day, only tomatoes were available. Still, props for making the sandwich the same price as it is in Manhattan. On the other hand, how could they charge more? $21.45
My Advice: Go late on weekdays, after 2 p.m. when crowds begin to thin, or early on the weekends, between 11 a.m. and noon. Evenings are less crowded, especially Sunday evenings, but maybe not for long.