Eating Options in Midtown Manhattan

A large pie at Roberta's in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

A large pepperoni pie sans basil at Roberta’s in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

There are many reasons to hate midtown Manhattan. And I can only think of a handful of reasons to actually love it: MoMA, Carnegie Hall, and the Radio City Music Hall. Plus, it’s a tourist magnet, which keeps all those people away from our beloved neighborhoods.

Fortunately my concert sojourns, as rare as they may be these days, are conducted at off-peak hours. But MoMA has always been a bit of a struggle, because I usually hit that in the morning – during the less-trafficked Member Previews – and then I’m left looking for convenient feeding options in the area.

I used to go to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian, but that’s become a tourist attraction itself. They did have a food truck thing happening on East 48th Street for awhile. But there’s really nothing to eat – or at least nowhere you want to eat (the midtown outposts of places like John’s and Shake Shack are simply too heavily touristed) – in all of Midtown.

Fortunately, the success of the wonderful Smorgasburg and Urbanspace food markets has made it’s way into even the banal blocks of Midtown. On the East Side, there’s Urbanspace Vanderbilt, at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and East 45th Street. On the West Side, there’s City Kitchen, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street.

Urbanspace Vanderbilt
This little gem makes up for the demise of the food truck experiment. It’s bound to be packed at peak hours, but at least the feeders are more likely to be Midtown office workers than the tourist scum that surely fill the West Side alternative.

I’ve managed to make it in before the lunchtime rush. I had me a big old Roberta’s pizza pie, followed by a Dough doughnut for dessert. Incredible food, and at prices that are quite reasonable by Midtown standards.

City Kitchen
This is a much smaller option, though the fact that it’s located on the second floor and not street level might make it slightly less crowded. The downside, of course, is that its proximity to the fecal magnet that is Times Square will surely make it more of a tourist cesspool than it’s East Side counterpart.

I also stopped in prior to the lunch-hour madness. I had a great burger from a place called Whitman’s, and followed that up with a Dough doughnut as well. Again, great food at reasonable prices for the neighborhood.

Deep Fried Bacon

From left to right, local craft beer, roast pork drizzled with garlic, and deep-fried bacon at La Marqueta’s Vendy Plaza in Spanish Harlem on Sundays.

Yup, deep-fried bacon…just like Jesus intended. Lightly breaded bacon, slithered onto a stick, and gently nestled into a golden pool of boiling fat.

That’s just one of the many treats available at La Marqueta, the open-air market in Spanish Harlem. Every Sunday, starting at noon, an eclectic collection of food vendors gathers at Vendy Plaza, at Park Avenue and 116th Street, to offer up all sorts of tasty treats at affordable prices. It’s like Smorgasburg, or any of the New York City’s other weekly food events, but with three distinct differences: no lines, no ridiculous prices, and a live freakin band!

When Pigz Fly calls it chicken-fried bacon, and serves it with a side of gravy, but it’s basically deep-fried bacon on a stick.

I’ve written about this event already, but I’m writing again because I’ve discovered something truly delightful. One of the vendors, When Pigz Fly, has chicken-fried bacon. Those of you familiar with the Southern staple called chicken-fried steak will recognize this dish for what it really is: deep-fried bacon. And for $3, it’s a steal.

Lately I’ve been getting this as an appetizer and again as dessert, while my primary focus has been on the delicious roast pork…drizzled with garlic oil. That’s cheap, too. Something like $5, I think. The same price you’ll pay for a local craft beer, if you can believe it.

The roast pork is prepared Puerto Rican style by Angel Jimenez of La Pirana Lechonera, a South Bronx food truck (checkout the video on him below, from Liza Mosquito de Guia of Food. Curated.). Whatever tender loving care he gives this pig during the slow roasting in the wee hours ends with skilled but sudden slices of the machete, as he serves up perfect portions to salivating swine fiends like me.

And this isn’t some stale knockoff of the now ubiquitous Smorg machine, with the same vendors, long lines, and bleeding hipsters. These are real people, serving up stuff with appliances often on loan from their own personal kitchens. All to the accompaniment of a live band. It’s real. It’s local. And it’s delicious.

There is a Swine in Spanish Harlem

Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta is a weekly food festival in Spanish Harlem.

Vendy Plaza at La Marqueta is a weekly food festival in Spanish Harlem.

Well, I’m sure you can find a rose as well, but I’m talking about La Marqueta here. And specifically Vendy Plaza, a delightfully swine-centric event.

Vendy Plaza is located beneath the elevated tracks along Park Avenue between 115th and 116th Streets.

Vendy Plaza is located beneath the elevated tracks along the Park Avenue median between 115th and 116th Streets.

La Marqueta is a market under the Metro-North elevated rail line along the median of Park Avenue between 111th and 116th Streets in Spanish Harlem. It originated in the 1930s, as an informal gathering place for pushcart vendors – sort of an early Smorgasburg. By the 50s and 60s, it had become a thriving market with five enclosed buildings housing a variety of vendors. But things have been tough in Spanish Harlem, and today only one of those buildings remains functional.

Hope is on the horizon, though. The New York City Economic Development Council is trying to resurrect the market and create a centerpiece for the community. And, in doing so, they may have even found a way to bring tourists to the area as well.

Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ along with a local microbrew.

Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ along with a local microbrew.

Building on the success of El Boarrio at the Urban Garden Center this past fall, this summer they’ve created Vendy Plaza, a Sunday food fest complete with live music. It’s run by the folks behind the Vendy Awards, which recognize the best in the city’s food truck scene.

