The North 3rd Street Market in Williamsburg might just illustrate everything that’s happening with new food courts in New York as they compete to survive in an increasingly crowded market.
For one, newer food courts must employ a savvier selection of stalls and improvements like better seating, longer hours, and alcoholic beverages. These businesses, primarily in Brooklyn and Manhattan, also continue to present themselves as upscale establishments, where even a meager meal can cost well over $20, including tax and the 15- to 25-percent tip demanded by the point-of-purchase screens.
But in spite of a shrewdness among operators, there also remains something rough-edged about food courts that makes them feel like the modern commercial equivalent of the Wild West. Since they’re often carved from disused spaces, maybe this quality is the result of real estate interests dabbling in the food biz.
Like its predecessors, North 3rd Street Market, between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue, is packed with somewhat upscale, esteemed vendors. It occupies the ground floor of an industrial building with a picturesque crumbling façade dating to 1920. The food court has 20 counters in back with two glassed-in store spaces in front, and the market flung its doors open May 29th, despite being profoundly unfinished.
Enter through a pair of arched doorways decorated with dead tree limbs. Both glass stores so far appear untenanted. Further in, buzzing and pounding is heard as the smell of sawdust permeates the air. Of the 20 stalls, 13 are currently ready for customers, though some tenants seem to be just squatting. Seven stalls remain in various stages of construction — as if the tenants, whose logos are already emblazoned on the walls, had not quite decided to take the final leap. (The rest are expected to open soon.)
Despite making you feel like you’re entering a construction site and ought to be donning a hardhat, North 3rd Street Market already has one of the most interesting collections of food choices the city has yet seen, and it knows how to create buzz. That certainly happened with the Di Fara Pizza counter in the court’s darkened rear corner, seeking to extend the mercantile reach of legendary pizzaiolo Dom DeMarco. Could a food court stall succeed in replicating his pizza in the absence of the impresario? Read on, friend.
And would Corner Bistro continue to flip some of the city’s best bar burgers? We won’t know until the counter actually opens, though tools and piles of equipment can be seen. Of the respected establishments that have already debuted, La Newyorkina and Bien Cuit stand out.
Some other stalls represent beguiling and untested concepts. One is Harvest 2 Order, which offers trays of colorful microgreens that the attendant snips into expensive salads as you watch. You’re then encouraged to choose extras that run from pickled rhubarb to wheat berries. You may end up as I did, with a pile of weirdly incompatible ingredients smothered in thick dressing.
I visited North 3rd Street three times and ate my way around most of the stalls currently open, some twice. Based on my own food preferences, a careful examination of the offerings, and considerations of value, here are the seven things I liked best, in ranked order.
1) Di Fara’s square Sicilian slice
The so-called classic slice isn’t much to write home about, a gluey wedge of under-proofed dough. The square Sicilian is quite another story: The thick, well-browned crust is crunchy on the edges, the underneath layers of cheese applied with a lavish hand, and the tomato sauce coarse with a trace of sweetness. A little Romano is shaken on top, just as the master does it. ($6)
2. JaJaJa’s vegan chorizo tacos
Vegan Mexican food didn’t seem like a good bet, but I wondered what could be in the house-made chorizo. It turned out to be a wheat product, and the pair of rustic corn tortillas that encase it are more like LA’s than our own. It shone brightly, with a texture that recalls skinless chorizo heavily scented with cumin. The fresh salsa was great, too. ($8)
3. La Newyorkina’s miniature ice cream cones
I was already in love with the pastries, beverages, paletas, and ice cream at La Newyorkina, an outpost of pastry chef Fany Gerson’s Mexican sweets spot from Greenwich Village. This small branch offers a truncated list of sweets, but the ice creams are largely intact, as are the miniature ice cream cones carrying only two small scoops. It’s exactly as much ice cream as you can eat without your tongue becoming numb. ($3.95)
4. East Wind Snack Shop’s dry-aged beef dumplings
East Wind Snack Shop, a Windsor Terrace restaurant from chef Chris Cheung, transports dumplings to Williamsburg via the market. His turban-shaped dumplings don’t really look like much, but the fillings intrigued me. These are stuffed with aged beef instead of the usual pork or shrimp, with a nice firm texture and an exceedingly rich flavor, with wrappers seared on one side. ($8)
5. Reginas Grocery’s Uncle Jimmy Sandwich
This single mindedness of this stall is amazing. It has menu that offers only 14 sandwiches of similar construction on what’s called a ciabatta but looks more baguette-ish, though sometimes a second bread is available. Nevertheless, the cold cuts are piled on with a generous hand and are of high quality. Don’t miss the Calabrian hot-pepper relish. ($14)
6. Bien Cuit’s strawberry and basil danish
You can’t go wrong with a loaf or half loaf of the raisin walnut batard or the rye ficelle at the bakery from Zachary Golper, but take a careful look at the pastries. New ones are often popping up with a beguiling display of fruit. Here’s one I was unfamiliar with, buoyed up with basil cream and rhubarb pink peppercorn jam. Every bite was heavenly. ($4.50)
7. Tap’s pao de quiejo
Normally this place does both sweet and savory tapioca crepes and açai bowls, cluing you in to its Brazilian identity. But also displayed on the counter besides cocoa nibs and chia seeds are pao de quiejo, the bouncy bread balls made with manioc flower and filled with cheese. They make perfect snacks or modest breakfasts. ($2)