The new kid on the block where food courts are concerned is the Canal Street Market, where food court space on the busy edge of Chinatown is shared with a craft market selling jewelry, cosmetics, housewares, and decorative objects. So far this craft market looms nearly empty, while the food court is thronged. Take this as a sign of the times.
One reason the food court seems crowded is that space is tight: There are 12 counters and kiosks connected by narrow hallways, so at peak hours the lines that trail from the most popular ones may prevent customers from reaching the interior, where a few raised counters with no seats constitute the eating area. Food courts often provide inadequate seating, where customers are afforded few comforts as they wolf down premium-priced meals and snacks.
One unique feature of the food court at Canal Street Market is a concentration on sweets, boasting bubble tea, fruit smoothie, ice cream, cupcake, and pie counters. Really, it’s not a bad idea, since most food courts give sweet stuff short shrift. Objections aside, as at all food courts, there are some very good things to be eaten. Here are the six items we like best.
Sea Salt Chocochata at Boba Guys — Those who concoct beverages out of teas, fruit syrups, and orbs of jiggly tapioca are like the 19th century pharmacists who first invented Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Dr. Pepper as tonic beverages thought to have medicinal properties. Today’s modern equivalents are equally exciting and this stall provides a broad choice. My favorite so far is chocochata, a cool bracing mix of horchata and chocolate, with just the right dash of sea salt to tame the sweetness. $4
Spicy Tofu Bowl at Nom Wah Kuai — You might want to go right for the dumplings at this offshoot of a well-regarded Chinatown dim sum parlor, but my experience has been to the contrary. On one of two occasions, my dumplings were shopworn — clearly they’re not made on the premises, and that makes it difficult for them to be as fresh as they are at the cheaper dim sum parlors nearby. Instead go for the spicy tofu bowl and add the free chile sauce, then dig into a vegetarian assortment that also contains pickled onion, gobs of gluey gluten, and a tea-smoked egg. $11
Bulgogi Beef Burrito at Oppa — This Korean fusion spot offers four classes of dishes, including ssams, salad bowls, and rice bowls. But my favorite offerings are the burritos. The flour tortilla is warmed and then filled with a choice of beef, chicken, pork belly, or tofu, as well as rice, lettuce, scallions, and kimchi, which gives the thing a spicy fermented kick in the pants. A luxuriant amount of sriracha mayo (some might say too much) glues the thing together. $12
Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream at Davey’s — Many food-court counters offer gelato, but Davey’s is one of the few stalls that scoops good old American ice cream. The choice of cones in single scoop or child sizes at a lower price is most welcome, allowing customers to enjoy smaller doses of the rich ice cream without suffering brain freeze or excessive caloric intake. The best flavor is Thai iced tea, subtle enough that you can taste the cream and an admirable shade of Day-Glo orange. $5.15
Shiro-Obi Ramen at Kuro-Obi — This offshoot of Ippudo makes it possible to get a taste of their famed ramen without standing in line for long. The standard broth here is a little different, based on chicken rather than pork bones. Pick the simplest and cheapest bowl, which contains a wonderfully creamy chicken broth, firm thick noodles, two slabs of tender pork, a sprinkling of scallions, and not much else. Alas, the bowls are small for the price — this is a food court, after all. $11
Mexican Caesar Salad at Fresh & Co — Yes, the Caesar salad was apparently invented in Mexico at an Italian restaurant, a fact that seems to have escaped the notice of the proprietors of this chain. That doesn’t mean that this atypical example isn’t fresh and great tasting, with its cotija cheese, crunchy bits of pita, “local romaine” chopped just the right size, pickled peppers, and a zesty pumpkin seed dressing. $9