Mercado Little Spain has been a long time coming. On the lower level of the shopping mall at 10 Hudson Yards, the main entrance is located at the corner of 10th Avenue and 30th Street. When the rest of the shopping center staged a grand opening on March 12 of this year, MLS still wasn’t ready, and you could see through the windows that lots of work still remained to be done.
Gradually, over the ensuing two months, portions of this combination food court, grocery store, meat and cheese market, curio shop, and restaurant destination opened, though with shortened hours. The food court still doesn’t open until 3 p.m. in the afternoon, though the coffee bar (7 a.m.), patatas bravas stand (11 a.m.), and Spanish Diner open earlier. Just after I ate there, the diner started opening for breakfast, but dinner’s still not available and there will be a three-hour closing break in the afternoon. Currently, the other two restaurants open at 4 p.m.
Frankly, I was a little disappointed when the place was first announced. Sure, director José Andrés runs a restaurant empire in Washington, DC, and has a reputation for superintending big projects, including charitable ones. But the city already has several of these Eurocentric complexes in Manhattan, and this seemed like an Iberian clone of Eataly and Le District. Why does every development of this sort have to be so European? Certainly, Andres could have created a Latin American food court and market with plenty of Spanish elements; it would have been more in keeping with the city’s population.
Nevertheless, when I finally got my first taste of Mercado Little Spain (MLS), I was impressed. Recently, I visited the complex on five consecutive days, eating in two of the three restaurants, at 11 of the 12 food court counters, and at one of the two bars.
In its opening stages, Mercado Little Spain is like a flower bud unfolding. Many things are good, but some are frankly bad. Olive oil, garlic, and salt are the flavors that now predominate, making for a rather narrow palate of flavors, and the complex still seems a bit uncertain of itself, as employees struggle to assemble some of the dishes.
Still, it’s already a formidable place for a visit and a meal, and you should go now, in case the place becomes overwhelmed with tourists, as have Manhattan’s other Eurocentric food complexes.
Below, here’s a rundown of my experience at the Spanish food market in its early opening stages, divided by the sections and including the dishes I would return to order again.
The Food Court
On my initial wandering around the food court floor, which has a slew of stands serving various Spanish foods, I found the experience little short of amazing. It was a Friday night, and the place was mobbed, with nearly every bar stool, standing table, regular table, and eating shelf occupied. Yet, I found it relatively easy to approach counters and order, with little waiting time.
I first tried a classic gazpacho, one of three gazpacho choices in iced pitchers at the stand called Frutas & Verduras. The attendant decorated my glass with a pair of runty breadsticks. In a move that I was to soon become familiar with, she drizzled olive oil and sprinkled sea salt. Indeed, many of the edibles at Mercado Little Spain are propelled by those two substances, and I wondered, how many gallons of olive oil do they run through each day?
A plate of asparagus tips in a coarse textured romesco sauce at the same stand was next on the agenda, followed by a very creamy potato tortilla (one quarter, $5) at Tortilla de Patatas, which was flavored with fried onions that I saw churning in the deep fryer as I waited. Everything seemed new and exciting as I drifted down halls named for Spanish streets. The food court was apparently supposed to resemble a small Spanish town, complete with a village square.
My next stop was a Pescados & Mariscos, which was connected to the seafood restaurant called Mar. A guy sliced lean tuna, dribbled some oil, threw some salt, and then placed a tiny pickled pepper slice upon the breast of each tuna slice with a tweezers. It was like the sashimi found in a so-so sushi bar, and not worth the $12. Is eating raw tuna in this fashion actually a thing in Spain?
So I spent a pleasant hour and ran through nearly $45. I returned the next day and did it again, this time sampling a half dozen churros ($5), a canned tuna empanada ($5) that was a little damp and tired, and, at Bocatas & Empanadas, a fried chicken sandwich with sautéed peppers on Spanish focaccia, which didn’t seem very Spanish but was good nonetheless.
The biggest dud of the day turned out to be from the counter called Cocas, which dispensed oblong pastries that look like pizza, though a sign cautions you not to call them pizzas. The one with tomatoes and peppers I tried was dull as dishwater, with little flavor coming from crust or topping, and not inexpensive at $14.
The highlight of that day came at a higher price. Tired out from my scamper, I parked myself at the wine bar Vino. A plethora of Spanish wines by the glass were available, but the thing that caught my eye was cava served in a porron. You know, one of those flasks with a swooping spout that projects the fizzy wine into your mouth as you brandish it aloft. I provided endless amusement to the bartenders, who instructed me as I attempted using the porron, soaking my shirt in the process.
I also ate a serving of gambas al ajillo ($16), one of the most famous Spanish tapas, here done with a bit of fragrant bay leaf, but not quite enough garlic. I also noticed the same dish on other menus at the restaurants, and indeed, there is considerable menu overlap between the many dining venues at MLS.
On a third visit to the food court, I cleaned up some of the dishes that still begged to be eaten, including a very dull and dry paella Valencia made with chicken at Paella al Plato, a wonderful wobbly flan at Pasteles, and an even better patatas bravas, which is available starting at 11 a.m. every morning at a stand that looked like a food truck called Bravas, making it a good choice for lunch. In general, there are plenty of good things to eat at the food court, but examine them carefully before you order, and by all means avoid the pizzas and paella, especially if the latter looks like it’s been sitting around awhile.
Mercado Little Spain and Salvador Dali
MLS has its surreal side, too. Channeling Salvador Dali, a mural on one wall shows a woman in 3D glasses with her hair coiled on her forehead shooting at flying saucers of paella. A lobster wielded as a ray gun is her weapon, as a boy in Basque attire looks on quizzically from the beach.