Every Sunday from now through Sept. 6, visitors can enjoy a variety of artisanal edibles and a rotating selection of New York’s best microbrews (they even set up a wine kiosk last time I was there) to the sound of a local band. It runs from 12-6 PM, though it’s best to arrive early as the best food – and the band – don’t necessarily last until the end.

Unless you already live in Spanish Harlem, your best is to take the 6 train to 116th and Lex and walk over to Park. While El Boarrio was located under the tracks just north of 116th Street, in the Urban Garden Center (which, incidentally, might be a good place to find a rose in Spanish Harlem), Vendy Plaza is an open space under the tracks south of 116th, running down to 115th Street. You can’t miss it. Just follow the music.

Pretty amazing cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen.

Pretty amazing cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen.

I’ve been twice already and enjoyed pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon from Walking Dog BBQ as well as some incredible roast pig. I also sampled some jerk goat but the purveyor was very apologetic because he had run out of food, as it was late in the day and this was his first time participating. I’ve also had some incredible cookies from The Girl in the Little Red Kitchen and good beer, too.

There’s certainly nowhere near as many vendors as you’ll find at Smorgasburg or even Madison Square Eats, but Vendy Plaza has been growing each week. And while I’m delighted by the amount of pork options available, as one would expect in Spanish Harlem, there are also vendors serving up fare from Central America and Southeast Asia as well.

As for the band, they are exactly what you’d expect from Spanish Harlem: horns, percussion, questionable outfits, and plenty of chatter amid the chaos between songs. But it really adds to the experience, and is something the other food festivals around the city could learn from.

Pig is the local flavor in Spanish Harlem, and the offerings at Vendy Plaza are delicious.

Pig is prevalent in Spanish Harlem, and the vendors at Vendy Plaza offer up some fine swine.

Tasty Eats & Artistic Treats

MSEfall14Do you remember me blathering on about Madison Square Eats? Well the mini-food fest in the heart of New York City is back this September. You can get your grub on from 11 AM to 9 PM daily through Oct. 2. It’s located just off Madison Square Park, where Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street meet.

Brooklyn is Abuzz
Photoville has set up shop on Pier 5 in the waterfront Brooklyn Bridge Park. This celebration of the art of photography will be open from 4 to 10 PM on Thursdays and Fridays and 12 to 8 PM on Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 28. They’ll also have a Smorgasburg Beer Garden on site, so you can take a break from looking at all those amazing images and enjoy the picture-perfect view of the lower Manhattan skyline across the river.

The DUMBO Arts Festival is back as well. There’s so much to see and experience, and it’s a great excuse to wander around DUMBO. Exhibits, performances, and public displays will be held at various locations around the neighborhood from Sept. 26-28. It’s one of those events that reminds you why you love to live in New York City.

The annual Atlantic Antic will also be on Sept. 28. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, it’s the largest and most eclectic street festival in the city. Extending along Atlantic Avenue from the Barclays Center to the waterfront, there will be plenty of food and fun for the entire family from 12 to 6 PM.

Feeling Horny
Did you know there is a Festival of New Trumpet Music? Well, there is, and it sounds awesome. Running through Sept. 28, it will feature a number of concerts at various New York City venues. You can find details here.

And speaking of obscure celebrations of brass instruments, be sure to check out the Honk Festival. Running from Oct. 13-18, it’s billed as the 8th annual convergence of brass and percussion ensemble musicians from the US and Europe. Like the aforementioned FONT, HONK features concerts in various venues around the city.

At Madison Square Eats you can get a personal pie from Roberta's, one of the finest in the city, starting at $9.

At Madison Square Eats you can get a delicious personal pie from Roberta’s, one of the finest in the city, starting at $9. Great food at reasonable prices!

 

Pork Belly on a Stick

PorkBellStickI never thought I’d utter the phrase “I guess I’ll have to settle for the pork belly,” and with a tone of disappointment in my voice. But I did just that a few weeks back at Smorgasburg (the final DUMBO day, before it abandoned the Tobacco Warehouse for an empty lot down by Pier 5), when I was told by the grillmasters at Inglorivs Yakitorivs that they were out of giant lamb chops.

I don’t know who these Inglorivs Yakitorivs cats are, as it was the first time I spotted them at the Smorg (though I did run into them last weekend at Pier 5). And they lack the fundamental decency of a Web site, thinking Facebook and Twitter will do (my dead pony has a Facebook page…that shit tells me nothing). Empirical evidence tells me that they do grilled meats, preferably on skewers – except for those lamb chops (which, sadly, they didn’t have at Pier 5 either). And the name suggests a mix of Asian and/or Eastern European influences, perhaps with an appreciation for Tarantino’s later work.

But what I do know, for a fact, is that their pork belly on a stick is literally divine: godlike; characteristic of or befitting a deity. I wanted to go back for another, but I foolishly decided to play it cool, not wanting to expose my gluttony (which reminded me of that line from Hey Jude: “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little less full of pork belly on a stick”).

Feeling a vast emptiness, I decided to Smorg again the following weekend, for the debut of the Pier 5 location, and try another pork belly skewer as well as one of those lamb chops. But Inglorivs Yakitorivs (a midfielder for the Hungarian national team in the early 50s?) was a no-show, so I had to settle for Maple Bacon on a stick from Landhaus, which was indeed delicious but like listening to a soloist when you were hoping for a symphony.

Inglorivs Yakitorivs also grills chicken innards, and appears to be fond of serving various chicken cartilages as well. But if you get a chance to sample the pork belly, I recommend it so highly that I’ll likely pass out due to a lack of oxygen. And if you get a chance to grab one of those lamb chops, please drop me a line to let me know how they are.