The aroma of hot food hits you first.
Crispy fries bubbling in duck fat. Pork braising, ready to be cradled in corn tortillas. corn tortillas. Cheese melting over tender wagyu beef on a griddle.
You have arrived at the open-air food market Smorgasburg, ready for a feast.
Should you start with meaty churrasco from The Pincho Truck? How about chewy momo dumplings from Fomo Momo? Or crispy Korean rice hot dogs from Oh K-Dog?
You can try it all at this open-air food market at Harborside in Jersey City, just steps away from the Hudson. Its 40-ish vendors attracted crowds all last summer, and in May, it opened for its second season.
The Jersey City version of Smorgasburg — there are others, most notably the original in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (hence the name) — is held in a lot half the size of a square block, rimed with vendors slinging dishes you won’t find at your corner café.
Beyond the lot is Smorgasbar, where fresh cocktails and draft beers are mixed and poured for thirsty guests. Smorgasbar opens into a tree-shaded area with tables and colorful Adirondack chairs that face the river.
On a recent Saturday, Smorgasburg was buzzing with families, friends and couples — a group had even set up a “divorce party” in the bar area. Everyone dined on their meal of choice, be it a wood-fired pizza or bánh mì.
Thomas Fornicola of Oakhurst, an avid food-lover and founder of the Wednesday Warriors group, which goes to new pizza shops every Wednesday, went to Smorgasburg after hearing about it from some friends. He left dreaming about the brisket from the vendor SmoKING of Meats.
This — a casual place where good food is celebrated and small businesses shine — is what founders Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler envisioned when they started the first Smorgasburg in Brooklyn in 2011.
Demby and Butler met in the early 2000s. Demby was a former journalist working as a speech writer for politician Marty Markowitz. Butler was the creator of a popular real estate blog. Brought together by the interconnected world of politics and journalism, the two became friends. They decided they wanted to do something tangible, away from the online world — in short, to start a flea market.
“Neither of us had any experience running a flea market,” Demby said.
And yet, they forged ahead, founding Brooklyn Flea in 2008. It mostly sold antiques and vintage items, with a few food stands for hungry shoppers. But soon, it became a destination to try unique dishes.
“We stumbled into the artisanal food explosion of the late 2000s,” said Demby.
When a real estate developer offered to rent them a prime lot on the water in Brooklyn, they decided to expand and focus solely on food. The duo wanted to make it, said Demby, “a one-stop clearing house to check out the burgeoning food scene.”
Smorgasburg Brooklyn opened on May 21, 2011.
In 2016 they opened a location in Los Angeles. In 2019, a market at The Oculus at the World Trade Center. Then another at ProsOther Smorgasburg pop-ups have appeared in Miami, Osaka, Japan, Sao Paulo, Brazil and more.
Not all were knock-outs. For instance, locations in Kingston, New York, and Washington DC opened and closed in a few seasons. But Smorgasburg Jersey City, which opened in May of 2021, is a hit.
Success to Demby means attracting at least 5,000 people every day the market is open for 7 months out of the year. Demby and Butler had been courted a few years prior to opening in Jersey City by Mack-Cali Realty (now Veris Residential) and Mayor Steven Fulop, who wanted to bring a Smorgasburg across the river.
“It’s not a walk in the park to make these things work,” Demby said. But Jersey City managed to draw in large crowds every Saturday (the only day it’s open) through the spring and summer — which is invaluable to the vendors that sell there.
“Our mission is to give people a platform,” Demby said. “People who are just starting out and don’t have the money to rent a restaurant, which can start in the mid-six-figures. They’re folks that know how to make food and have a dream.”
One such dreamer is Priyanka Poddar, who sells baked donuts inspired by Indian flavors through her business Knead Some Love. Originally from Mumbai India, Poddar during the pandemic started making such treats as vegan chai-spiced latte Bundt cakes drizzled with chai glaze and sprinkled with cinnamon coconut sugar and toasted maple pecans and Ras Malai Rabdi donuts soaked in saffron water and finished with edible rose petals and crushed pistachios.
To secure a spot at Smorgasburg, she wrote a letter explaining why Knead Some Love was special. After her application was accepted, she had to do a taste test with the founders.
“’This is a giant food festival,’ I thought. ‘They’re never going to take me,’” said Poddar. “I’d been trying to grow this business with my one-woman show.”
But Demby said Poddar ticked all the boxes. He and Butler look for great food that can draw a crowd all on its own, as well as professionalism from the vendors. They also want locals to be represented at Smorgasburg, so customers know they’re supporting their neighbors.
