The Ninth Avenue International Food Festival has been a New York City tradition since it began in 1973. Admission to the festival is free and the samples from participating vendors range from $1.00 to $5.00. The fair begins at 10am and shuts down at 5pm. This year, the festival ran from 42nd street up to 57th street on 9th Avenue, the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen is known for having a melting pot of cultures and this is exactly what the international food festival represents. This is the first year I attended the festival and there may only be few reasons to go back. The street is filled with tables set up by local restaurants, vendors, and your run-of-the-mill carnival games. Many of the stands are repeated along the 15 blocks so it can be a bit tedious after a while. It would be wise to walk the entire length of the fair before deciding what you subsequently want to spend your money on. I avoided the drab carnival carts that sell your typical funnel cakes, butterfly fries, cotton candy, and everything under the sun that can be deep-fried and coated in powdered sugar. My focus was geared toward the independent restaurants featuring their top menu items. Here is what I ultimately decided to save room for:
The first table I came across was Empanada Mama, an establishment with home cooked empanadas. I LOVE empanadas of any kind so this was without a question a table I would stop at. These looked so good at first glance and the taste did not fail to deliver. The restaurant was offering their empanadas for $3.00 each. I chose to sample the Brasil empanada which is a traditional Brazilian-style empanada filled with ground beef, green olives, sautéed onions and potatoes. I must say it was delicious. It was not too heavy or greasy at all and the olives added a nice complexity to an otherwise unoriginal flavor scheme. Empanada Mama’s menu offers a variety of empanadas from spicy chicken to pepperoni pizza. They make dessert empanadas filled with figs, caramel and cheese, peanut butter and bananas, and even apples and cinnamon, to name a few. Empanada Mama also offers oven-baked wheat flour empanadas for the more health conscious bunch. This is one place I would go back to for lunch or a quick snack.
The next sampling table that really caught my attention was much different from the others in that it offered a modern-chic table set-up for customers to eat comfortably. This resturant was Chimichurri Grill: Nuevo Argentine Cuisine. They offered bite-sized pieces of churrasco with red or green chimichurri for $1.00. Churrasco is grilled or pan-fried skirt steak. Hanger steak is another popular cut that is often used. Other offerings included a sandwich with sliced churrasco, roasted red peppers and chimichurri on a ciabatta roll. I meant to come back for this sandwich but I was side-tracked by all the food that was ahead. I would like to come back for dinner one night in the future.
Next stop, Dalton’s. This was my first disappointment. I saw that they were offering a pulled-pork sandwich which sold for $5.00. Shortly after ordering, I realized the pig they were using in the sandwich was being cooked on a rotisserie and not in a smoker. That is the first sign that I should have run the other way, and fast. The sandwich was substandard and I was not at all impressed. The pork was dry and suffered from a serious flavor deficiency. The barbeque sauce they served tasted like bottled supermarket brand. If they were not going to go the homemade route, they could have at least used a tastier bottled brand. Even somebody who knows nothing about barbeque would understand that this sandwich was just wrong. It was a huge two thumbs down. I do not see the pulled-pork on the menu featured on their website. Maybe they received awful feedback and decided against it. Maybe it is just something they serve at the festival, though I don’t see why they would choose to promote this sad sandwich as a way to represent their establishment.
It doesn’t even look good.
My next stop led me to Ember Room, a restaurant that could be described as Asian-fusion. I was tempted to try their BBQ meatballs because they looked really good but I decided to sample the shrimp satay instead. I had already eaten enough carne and the shrimp was calling out to me. It was a grilled, skewered shrimp and before serving, the cook asked if I wanted it spicy. This just meant he would dip the skewer in Sriracha, a Thai hot sauce, if you so pleased. Obviously, I wanted mine spicy. I love spicy. The shrimp exuded a good flavor and had a slight crunch from the grill. It was simple, nothing spectacular, but still tasty. Ember Room also had beverages available. The particular beverage that grabbed my attention was their Lychee Matcha Tea. I am still kicking myself for not trying this tea but I can always go back and stop in for a taste. The regular menu looks great and they have, my favorite, Shishito peppers as a side dish. I would love to stop at Ember Room for dinner one night and have the ability to give you a follow-up review.
Walking along, I came across a man selling 100% natural shea butter from Africa. I had to have some and for only $5.00 a tub, I bought two. Normally, shea butter I find at the stores is extremely greasy and I never end up using it. This shea butter is completely different; my guess is because it isn’t processed and doesn’t contain an array of additives. I have used it every day since I purchased it from the festival and my skin is ridiculously soft. This shea butter has healing powers, I promise you.
The next place my taste buds led me to was Millie’s Pierogi, a Massachussets-based business. Millie’s does not have an actual store but they do sell their products in markets and fairs around the Northeast. They also ship goods that can be ordered from their website. The first time I tasted a pierogi it was love at first bite. Who doesn’t love a dumpling of pillowy-goodness, especially one filled with potatoes? I ordered three pierogies, two filled with potato and cheese, and one prune-filled pierogi. I thought they were good and the dumpling dough was nice and chewy. They had a good crust which is essential to any pierogi. I enjoyed them, but it just may be that it is really hard to mess up a pierogi; I can’t say, but I do know that I have never met one I didn’t like.
Uncle Nick’s was the next place I chose to sample. They offer Greek cuisine and featured a whole baby pig on the spit along with some lamb bits. I ordered the lamb souvlaki which was wonderfully flavorful and tender. For $3.00 this was a great buy. The souvlaki was served with a piece of bread. This is the way most street vendors in New York City serve their souvlaki. The bread does a beautiful job at soaking up the flavorful juices from the lamb. When I glanced at the plates of people enjoying their lunch at Uncle Nick’s, everything looked worthy of a return to the restaurant.
I stopped at Brickyard Gastropub, not only because I love the name of this establishment (the Gastropub part), but also because their asiago and asparagus wrapped in phyllo dough quickly drew me in. They offered these little treats for $3.00 so you can’t really go wrong…or can you? This item was just ehh. There was not enough flavor. The cheese was too mild and the phyllo was too greasy. Something like this needs a sharper cheese; otherwise, the flavors are all too bland and monotonous. The rolls were drizzled with a balsamic reduction. This was a pleasant addition but it would have been much better contrasting a saltier cheese.
Though there is little to be desired, there are also a few gems hidden in a mess of mediocrity. The few good places that are involved in the festival are worth showing up for. The following is to showcase much of what the Ninth Avenue Food Festival has to offer: food, dance, souveniers and much more.
and of course, a shout out to my city ♥
© 2011 Xristina Marie