Contrary to the days when a new food court was a big deal, they now appear with such regularity that these collections of pricey fast-food stalls — where a meal, including beverage, tax, and tip (and now, a credit-card surcharge), often runs $25 or more — can be a nonevent, unless they have some special feature. Olly Olly was significant for its artsy location and cocktail program, while Urban Hawker was the hit of the year because of its single-minded emphasis on the street food of Singapore.
Food courts have become so ubiquitous they have started cannibalizing each other, so that — I swear — when the Hugh opened in the Citibank building two blocks north of Urbanspace 576 Lex, it partly drained the older food court of its patrons. As a result, it comes as no surprise to visit an older food court like Dekalb Market Hall and find several of the stalls untenanted.
Yet food courts keep opening. The new ones often have many of the same tenants as other food courts, disqualifying them as unique destinations. And the time when food courts served as incubators for small food businesses is becoming a thing of the past. Entering a new food court these days has a certain ho-hum quality, as one notes the number of chain stalls and brick-and-mortar establishments that have newly invaded food courts.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Urbanspace opened its sixth Manhattan food court at Union Square. The new facility at the corner of Irving Place and East 14th is in a new building called Zero Irving, which describes itself as “a trophy-class office building.” The entrances are not well marked, suggesting that signage has either not arrived or is not permitted. Apart from a few nice pastel paintings, the floor and walls are solid concrete, making it feel like you’re in a bomb-proof bunker.
The 13 stalls form an island in the middle and are arranged around the periphery, forming a great big “O.” The best seats look out onto 14th street from a shallow counter by the windows. Trencher tables are scattered here and there, plus some raised tables with stools. Best of all is an outdoor patio: Among food courts, this one is perhaps more spacious than average.
As at most food courts, the menus favor bowls, salads, and sandwiches. Ingredients are redundant: I lost count of how many times kale, avocado, and chocolate chip cookies appeared. Meat with bones is absent. But like all food courts, there are some great things to eat. I recently spent three days roaming Urbanspace Union Square; here’s a list of the food stalls, and five things to eat I highly recommend.
Five Best Dishes
Tuna tostada at GoFish Sushi Box
Normally, I avoid buying sushi pulled from reach-in refrigerated cases. You never know how long ago it was made. At the very least the nori may be soggy, and the fish itself may be headed down the road, too. So it pays to pick things that must be freshly assembled, and this tuna tostada ($9.75) fits the profile. It is wonderful with its tortilla-chip crunch, glowing crema, and spices that are sprinkled overall.
Eggs bacon parm at Casa Toscana
This nominally Italian stall isn’t really Tuscan at all (consider the jalapeno chicken energy plate, for example), but it produces some generous sandwiches on focaccia. I particularly admire the eggs bacon parm ($10), which features scrambled eggs, shaved cheese of a pungent sort, and, best of all, slices of pancetta, which add funkiness to what is basically a BEC.
Yucatan Mayan world bowl at Plant Junkie
The province of this vegan counter is salads, sandwiches, and “world” bowls, many of which deploy fake meat, which I dislike — because it doesn’t taste like meat and the textures tend to be identical whether it’s a sausage or a cutlet. So I naturally beelined for items without it, and came up with this really lovely bowl ($15). It features firm tofu slathered with mole, poblano aioli, and tomatoey salsa fresca for a wallop of flavor. I even ate the coconut kale. Maybe bowls aren’t so bad after all.
Chicken yeero pita at Pita Yeero
This Greek chain — which seems intent on getting you to pronounce “gyro” correctly — produces a mean chicken gyro ($12.25). Get both yogurt and hot sauce, plus all the vegetables, especially the raw onions which give the conical sandwich zip. Most important, ask that french fries be deposited inside, for which there’s no extra charge. Huzzah!
Sausage and shishito pepper pizza at Kid Brother
This pizza was the best thing I ate at Urbanspace Union Square. The peppers have just the right heat and lubricity, the sausage reeks of fennel, and the crust is as good as it gets at small boutiquey pizzerias. Sit at the counter and enjoy this pizza of the day ($20), which reappears on a rotating basis. This is food court-style experimentation at its best.
Bao by Kaya (Taiwanese dumplings and bao)
Casa Toscana (focaccia sandwiches from, ironically, Arezzo)
GoFish Sushi Box (grab and go sushi)
Pita Yeero (Greek gyro sandwiches)
Plant Junkie (vegan fake meat, mainly in bowls)
Twenty-One Grains (grain bowls and salads)
Playa Bowls (fruit smoothies and vegan bowls)
Goat Cafe (coffee bar offering filled croissants)
Summer Salt (fish and shrimp tacos and burritos)
Wafles & Dinges (Belgium waffles and ice cream)
Bobwhite Counter (chicken sandwiches and tenders)
Two Hops (boutique beer counter with snacks)
Kid Brother (pizza and pastas)