The monthly Uptown Night Market launched its first full season in style last week, as thousands of Harlem locals and destination diners packed themselves under the Arches of Harlem for an evening of food, music, community and culture.
"It feels amazing to back," Marco Shalma, the founder and owner of MASC Hospitality Group, told Gothamist on opening night. "We have lots of new vendors, lots of first-time vendors, and this is something that we love to do, to support small, up-and-coming businesses, especially those run by people of color, immigrants, an LGBTQIA community. And in every event we do we make sure that at least 60% of the vendors are local. We work really hard to ensure that the community feels like we're doing something that belongs to them."
More than 50 vendors were on hand for the opener, led by familiar favorites like Arnie and Ebony's flame-painted truck, which fed what they call "the best soul food in Harlem" to a steady stream of takers; La Braza's double-wide grill and griddle setup, firing up a variety of Ecuadorian bites; and chef Tami Treadwell's bright-red solar-powered rig, Harlem Seafood Soul, which among other delights serves up a mean plate of Shrimp and Grits.
One of my personal top picks here remains chef Janae Bullock's Fried Lasagna Mama stand, where you can get a deeply satisfying slab of her namesake pasta, gooey with three cheeses, deep fried to order, then smothered in sauce. You can never go wrong with a platter of jerk chicken from Treat Yourself, and the meaty, smoky skewers from Yakitori Katsu always make for a solid snack.
But I spent most of opening night trying out vendors that were new to the Harlem festival. Last seen up in the Bronx, the delightful 2 Belize Girls have added some excellent Conch Fritters to their menu of Garnaches and Salbutes. Chef Sebastian Palafox brings his hefty, Mexican-style sausage sandwiches all the way from Puerto Vallarta to the Perros Locos tent.
Another Uptown Night Market newbie, Fuel Pax Foods, has a full menu of plant-based dishes, including Vegan Yarola, a stuffed plantain that nails the sweet-savory balance. Menya Jiro offers a good-looking bowl of spicy Sakuragima Ramen. Best of all, though, was Rach Sabron's superb lechon at the new Filipino-food tent, Patok by Rach. Just a fantastic mound of fatty, sticky, crackling, well-seasoned pork piled atop a deep-fried rice ball.
There's a new dessert option here too, called Frost Frozen Yogurt, which also sells ice cream (thank goodness) that can be loaded up whatever you get with all kinds of fun toppings. Frost joins an already stacked lineup of sweets, like the first-rate pastries at Cupcake Me!, food-festival regulars Sam's Fried Ice Cream and Philadelphia's famous Dre's Water Ice.
The food is obviously the main draw here, but as at all these seasonal markets, that means you can also spend a lot of time waiting on line. My advice, as always: get here as early as possible, eat a plate or three before it gets too busy, then explore the designer and artisan booths. Sherifa Gayle's black N ugly always has great hoodies, T-shirts and accessories, and Devine Bailey has added some mini-Nike keychains to the always eye-catching Pop Pins lineup. Locally made health, beauty and body care products are readily available, as well.
There's a full program of DJs and live music on the main stage every month and, of course, the festivities offer great people watching all up and down the avenue. And not only do the Arches of Harlem give the whole thing an impressively cinematic setting; they also provide shelter from the occasional downpour.
"My favorite part of the night is the impromptu dance that starts happening around 7:00," Shalma said. "Once the music really gets going, and the stomachs are full, and all of a sudden you see those big smiley faces and all of the people start moving... it's just a beautiful sight."
The Uptown Night Market takes place every second Thursday of the month from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m (coming next on May 12th), through November, under the Arches of Harlem on 12th Avenue between 133rd and 135th Streets.