The new incarnation of Essex Market was so packed during its grand opening Saturday that one could barely walk down the crowded aisles of the modern, atrium-like space. Beyond the main entrance on the corner of Delancey and Essex, we were engulfed by the line for cupcakes at Sugar Sweet Sunshine, which now has a stall there in addition to their 16-year-old store on Rivington Street.
Across the aisle, we were waved over by Essex Olive and Spice owner Saad Bourkadi, whom we had met at the closing of the 79-year-old market’s former former home, across the street, two weeks ago. He was excited to show us his new booth. “It’s been wonderful to see my customers come back,” Bourkadi told us. “And I love all new ones I’ve met today.”
We also said hi to Luis Rodriguez of Luis Meat Market, whose long line of display cases looked worthy of his reputation. There was more butchering nearby at Essex Street Shambles, whose manager Rico Cirignano graciously posed with the hind half of one of the locally-sourced whole animals that its eight-year-old Harlem shop is known for. “It’s good to get out your neighborhood sometimes,” said Cirignano, who lives uptown by the main store. “I last lived downtown 18 years ago and it changed a lot.”
After grabbing a couple of the free Essex Market tote bags that were given out by volunteers from the Lower Eastside Girls Club, we headed up to the indoor promenade where sunshine pouring through a wall of windows, onto the market’s seating area. It was a warn setting for the brief speeches made by LES Partnership director Tim Laughlin, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin. Chin greeted her culturally diverse audience in English, Spanish and Chinese.
The ceremony was followed by a performance by Junktown Duende, who told a urban folktale featuring legendary “Loisaida” characters such as poet Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas and Adela Vargas, the owner of Puerto Rican restaurant Casa Adela who passed away last year. Afro-Dominican jazz quartet Yasser Tejeda & Palotre rounded out the afternoon’s entertainment with two sets that brought out dancers of all ages. While thanking his audience, frontman Tejeda told them “we’re proud to be here because it’s about the community; not only Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, but everyone. We are all immigrants under one roof sharing dances and smiles.”
Also upstairs is Essex Kitchen, designed for hosting food events and cooking workshops. There, we caught a tasting by Samesa, the Williamsburg-based modern Middle Eastern takeout spot that just opened a stall in the market. Co-owners Max and Eli Sussman talked about their modern take on chicken shawarma and shared samples of it along with a vegetarian version and avocado hummus on a pumpernickel pita. Outside the Kitchen, we met illustrator Aaron Meshon who was helping children color the drawing he made to celebrate his interior mural right above us. Meshon, who lived in the area for a decade, said he was “blown away” to have been selected via a contest held by the Market.
Hungry for a meal of our own, we tried some Italian meatballs from Mille Nonne, Thai fried chicken from Eat Gai and an aptly-named “Big Kahuna.” sandwich from Heros and Villians.
We brought it all to the centrally located Top Hops Beer Shop, a quaint stall with six beers on tap and a selection of 15 session cans. Top Hops owner Ted Kenny, whose main location is nearby at 94 Orchard, enjoyed a beer with us and talked about his plans for the new stall. “We’re going to concentrate on local NY brewers for our draft selections and soon we’re going to have canned growlers [aka crowlers], which is still a new thing right now.”
Walking off our feast, we noticed that the line at Domincan Cravings had never ceased the whole time we’d been running around. Waiting for an empanada, Lower East Side native Marlene Albanese, who recently returned to the neighborhood after spending 30 years in Queens, explained the food’s appeal. “There’s pride in supporting the Lower East Side and [Cravings owner] Manny so that everyone succeeds. These empanadas are really good and as a New Yorker I would never stand on line unless they were really good.”
Though we were absorbed in Essex Market’s future, we took a moment to acknowledge the past by stopping into Cuchifritos Gallery, whose staff was settling into the new space ahead of their inaugural show, “Keep Me Nearby,” which opens on May 31. It tells the story of the displaced residents whose homes were condemned in 1967 to make way for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA, which didn’t materialize until Essex Crossing emerged almost 50 years later. The two-month exhibition will feature Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani‘s book on the subject and photographer Nick Lawrence‘s photos of the residences before they were razed. According to the gallery, walking tours hosted by SPURA-era activists will “culminate with a conversation about this old, new place.”