Finally, Spring has arrived! The upturn in the weather has created a perfect excuse to ditch that winter coat and to venture out into the streets once again. Today I went to the Essex Street Market, which was a quaint little old school market down in the Lower East Side. Although a little far from the Columbia area, it’s easily accessible once you get onto the F train from 14th Street. The distance put me off a little, especially on a lazy and rainy Friday like this, but boy was I glad I made the trip.
Essex Street Market may not seem particularly interesting on the surface, and certainly lacks the glamor and sparkle of more well-known markets like Chelsea or Smorgasburg. But that’s just how I like it. It’s small, cramped but not crowded. It has a certain old-school charm. There are, in addition to the fresh produce stalls (which are pretty inexpensive), other speciality shops that sell anything from cheese to baked goods and coffee. Artisan but unpretentious.
I walked one round around the small market before deciding to check out this little eatery at the far corner, called Shopsin’s General Store. It was nondescript and you would have pegged it for a normal market diner place that sells greasy bacon and limp fries, but what I got was probably the best thing I had in New York, ever! The place is tiny and the menu is intimidating with its lack of pictures and tiny words squeezed onto two sides of a laminated piece of paper. The waiters won’t recommend you anything and if you ask them to, they’d say “my friend, we don’t recommend here”. I decided to go for pancakes, because why not?
I had no idea what I was in for. The pancakes came in a large tin cup, leaving me with no idea how to eat them. But when you decide to just dig in, that’s where the fun starts. Underneath the topmost pancake lie four mind-smashing, gut-busting layers of culinary awesomeness. Like rummaging through a treasure chest, you will find delicately tangy ricotta cheese, creamy scrambled eggs, and a crispy bacon “marmalade”, all wedged in between four PEANUT BUTTER CHIP pancakes that were remarkably fluffy and slightly crisp at the edges. For condiments, your personal bottle of maple syrup, and six (!) types of hot sauce to choose from. Sweet, sticky, savoury, spicy, and downright sinful. As Meghan Trainor would say, every inch of it is perfect from the bottom to the top!
The best thing for me was that I completely stumbled upon it. Not knowing that Shopsin’s is somewhat of a Lower East Side institution, I was glad that my food radar led me to this great place that I can now recommend to my friends. It’s not your friendly mom and pop place. It’s an eatery with an attitude. They do not accept parties of more than four, nor do they offer takeout, according to a Yelp review. If you’re up for some banter, the chef will ask you from his tiny kitchen, and the owner of the place walks around chatting with his patrons.
The eatery is only open five days a week (Wed-Sun) and only open for 5 hours from Wednesday to Saturday, and 4 hours on Sunday. And although it wasn’t cheap (my order was $24, before tax and tip), it is something special and worth absolutely every cent.
After that wonderful meal, I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything else in the market, even though everything else looked fantastic. There were tantalising bagels and beautiful baguettes, shops selling speciality sauces, cheap produce and fresh seafood. I decided I might end off my visit with some coffee from the Porto Rico Importing Co., which according to the website, has been operating since 1907!
The bottom line, the Essex Street Market is not one of the top things on any tourist’s list of New York attractions, but is, in my opinion, a true New York gem. It harkens back to an earlier era when prices were cheaper and businesses competed on the quality of their food, and not how well they dress it up, or whether they have a 10% discount if you check in on instagram. It may be small and a little far for Columbia students living near campus, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort, and is an absolute must if you find yourself in the Lower East Side or near Greenwich Village.