Essex Market opened in 1940, one of four indoor markets on the Lower East Side alone that were spawned by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s hatred for outdoor pushcarts. It’s one of the few left, due to its evolution into an agreeable mix of local neighborhood vendors over the succeeding decades — though now, the market has moved into a far splashier space inside Essex Crossing, a Lower East Side mixed-use development that’s something like Hudson Yards.
The new development, towering and well-windowed instead of crowded and dark, provides space for dozens of vendors — both in the new Essex Market and in a downstairs space called the Market Line. Options upstairs include retailers of candy, spices, flowers, and baked goods; mini-restaurants including Shopsin’s General Store; a beer bar; and a broader range of food-selling establishments than the old market. Downstairs is more like a conventional food court than a market. I recently visited both levels of the development at Essex and Delancey many times to figure out the stand-outs among the stalls upstairs and downstairs that offer prepared foods.
Yes, a couple of good cheap options remain among the upstairs market stalls, including a fishmonger and a pair of vegetable stands. But at most of the new counters, the average price of goods has soared, and the bargain aspects of the old market have largely vanished. A pair of cheese counters, for example, offer products that run to $25 a pound and more, while one butcher offers case after gleaming case of pricey boutique meats.
Essex Market now seems geared to attract tourists rather than regular shoppers; a portion of the upstairs space is already devoted to prepared foods in the usual food court price range. One might assume that the number of prepared food vendors will increase gradually, as it did at Chelsea Market, until Essex Market becomes more food court than market. Naturally, the old Essex Market structure is slated to be torn down and replaced by a high-rise condo.
The basement-level Market Line — which currently hosts some 20 vendors in a spacious sea of concrete, with space for more vendors — also seems like a challenge to the ground-floor Essex Market, though it’s supposed to complement it.
What’s the difference between the two levels? At the Market Line, many vendors are offshoots of well-known restaurants, including Veselka, Pho Grand, Tortilleria Nixtamal, and Schaller & Weber. Others are seen already in other food courts, such as Kuro Obi and Nom Wah, plus the space contains a few actual restaurants with extensive seating, such as the wine bar Peoples and the seafood restaurant Essex Pearl. Most of the establishments have at least counters with stools, and there’s plenty of open seating areas, making Market Line the more hospitable place to dine.
Nearly all of the seating at Essex Market, meanwhile, is on the second story above the market, though the views of the surrounding neighborhood are spectacular.
Note that the prices in both locations are at the usual elevated food court level, with full meals, sometimes smallish, often running around $14, plus beverages, tax, and tip; more food vendors will also be opening in the future, further east at the basement level.
I tasted many dishes upstairs and downstairs, with an eye out for bargains. Here are the 10 best I sampled, in ranked order. Based on my experience, I’d recommend dining upstairs at this point, for food that is quirkier and less predictable — and marginally less expensive.
10. Cheeseburger empanada at Dominican Cravings (Upstairs): This cross cultural exercise tasted fantastic — crumbly and cheesy, with a beefy savor that doesn’t go away, bolstered by a perfect crisp crust. $2.50
9. Spinach lasagna at Mille Nonne (Upstairs): A generous plate of vegetable lasagna comes awash in béchamel, and is just the kind of creamy repast to warm you on a frigid day, reflecting Italian home cooking around Rome. $10.50, vegetarian
8. Currywurst at Schaller & Weber (Downstairs): This reasonably true-to-Berlin specialty features a scored knackwurst, flooded with curry ketchup and curry powder. A pretzel roll accompanies it, making an international party in your mouth. $8
7. Adovo de puerco at Puebla Mexican Food (Upstairs): A holdover from the old market, Puebla Mexican has expanded its menu, including dishes from all over Mexico. The pork adovo is particularly good: shards of meat in a mellow chile sauce with plenty of rice, beans, and tortillas to bolster the meal. $9
6. Pound of tortillas at Taqueria Nixtamal (Downstairs): Nixtamal is a legendary Corona cafe that famously made its tortillas from scratch starting from corn kernels. A warm packet of them can be purchased, so good you can eat them by themselves with some salsas from the condiment caddy. $4, vegetarian
5. Moroccan beef stew sandwich at Zerza Moroccan Kitchen (Upstairs): This pita-borne sandwich is almost all stewed meat, with the kind of subtle spicing — and a dab of hot harissa — that North African cuisines are famous for. Served with a scatter of olives. $12.50
4. Shrimp summer roll at Pho Grand (Downstairs): Nearby Grand Street is home to this Vietnamese old-timer famous for its pho. But a real steal of a deal is the shrimp summer roll, a clean tasting roll-up of crustaceans, rice noodles, and herbs in rice paper, with a peanut dipping sauce. $5.75
3. Halatata at Rustic Table Shuk (Downstairs): This may be one of the world’s best egg salad sandwiches, freshly boiled egg mired in sour cream. It arrives on a housemade seeded challah flavored with chopped green onions; a bonus sweet potato, flattened and charred, comes on the side. $13, vegetarian
2. Proud Mary at Heroes & Villains (Upstairs): I’d never tasted a fried chicken sandwich quite like this one. With its garnish of bacon and pickled chiles, and a liberal squirt of a cheesy mayo, it may be the best in town. $11.50
1. Khao man gai at Eat Gai (Upstairs): This stall relocated from a tiny East Village storefront, and its specialty remains intact: a Thai take on Hainanese chicken rice with spicy dipping sauces on the side and a refreshing bowl of broth. At $9.50, it’s one of the best deals in the building.
Also check out the muffulletta at Ends Meat, not included here since I’ve already exulted its virtues.