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JP’s Food Adventures: Lunch at the Essex Street Market

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There's almost always a spot available at Tra La La Juice bar. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

For generations the Essex Street Market has been a neighborhood source for meat, fish, produce, groceries and specialty items. It is fast becoming something of an eclectic, high-end food court as well – a dining destination. Unlike Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, revamped to accommodate restaurants, vendors at Essex Street do what they’ve been doing for decades: cleverly carving out their own little worlds within the market’s maze of tiny stalls.

This makes for unexpected surprises, but difficulty finding a spot to sit and enjoy them. Adventurous and adaptable diners are rewarded in an environment where past and present collide, yet cheerfully coexist. My photographer/wife and I have been having little lunch dates here for years, and dining in the market is better now than ever.

Tra La La Juice Bar. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

The market as a dining destination is hardly news to fans of Tra La La Juice Bar, the business that pioneered the idea, and one of the few vendors to provide seating. Fresh juices, muffins, cupcakes and cookies are for sale here, making for a difficult choice between healthy and indulgent. They also make an excellent grilled fish sandwich ($5), a benefit of the business being partnered with Rainbo Fish. They claim it’s “the best deal in town.” I ain’t arguing: it’s a steal.

The only proper restaurant within the market itself is Shopsin’s General Store. “Proper” might be the wrong word, but they have a large (and eccentric) menu, table seating and a kitchen. You can enjoy the spectacle of Kenny Shopsin busting his son’s (and sometimes customer’s) chops. There will be a line for weekend brunch, as the place has a cult following.

At Brooklyn Taco you can enjoy creative takes on traditional tacos and tamales while sipping Mexican sodas or Blue Bottle coffee. On weekends they make breakfast tacos. And they’ve got a counter with three seats, so there’s always the chance of securing one.

Those are the only vendors who offer seating, though the market provides a few booths along its north wall.  Finding an empty spot can sometimes be a challenge. When I’m by myself I’ll eat while wandering from stall to stall shopping.

On to coffee: Porto Rico Imports offers various drip coffees and espresso drinks, along with muffins. Pain d’Avignon serves espresso, in addition to selling a variety of bread and baked goods (croissants, petits pains au chocolat and the like).

Heritage Meat Market. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Heritage Meats sources their bread from Pain d’Avignon, using it and the wonderful cured meats they sell to craft a variety of sandwiches. Prices range from $3 for a mini-baguette sandwich up to $12 meal-sized sandwiches. Imagine the kind of sandwich you’d find at a posh deli or a wine bar and you’re in the ballpark, yet a number of them are priced within a student’s budget. Catering sized sandwiches will soon be available.

If you’re not in the mood for meat, award-winning Saxelby Cheesmonger offers sandwiches of their award-winning cheeses on award-winning Sullivan St Bakery bread. They’re in the process of adding a Panini press to their counter, making grilled cheese sandwiches an option in the near future.

Ni Japanese Deli. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Ni Japanese Deli, the market’s newest vendor, also sells sandwiches, vegan and otherwise, as well as tea drinks and some Japanese grocery items. But the real excitement of this tiny stall is their selection of Japanese home cooking and health food dishes. Many of us know where to find popular Japanese restaurant foods, but items like saba no miso (braised mackerel in miso glaze)? Burdock and lotus root salad? Onigiri (rice balls)? These are real finds in our neighborhood, and their selection of vegetable-heavy options changes daily. Ni seems as yet undiscovered – I think they’re still in the soft opening stage – so consider yourself among the first to know.

If Greek holds more appeal than Japanese Ni’s next-door neighbor, Boubouki, will satisfy: one woman, one oven and a selection of baked goods including spinach pie, flatbread and desserts. Savory and sweet are done equally well here. Those looking for classic American bake sale items, like cookies and cupcakes can see what home made sweets are available at the LES Girls’ Club’s stall.

The market’s 7PM closing time (some vendors close earlier) disqualifies it as a nightlife destination. For many, dining here will take the form of a weekend lunch or brunch. (Those with free time on a weekday can pretty much have run of the place). Regardless of when you go you’ll find the Essex Street Market is loaded with character, which has always been part of the shopping experience. Today it’s part of the dining experience as well.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

 

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Domaine Boudau, Clot del Pila, les Cargilines, Cotes du Roussillon, 2009 ($12 at Seward Park Liquors) is an approachable French red that pairs well with the meaty stews and roasts this season seems to call for. It starts off fruit driven, flattens out, then ends with just enough tannins to suggest elegance. A powerful wine (you can taste the Grenache) perfect for a cool evening.

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