It is not often that I have to be talked into attending a food festival. (Indeed, some longtime readers of this blog have hinted that my entire life is a food festival.) But last month, when Angel suggested that we check out New York City's Grub Street Food Festival, I balked. A food festival in Key West or Charleston, sure. But a food festival in NYC -- home to 8 million people, 7.99 million of whom are obsessed with food -- sounded only slightly more fun than the subway ride we'd have to take to get there.
But the Grub Street festival is run by the website of the same name that obsessively tracks restaurant openings, closings, chefs-on-the-move, and other restaurant news in New York, and word was that many of the best eateries in the city would be making an appearance. And so we took the plunge, hoping that the out-of-the-way location at the Hester Street Market would keep the hordes at bay, despite the day's beautiful weather.
Angel mapped out our travel route, which involved taking the 6 train to Bleecker Street, then the F train to East Broadway. "Oh, East Broadway?" I laughed. "What's our stop, the Bermuda Triangle?" You see, many areas of New York City are unique in that they do not have an opposite-direction corollary. So there's a there's a Lower East Side, but there's no Lower West Side. There's a Central Park West, but no Central Park East. And there's Broadway and West Broadway, but there is no such thing as East Broadway.
We exited the subway at Platform 9¾ and were confronted with a criss-cross of street names that sounded like the roster at a fancy preschool -- Henry Street, Jackson Street, Montgomery Street. In 20 years of living in New York, I had never heard of a single one of them. "Where the hell are we -- Brooklyn?" I asked, my eyes darting around nervously. Then I saw a sign for Rutgers Street. "Oh, god," I wailed. "We're in Jersey?!?" The Bermuda Triangle was starting to look inviting.
In fact, we were in a sliver of neighborhood along the East River, south of the Lower East Side and east of Chinatown, between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. The Even-Lower East Side, maybe? East Chinatown? I didn't know, and apparently neither do the city's map-makers. What I did know was that we had stumbled into a not-quite-gritty, not-quite-gentrified neighborhood with a pretty park, friendly people, dozens of authentic Chinese restaurants, and a food festival with my name on it.
And after surveying the scene of 75 vendors to try in just 7 hours, I started to understand why they held this thing on a running track.
I mean, they couldn't even all fit in my photo.
Our first stop was right inside the entrance at Roberta's, a Brooklyn pizza-and-more joint that the stingy-with-the-compliments New York Times has described as "one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States," as well as "magic," "kitchen poetry," and "as pure an expression of new American cuisine as you are likely to find anywhere." But we weren't there for the new American food; we were there for the pizza, on which Roberta's built its considerable reputation. I mean, why else haul your own oven and a cord of wood to a food festival?
The crust was nicely blistered, the mozzarella beyond fresh. Plus the cashier was wearing this fabulously flamboyant fur, so all in all I am willing to concede that Roberta's was pretty good, though not Lombardi's good.
With Roberta's out of the way, we took a stroll around the festival to begin compiling a mental list of which stands we'd return to. Banana pudding marshmallows and short rib sliders, yes. Sardine butter sandwiches, no.
One of the spots we were most excited to check out was the Doughnut Plant, which is known for its delectable doughnuts in flavors like peanut butter & banana cream and vanilla bean & blackberry jam. Today's flavor, made specially for the festival, was coffee cake, which had a delicious crumb topping like a traditional coffee cake, but also contained freshly brewed coffee in both the dough and the filling.
We continued on our way, looking for sponge-worthy contenders.
Our next stop was at Empanina's, where Angel got shipwrecked and I threw a kale mary pass.
After pizza, doughnuts, and empanadas, it was obviously time for some bread. With meat and cheese, that is.
Because I myself have a number of food obsessions, one of the things I like best about the New York restaurant scene are those spots that specialize in a single dish or ingredient. And so there are restaurants that serve, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, a dozen varieties of macaroni and cheese, or 19 flavors of rice pudding, or nearly two dozen kinds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or 23 different preparations of mussels, or -- god help my already overtaxed arteries -- a spot that serves Southern-style biscuits with 22 different butter and spread options . . . 24 hours a day.
Little Muenster, however, has taken single-dish specialization to its ultimate conclusion, focusing exclusively on grilled cheese sandwiches . . . almost all of which feature the unsung hero of the dairy world, Muenster cheese.
