Over the past five years, pop-up holiday markets in the city’s larger public spaces (Union Square, Bryant Park, Columbus Circle) have become progressively monochrome, the Brooklyn-handicraft version of the tube-sock street fair. What were once venues for unique creative endeavors are now awash with the same five booths—hilariously screenprinted baby onesies, beaded jewelry straight out of summer camp, hand-carved Peruvian wooden wine boxes, framed illustrations torn from old science textbooks and purses made from license plates—repeating over and over like an M.C. Escher nightmare.
Paradoxically, the food options at these fairs have been getting better and better. Much as summertime events like Mad Sq. Eats and the Hester Street Fair have bested plain old street fairs by acting as incubators for small businesses and emphasizing variety over sheer abundance, so too do the holiday food vendors outshine their surroundings. No longer just a sugar-rush ghetto on the outskirts of town (though don’t worry, there are still plenty of sweets), these are bona fide food courts—with seating, even!
Now, if you spend too long ogling the hand-carved wind chimes, you have somewhere to restore your faculties—and maybe decide on a few edible gifts instead. Here are some of the best bets around town:
Taste of Persia (Union Square) undersells at the same time that they massively over-advertise—their menu is nonexistent save for a couple of scrawled-on styrofoam cups taped to the side of the booth (small and large, with prices. Meanwhile, the accolades they received from their appearance at the market last year literally paper the walls. The menu is secondary, really, as all they sell is a handful of soups, chief among them the “Persian vegetable noodle soup,” another remarkable understatement. (This glory has a proper name, ashreshteh, but that was apparently too much marketing for these guys.) The soup is rich and thick, but what really makes it is the à la minute assemblage of toppings afterward. From a compartmentalized condiment tray, spoonfuls of garlic, a yogurt-like whey and fried mint, black as night, add a welcome bitter, fragrant edge to an otherwise mellow cup. Eat it immediately—the toppings do not travel.
The bratwursts at German Delights (Columbus Circle) are to street hot dogs what the neighboring booths’ vintage subway map mugs are to a street fair’s plastic piña colada horns: higher quality, classier and way less embarrassing to carry around. Though the preparation is minimal and very street-dog-like—your options for topping are sauerkraut and mustard, though they are better versions of both—the robust flavor of the sausage shines through, making embellishments a moot point. Unless you’re willing to trek up to Yorktown, there are very few sources for fuss-free German fare in the city; take advantage of this one while you can.
The winner for most original vendor is Bryant Park’s Daisy’s Grits, the “only grits shop in the entire world and all of explored space,” according to them. I believe it. There aren’t many people who would stake their livelihoods on selling gussied-up versions of the Southern staple—options include Cantonese crab and vegan meatball—but bless their hearts, they’ve gone and made it a hit. Some flavors work better than others, and you’re generally better off erring on the side of tradition—creole chicken and collard greens are particularly good—but if you’re not sure, there’s always the option to add a pile of cheese (their words!) for $1. Now that’s money well spent.
For several years now, the good people at Stuffed Artisan Cannolis (Union Square) have been hoping theirs would be the next sweet nothing to hit the big time. After having suffered through the cupcake, mini cupcake, macaron and cake pop trends, we feel the same way. Their version of the old-school favorite is smaller than the one you might find on Arthur Avenue but not so small as to be foolishly “mini”; they’re just big enough to try a couple of flavors without having to roll yourself home. Oh, that’s right—did I not mention the flavors? In addition to good old-fashioned vanilla, seasonal flavors include pumpkin pie, eggnog and peppermint bark. Grab a box for your next holiday party and get ready to outshine all those who brought cupcakes.
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