Not far away, a bearded guy in a black cashmere sweater gazes at a bubbling paella as whole baby pigs hang inches from his head. Glistening pink, their heads point downwards.
And of course, the fact that Mercado Little Spain is located in a high security retail complex aimed mainly at the wealthy makes its evocation of the peasant pleasures of Spain somewhat disingenuous, ¿No es así?
Mercado Little Spain harbors three full-blown restaurants, and I made it my objective to visit at least two of them. Spanish Diner is perhaps the most appealing of the concepts. The place lies right inside the windows of the complex, so it’s what you see when you first approach, perhaps by clambering down the steps from the High Line. Its windows roll open in good weather to provide a view of the condos across the street, but also some nice air currents from the Hudson River.
The concept — which I take to be, “What would a Greek diner be like if it was located in Spain?” — is a good one. Here, whimsicality also prevails. Some six-tops are merely sheets of glass placed over foosball tables, while a kiosk sells a parody of the classic Ramones t-shirt, in which the band members’ heads have been replaced by a head of garlic and an anarchist’s round black bomb, among other things.
The menu partly parallels that of a typical New York City diner, including soups, salads, cheese and ham plates, small sandwiches, desserts, and a selection of grandmotherly stews. As with before, we witness overlap with the menus of food court counters and the other restaurants, seeing gazpacho, ham plates, and flan again and again.
At Spanish Diner, you can get a crock of callos a la madrilena ($16), an earthy stew of beef tripe, blood sausage, chorizo, and chickpeas, a boon for offal eaters. We also had a generous cauliflower gratin blanketed in white cheese, and a small serving of Iberico ham for $8. The most generous part of the meal was a dessert consisting of a scoop of ice cream flecked with vanilla, two clouds of whipped cream, a lightly pickled peach, and the aforementioned flan ($8).
So far, Spanish Diner is a casual, drop-in kind of place, and easy to get to from the street if you don’t want to battle the crowds of Mercado Little Spain or the upstairs shopping mall. Since I ate there, it started opening for breakfast as well, which it ought to do.
Andrés has often talked of his friendship with the Adrià brothers, Spain’s most prominent celebrity chefs, and they are supposed to have some sort of undefined relationship to MLS. Yet, you see little of their mind-bending culinary handiwork in the complex’s menus. An exception to this is the dish called “gambas El Bulli,” available on the bill of fare at Mar. The seafood restaurant sits in the rear corner of the complex, wrapping around its own open kitchen.
“This feels like a restaurant in an airport terminal,” noted my dining companion. And indeed, the lighting was harsh, the room noisy and busy with figures dashing to and fro, as if frantic to catch a plane, and one could never forget that a food court was in full swing just beyond the velvet ropes that partly define the space. A wraparound mural is cartoonish, and dance music thumps in the background.
The wine list was extensive — lots of interesting Spanish bottles — and the menu mainly consists of small plates averaging $20 apiece. The food was quite memorable in spite of ambiance shortcomings and elevated prices. A plate of nicely rubbery pulpo a la gallega ($22) was nearly indistinguishable from an app you might get at one of the city’s older Spanish restaurants, toothpicks and all. Four in number, razor clams were dabbed with what purported to be a saffron sauce, though that subtle spice was undetectable.
Best of all was a fisherman’s seafood stew ($19) with hunks of fish, a couple of Manila clams, and a single shrimp. The excellent bread served alongside was perfect for sopping up the tasty brown gravy. There were virtually none of the salads or side dishes one might expect at a restaurant like this, though a sign at the bottom of the page warns that it is a preview menu. Maybe the blanks will be filled in later.
Top Dishes to Try So Far
Mercado Little Spain is still not running with at full blast, but for those who visit now, here are the dishes I liked best among the over two dozen I tried. They are things I would definitely order again, presented in order of preference.
1. Gazpacho Clasico at Frutas & Verduras ($6) — The creamy and garlicky cold tomato soup, which sits in a pitcher on ice at this food court counter along with two other gazpachos, has rarely been so well rendered. The attendant fusses over your eight-ounce cup as she squirts on extra olive oil and other seasonings, and then adds two stunted picos for crunch.
2. Huevos Rotos Casa Lucio with Chistorra at Spanish Diner ($17) — Who doesn’t love an egg breakfast at a diner? This one comes with a pair of fried eggs on a heap of great, crooked french fries. A couple of slender chistorra sausages accompany the dish, snapping when you bite into them. The yellow yolk mixes with everything and constitutes the perfect sauce. Anyone for an egg-wine pairing?
3. Patatas Bravas Plus Aioli at Bravas ($8) — Forget for a moment that you’ve been upsold the aioli without being told you’ll be charged an extra dollar for it — the combination of fried potato cubes with two sauces (the other a spicy tomato sauce), is nothing short of sublime, and it will make your heart skip a beat, perhaps literally.
4. Gambas El Bulli at Mar ($21) — The full description of this cryptic shrimp concoction is gambas al estilo el bulli 1996, and it supposedly reproduces a dish from Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli of 23 years ago. Served at the seafood restaurant Mar, it consists of slivered shrimp in a gooey matrix with a sweet border squirted around it, and that’s the best I can do as far as a description goes. If you never went to El Bulli, this is your chance to see what all the fuss was about.
5. Flan from Pasteles ($9) — As you might expect, Mercado Little Spain has an aggressive pastry program and a very solid (but rather small) flan lies at its center, available in several places throughout the complex but seen here at the pastry counter Pasteles. Shown here with a square of coca de crema, the pudding is exceedingly rich and the brown sauce of great delicacy, so the burnt sugar doesn’t overpower the flan.