The one we settled on was called "What's the Beef?" and featured braised beef cheek with cracked pepper mascarpone, pickled fennel, Old Bay, onion paste, and of course Muenster cheese, all griddled up on local peasant bread.
Eventually Angel decided it was time for a beer break, so we headed to the beer garden next door for some refreshments. Unfortunately, none of the brews appealed to him, so we popped across the street to a bar that could only be found on the Even-Lower East Side: Old Man Hustle.
Featuring cheap beer, free shots, an old-school cash register, and a XXX-Rated Chalkboard Pictionary night ("You'll never look at chalk the same way again"), Old Man Hustle was made for sketchy day-drinking.
And so we had a couple of cheap beers and I whooped Angel at three consecutive rounds of Connect Four.
Energized by my rousing victories, I dragged Angel back to the festival to see what else we could eat. That turned out to be crispy patatas bravas, spicy Thai noodles, sticky Korean fried chicken, pot-pie inspired chicken fingers, and a kimchi-pancake-battered corn dog, since everyone knows that it is against the law to leave a festival without having a corn dog.
Of course, I didn't actually eat all of that. At least not by myself.
After a few more laps around the track to aid with digestion, it was time to make a spreadsheet so we could decide on a dessert.
We eventually settled on the maple-bacon cupcakes. The contrast of sweet, moist cake and crispy, salty bacon was almost too much for my heart to bear. Literally.
Oh, and maple French toast and Mudslide cannolis. Sometimes that spare cow stomach of mine really comes in handy.
Inexplicably, the hands-down most popular stand at the entire festival was Oconomi, which serves, among other things, okonomiyaki. That unpronounceable delight means "what you like, grilled," and is a Japanese vegetable pancake that looks, deliciously, like fried cole slaw.
The okonomiyaki were inexpensive, but sadly, love is not.
Cafe Grumpy is featured prominently on the HBO hit, "Girls," a show I do not watch since I already did the whole, "I make $30,000 a year and my annual rent is $27,000" thing when I first moved to New York.
Cafe Grumpy's logo reminds me of a diner chain in Pennsylvania called Kings Family Restaurant. Kings' main rival is famous for its cheery Smiley Face cookies. Not to be outdone, however, Kings came up with its own "mean dessert."
That is a Frownie, a dozen of which is known as an Angry Mob. I think these cranky confections would be a big hit here. The Frownie is already the official facial expression of New York, so why not the official dessert?
On our way toward the exit we came upon La Newyorkina, which was selling mini cones of refreshing lime sorbet.
We nibbled our cones on the way out, enjoying the interesting cast of characters who'd flooded the festival as the day went on.
After exiting the festival, we stopped in the lovely park next door to take in the fall color.
We then made the short walk over to Malt & Mold, taking in the sights along the way.
Malt & Mold bills itself as "a neighborhood shop for beer and cheese," but in reality sells everything from local craft beers and hard-to-find cheeses to artisinal beef jerky, salsa, charcuterie, homemade ketchup, and small-batch bitters.
But let's not be coy. We were there for the free beer tasting.
As if to serve as a living reminder that the neighborhood is still up and coming, a rough-looking man stumbled into the shop during the beer tasting. "Beer? You got beer? Free beer?" he asked excitedly, clearly having had plenty of beer already. The attendant gave him a cup and he darted for the door. "Sir!" she called after him, "you have to drink that in here!" The man dramatically planted a single foot over the threshold, chugged his beer, tossed the cup in the trash, and ducked back out again, all in the blink of an eye.
Still, the place had its charms. Affordable legal help, for one thing.
We headed back uptown and, spurred on by a day of much food but little booze, dropped off our haul (which included a jar of salted-caramel peanut butter, a growler of Malt & Mold's Oktoberfest brew, and a sour-cherry-crumble pie) at home and set off in search of libations.
A few blocks from our apartment we found ourselves at La Cava, a cozy Spanish wine bar that's perpetually packed at night but happily uncrowded on a Sunday afternoon.
One glass of Albarino, one glass of Rioja, and two open seats at the bar, and in a single fleeting moment, a minor miracle occurred: Two New Yorkers couldn't find a single thing to complain about.
Want more NYC food adventures? Click here for more meatballs than you can shake a stick at (and some other stuff, too!).
Next up, we're off to Key West, where the temperatures were sweltering, the Prosecco was free-flowing, and a stranger's birthday present inexplicably ended up in my belly. Check back soon!