Here’s What a Week of Gorging at Mad Sq Eats Looks Like
Every Friday we go south of the ML boundaries in search of a delicious lunch. Sometimes it’s Murray Hill south or the Flatiron District, sometimes Gramercy and everything in between- but we just like to call it Flatiron Lunch.
Today marks the end of week one of Mad Sq Eats, and I have been almost every day since it opened…because, you know, here at Midtown Lunch, we do stuff like this for
ourselves you, the readers. For those of you not yet familiar with Mad Sq Eats (where have you been during all of our previews), it is the twice yearly festival in the shadow of the Flatiron Building where restaurants set up tents in Worth Square, the triangle between 5th Ave and Broadway and 25th and 24th Streets. Every year, the festival has a nice balance of different cuisines and types of eateries, as well as some returning favorites and some newcomers, and this spring’s edition continues this tradition, with Marimekko tablecloths, umbrellas and all. The kind folks over at Mad Park News were nice enough to round up most of the menus here: Keep in mind that some of the menus have already or might change, so best to use it as a guide to get you hungry to hit the tents, and once you are there let your eyes and stomach make the decisions.
While I haven’t been able to try everything in the ML price range, I have made a pretty signficant dent. Last year, Clay wrote and photographed some very serious posts about his significant finds during the run of the spring and fall festivals, and I don’t blame him – the options and the crowds made me want to try as much as humanly possible. Since several of the vendors are repeat offenders from last fall or spring, I made an effort, like Clay, to patronize some of the newer vendors at least in the beginning.
The first thing I tried was from newcomer Mayhem and Stout. They are offering three different sandwiches; Short Rib/Brisket ($10), Pork Shoulder ($9) and Chicken Thigh ($8) with your choice of a sauce (Asian Style BBQ, Blueberry Thai Hot Sauce with Sriracha (eh?!?!), Bacon Poblano Horseradish Cream, or Pomegrante Mustard) and a topping (Pickled Onion, Spicy Slaw, Jalapeno Escabeche, Shaved Brussel Sprout with Mint and Lemon, or Shaved Radishes with Orange and Tarragon.) They seem to regularly be out of one or two of the three types of meats, so it is better if you don’t go with your heart set on a particular sandwich.
The only option available when I was ordering was the Pork Shoulder Sandwich($10). Based on the recommendations of the guy behind the counter, I went with the Bacon Poblano Horseradish Cream and Pickled Onions. The roll was nice soft yet crispy on the outside and fairly large. The pork was tender and flavorful, especially combined with the Cream and the Onions. All the necessary items were there for a great sandwich, the only problem I saw was that the sandwich was understuffed. Perhaps this was a preventative measure to make sure they didn’t run out of the only type of meat they had remaining, but I would have been happier if the meat to bread ratio was more balanced.
Another newcomer I tried early on was Gravy who premiered with at least six items. But apparently I wasn’t quick enough, because within four days they had already cut back the menu to about three items. (I am still kicking myself for not getting the Crab Toast when I had the chance.) They encouraged me to go to the restaurant just a few blocks away for the Crab Toast, but that defeats the spirit of Mad Sq Eats (and I told them that.)
They also happened to be sold out of the Crawfish Fritters when I was there (double bummer), but they seemed excited about the Fried Chicken so I gave it a go. For $6, the order came with 6 perfectly crispy fried chicken wings. This isn’t the light and flakey kind of fry but the heavy super-crunchy kind. And since hot sauce (I was pretty sure it was just hot sauce and not buffalo sauce) was served on the side, the wings stayed very crispy. All I did to enjoy was dip them in the hot sauce.
I have managed to try three different arancinis from Arancini Bros. Without getting too much into Italian (which I don’t actual speak), I do know that Arancini are fried rice balls with delicious fillings, and they have that name since they look like oranges. Arancini Bros have a huge list of different flavors, but they are rotating 5 of them in each day to day. It seems like they regularly have the ragu and nutella.
Speaking of the ragu arancini…it was outstanding! The rice was soft and melted together. The ragu had a great balance of meat and sauce. And there seemed to be melted cheese throughout. I actually had it twice because two different friends wanted to try it, but of course, I didn’t discourage that second purchase.
The spinach feta combination was also tasty, but the feta lacked the same gooey effect of the cheese I enjoyed so much in the ragu arancini. On the other hand, it was definitely a lighter option if that’s what you are looking for as the days get hotter.
