December 18, 2019
THE 10 BEST DISHES AT LES’S SPRAWLING NEW ESSEX CROSSING
Essex Market and the Market Line now have dozens of food options, and Eater critic Robert Sietsema picks his favorites
By Robert Sietsema - Eater New York
Essex Market opened in 1940, one of four indoor markets on the Lower East Side alone that were spawned by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s hatred for outdoor pushcarts. It’s one of the few left, due to its evolution into an agreeable mix of local neighborhood vendors over the succeeding decades — though now, the market has moved into a far splashier space inside Essex Crossing, a Lower East Side mixed-use development that’s something like Hudson Yards.
The new development, towering and well-windowed instead of crowded and dark, provides space for dozens of vendors — both in the new Essex Market and in a downstairs space called the Market Line. Options upstairs include retailers of candy, spices, flowers, and baked goods; mini-restaurants including Shopsin’s General Store; a beer bar; and a broader range of food-selling establishments than the old market. Downstairs is more like a conventional food court than a market. I recently visited both levels of the development at Essex and Delancey many times to figure out the stand-outs among the stalls upstairs and downstairs that offer prepared foods.
Yes, a couple of good cheap options remain among the upstairs market stalls, including a fishmonger and a pair of vegetable stands. But at most of the new counters, the average price of goods has soared, and the bargain aspects of the old market have largely vanished. A pair of cheese counters, for example, offer products that run to $25 a pound and more, while one butcher offers case after gleaming case of pricey boutique meats.
Essex Market now seems geared to attract tourists rather than regular shoppers; a portion of the upstairs space is already devoted to prepared foods in the usual food court price range. One might assume that the number of prepared food vendors will increase gradually, as it did at Chelsea Market, until Essex Market becomes more food court than market. Naturally, the old Essex Market structure is slated to be torn down and replaced by a high-rise condo.
The basement-level Market Line — which currently hosts some 20 vendors in a spacious sea of concrete, with space for more vendors — also seems like a challenge to the ground-floor Essex Market, though it’s supposed to complement it.
What’s the difference between the two levels? At the Market Line, many vendors are offshoots of well-known restaurants, including Veselka, Pho Grand, Tortilleria Nixtamal, and Schaller & Weber. Others are seen already in other food courts, such as Kuro Obi and Nom Wah, plus the space contains a few actual restaurants with extensive seating, such as the wine bar Peoples and the seafood restaurant Essex Pearl. Most of the establishments have at least counters with stools, and there’s plenty of open seating areas, making Market Line the more hospitable place to dine.
Nearly all of the seating at Essex Market, meanwhile, is on the second story above the market, though the views of the surrounding neighborhood are spectacular.
Note that the prices in both locations are at the usual elevated food court level, with full meals, sometimes smallish, often running around $14, plus beverages, tax, and tip; more food vendors will also be opening in the future, further east at the basement level.
I tasted many dishes upstairs and downstairs, with an eye out for bargains. Here are the 10 best I sampled, in ranked order. Based on my experience, I’d recommend dining upstairs at this point, for food that is quirkier and less predictable — and marginally less expensive.