Every town and neighborhood has its one local market that is categorized by its charm. It's probably small enough so you can get to know your vendors, but also large enough to hold everything you need. For Spanish Harlem, that market is La Marqueta.
La Marqueta is one of the oldest landmarks in East Harlem and to this day, continues to be a trademark spot for Harlemites and New Yorkers alike. The 80,000-square-foot market is separated by six parcels divided by intersecting streets and stretches from 111th street to 116th underneath the metro rail north line on Park Avenue. It was first established in 1936 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to control the numerous pushcarts and vendors that piled the streets of East Harlem with their various produce, fruits, vegetables and homemade breads. Since then, La Marqueta has had its ups and downs--including a fire that destroyed one of the markets in 1977--but regardless, the market has remained a place for all people to shop and interact with vendors, buying the best local produce and locally grown vegetables East Harlem has to offer.
More recently, the city council of New York instituted within La Marqueta, a 3,000-square-foot kitchen space and a 1,600-square-foot bakery space specifically designated as an incubator program for Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit program that trains low-income immigrant women in culinary skills. The small and shared workplace is geared towards making that transition from home-kitchen to local business much smoother than most while providing technical assistance as needed. The windows enclosing Hot Bread Kitchen are glass, which provide a small glimpse into the kitchen for those passing through La Marqueta an additional sweet treat to all the different kinds of food and drink offered by vendors.
Speaking of vendors, there is a vast array of merchants selling their goods, including La Bodega Gourmet, Urban Garden Center, Velez Groceries, Viva Produce, W.E. Meats and Fish Distribution and Breezy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill. On a recent trip to La Marqueta last week, I discovered one of the sweetest treats I've ever had : a homemade empanada stuffed with cookie dough and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Far from its savory counterparts of chicken, beef, pork and vegetables, this "dessert" empanada had my mouth watering from the beginning. Breezy Hill has been in business for the past 25 years, owned and operated by Elizabeth Ryan in the historic Hudson Valley of New York. Growing more than 100 varieties of apples and other fruit, their specialty certainly lies in such, with fresh apple cider being one of their most popular items. However, with the empanadas fresh out of the oven, I simply couldn't resist.
Flaky crust, hot chocolate sauce dripping down my lips and a warm, doughy center of cookie dough, this empanada was out of this world, definitely in the running for "best dessert category," if there ever was one. Surprisingly, the empanada was not overpoweringly sweet, which must be due to the flavor of the empanada dough, rather than the filling. Tasting like a traditional savory empanada, the dough was delicate in flavor, complementing the richness of the cookie dough filling. Sprinkled with sea salt, the chocolate flavor was intensely deep and heavenly. Each bite turned out to be a surprise, your taste buds first hit with salt then an explosion of the cookie dough. Devoured in a number of minutes, the empanada was reminiscent of my childhood, seeing as I devilishly licked my fingertips to sop up the last traces of chocolate. I left La Marqueta happily satisfied, rejoicing in the fact I only have to walk a few blocks to snag another warm batch of cookie-dough filled empanadas.
Check back next week, when we highlight another vendor of La Marqueta.
Photos: Allana Mortell