And the “World Famous” nutella arancini was just disappointing to me. I love love love nutella, but that also means I am comparing all foods prepared with nutella to nutella on toast or spoon. With the nutella not coming through that strong and the disjointed taste of the rice and nutella, I would have rather they didn’t waste the nutella.
Another newcomer, but this one is not from Brooklyn or Queens, is Antica Focacceria di San Francesco – an Italian institution located in the heart of Palermo known for their spleen sandwich. (I know this fact, not because they are offering it here (sorry!), but because I had the joy of eating there last summer. If you get the chance to have try the spleen focaccia in Palermo, or one of their outposts in Rome, Milan or Naples, eat it quickly! It is delicious warm, but not so much cold. I digress.) If you are wondering what they are doing in the Flatiron, you are wondering the right thing, since they do not have a New York outpost. According to the staff, they were simply invited to join the festival, and they said yes. (My theory: they are testing our market for a US expansion.)
One of the Sicilian specialties they are serving is the Sfincione ($6), a traditional Sicilian pizza with tomato sauce, onion, bits of anchovies, caciocavallo cheese, and bread crumbs. At the festival, it is served on the cold side and not out of the oven. My friend was surprised and thought it should warm. The dough was super spongy, and almost undercooked. Different slices have different amount of toppings, especially a corner vs. an edge, so don’t be shy, and ask for the slice that looks best to you. Based on size alone, this is by far one of the best deals in the whole market!
They are also offering a norma pasta ($10), including a large sign below the register that explains the history of the dish and how it got its name. The eggplant was outstanding and crispy (I later read the menu that said it was fried – smart!) and flavorful. The ricotta salata was necessary for salty balance, but the rest of the dish was lacking. The pasta was too soft (not surprising for an outdoor festival) and the sauce didn’t blow me away.
The last dish I tried from Anticia Focacceria was the Pane E Panelle ($6), which is a sesame roll filled with flat chickpea fritters, a hearty squeeze of lemon and salt. The chickpea fritters are serious competition for the other fried chickpea patty, falafel. I got this sandwich during a downtime at the festival, so it seemed that the roll had been sitting under the heat lamps a little too long since the edges were beyond crispy into crunchy territory. I would be interested to try it again with fresher roll.
This festival, Eataly is offering a few variations on fried dough for $10 or under. They have a few deep fryers in the back, where the dough takes a bath and then is displayed on brown craft paper, with the grease soaking through. It makes the whole display look very tempting.
My friend and I opted for the M’Buttunata ($10), which is a calzone that is stuffed and then deep fried. The flavors are all great (not surprising considering they have Rossopomodoro chefs preparing the food), and who doesn’t love fried dough. But I have to take back my use of the word “stuffed” though, since the fillings are inadequate. There might be some special proportion going on here that I don’t get where if you get them too full they don’t taste right, but really, for $10, I wanted more!
The last thing I had at my most recent visit was probably my single favorite item so far. It was something I grabbed on my way out when I wasn’t quite full and it was cheap enough ($5) to not feel bad about. The Tostilocos from Mexicue!! For those of you familiar with a Frito Pie, this is a much better version! For those of you not familiar, a Frito Pie is basically a bowl of chili with Fritos underneath to add crunch and flavor.
What Mexicue offers is the actual bag of Fritos, with the sides rolled down a little, topped with (almost) whatever you want. They seem to allow you one type of meat (I went with brisket), but unlimited choices of the toppings in the booth, so, of course, I did the works (cotija cheese, red cabbage slaw, guacamole, lime crema, pickled jalepenos, and a lime wedge)! They hand you the bag with all the stuff in it and a fork. Ay Dios Mio, it was delicious! My friend, who previously stated how full she was and couldn’t eat anything else, kept stealing bites from me.
If I am Jerry Springer giving my final thoughts on the first week of Mad Sq Eats, I would say that Flatiron Lunch is, without a doubt, a happier place with the presence of the festival. That is not to say that there aren’t some misses, and there are certainly a few signs of “small portion” epidemic. Despite my best efforts to stay away from the regulars of the festival, I couldn’t resist the pull of Roberta’s Bee sting pizza, which continues to be one of the best items offered. You still have 3 more weeks to partake in the fun happening in Worth Square, so until next time, take care of yourselves and each other by enjoying Mad Sq Eats.
Mad Sq Eats, Worth Square, just west of Madison Square Park at 24th Street and 5th Avenue).Through June 1st.