A bit over a year ago, I reviewed “New York Street Fairs,” using the Ninth Avenue International Food Festival as an example. That particular festival showcases “New York’s most diverse and interesting ethnic neighborhood.” Last year, I checked out Valducci’s square pizza, an apple tart from Mitchell London Foods, and a couple of items from Basera Indian Bistro. I went back a few months ago to see what this year offered, and to see how vegetarian-friendly the offerings were.
The short answer, of course, is that the food festival offered more of the same — most of the neighborhood restaurants are still around, and of course the “usual suspects,” the companies that seem to only exist to set up booths at street festivals and county fairs (funnel cake, I’m looking in your direction) were there as well.
My first stop was Zigolini’s, a little pizza shop on Ninth Avenue. My favorite item from Zigolini’s is actually not their pizza — they make a fantastic eggplant parm. The eggplant isn’t fried, so it isn’t greasy and heavy like most, and the sauce is incredibly vibrant. It’s served with some of their fantastic bread and can last you two meals, if you have the self-control.
But today I was not getting a stack of eggplant; I went instead with the caprese skewers. The name says it all — the usual ingredients of a “caprese” salad (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil) were arranged here on a skewer. Topped with a bit of olive oil and black pepper, and served with a few pieces of their amazing bread, this was a great little snack for a couple of bucks. I wonder why more places don’t have something like this on their menu as a starter — it’s got all of the ingredients that the caprese usually does, but in a much more user-friendly format.
I went a little ways down Ninth Avenue and stopped once more at Mitchell London Foods, just like I did last year, and just like I will seven months from now at next year’s fair. These guys are on the East Side, so I’m not exactly sure why they trek out to Ninth Avenue, but I’m glad they do. Their food is always interesting and classes up the usual street fair grub. For example, they had a vegetarian “slider”:
Eggplant, pesto, a slice of tomato, and some cheese, on a little brioche roll. So simple, yet so much better than most of the junk on offer. (I don’t say that to knock food that isn’t “good for you” — I love that stuff as much as the next guy — I mean food that is just mass-produced crap.)
Just as I did last year, I had the apple tart from Mitchell London. I said last year that it was “the best $3 (ish) dessert I’ve ever had,” and I stand by that assessment. Lots of places make apple desserts, and many of them are quite good, but these guys have hit the sweet spot of gourmet plus street food in a way that no one else I’ve seen really has (food trucks excluded).
I picked up one other snack to eat at home — chips and guacamole form Añejo. Añejo is a rather good Mexican restaurant just down the street on Tenth Avenue. They make their chips in-house and they’re generally pretty good. But this was just off-putting. The chips were way too greasy — maybe because they had to make a lot of chips in a short period of time for the street fair? — and the bag was so unappetizing. I did manage to make myself try at least one chip, and it would have been quite good, if it weren’t so greasy.
I was hoping the guac could salvage the chips, but no. The guac was mass-produced too, and it had that characteristic “smoothness” that tips you off that it’s been run through a blender or food processor, rather than made by hand in a molcajete. Now I get it; there are thousands of people at the fair, and you can’t spend ten minutes per person making guac. But if I were Añejo, I would just not serve guac, rather than serve this mush. (I have had the guac at the restaurant, and it’s actually quite good.)
So where does that leave the Ninth Avenue International Food Festival? I’d say last year’s advice still holds: “street fairs are a great opportunity to snag some good, cheap vegetarian food — but not all vegetarian street food is created equal, so try to be a little discerning.” To that I’d add, you can’t go wrong with Mitchell London.
What’s your favorite vegetarian street food — in NYC or elsewhere?