And most importantly, he said, “The food has to be interesting. It has to be something you can’t get anywhere else.”
The first day Poddar set up a booth at Smorgasburg, she sold out by 1 pm Since then, she said she sells out almost every day. She’s had customers drive from different states to try her donuts. She’s been able to quit her day job to focus on Knead Some Love full time and now ships nationwide. Through her growth, connecting with customers has been her favorite part of selling at Smorgsburg.
“I’m an immigrant. I’m a brown woman. I was self-taught. I’m trying to bring my culture out in the world. It’s great to be able to communicate that with my customers,” she said. “When people meet me and learn about my story, it validates all the risks I’ve taken.”
More landed businesses have found success at Smorgasburg, as well.
Carlos Castillo, owner of Carlitos Barbecue Taqueria which has a location at Westfield Garden State Plaza, a food truck and now booths at multiple Smorgasburgs, has become extremely close to the Smorgasburg team, helping design and create the menu at Smorgasbar.
The Carlitos team met Demby and Butler in 2019 while searching for a brick-and-mortar location in New York City. They visited the Smorgasburg market at the World Trade Center, which is managed by Westfield, during their search. Through their Westfield connection, they are secured an audience with Demby and Butler and struck up a partnership.
“It’s become a joke between us,” said Castillo. “They were reluctant to see us but felt like they had to because the mall guys sent us. But now we’re one of the top vendors there. We’ve become a staple.”
Castillo is also a partner at Smorgasbar and has had a big hand in creating the delightful cocktails — from bourbon drinks splashed with peach puree to vodka mixed with juicy watermelon — as well as its craft beer menu.
At its own stand in the food section, Castillo says their brisket queso taco, street corn and vegetarian taco (which has its own “cult following”) are the best sellers.
“It’s an endless line for us,” said Castillo. “But the team loves being in that setting. It does really well with sales and lets people know who we are.”
While great for local businesses, visitors go to Smorgabsorg for the tasty food from vendors conveniently lined up in a row.
Said Demby, “With the view of the water, the direct connection to the bar area and so much seating with the best view really anywhere of the city, it’s just a really nice place to spend the day.”
Go to smorgasburg.com for more information.
Here’s a list of the vendors at Smorgsburg Jersey City and where you’ll find them.
To the right of the entrance:
So Sarap: Filipino dishes such as champurrado, isaw and fish balls.
Oyster Party: Oysters, lobster rolls and other seafood.
D’Abruzzo: Street food from the Abruzzo region of Southern Italy, particularly arrosticini.
CBao: Bao buns, dumplings and bubble tea.
Ornella’s Trattoria: Decadent fried chicken sandwiches.
The Little Sicilian: Arancini.
Vaquero Elotes: Fresh fruits and juices.
Lupita’s: Mexican food including sopes, chalupas and huarache.
Rosie’s Empanadas: Family-owned empanada stand.
Home Frite: Burgers, shakes and fries with plenty of toppings.
Tojo’s Kitchen: Wagyu burgers on ube buns and crispy chicken.
The Pincho Truck: Puerto Rican food including chicken, pork and churrasco.
To the left of the entrance:
Bang Cookies: Huge soft cookies along with brownies and banana bread.
Last Call Mixology: Fresh craft cocktail mixers made with in-season ingredients.
Oh K-Dog: Korean rice hot dogs and egg toast.
Momo: North Indian street food such as momos.
Smoking of Meats: Southern barbecue with Filipino influences.
Supreme Burger: Simple, addictive smash burgers.
Menya Jiro:Ramen and Japanese dishes.
Petisco Brazuca: Brazilian snacks like coxinhas and mini churros.
Wood Fired Edibles: Wood-fired pizza in traditional and crazy flavors.
Red Hook Lobster Pound: Maine, Connecticut and Tuscan-style lobster rolls.
Mama’s Cupboard: Thai-Vietnamese food such as bánh-mi and egg-wrapped pad thai.
Blake N Kylee’s Creole Kitchen: Creole, seafood and soul food dishes.
Fedoroff’s Steaks: Philly cheesesteaks.
Duck Season: Duck fat fries, duck wings, duck burgers and duck fat poutine.
Carlito’s Barbecue Taqueria: Tacos, barbecue and hand-pressed Nixtamal tortillas.
Directly across from the entrance:
Tradewinds II: Caribbean food such as jerk chicken tacos and lobster fried rice.
Parish Po’ Boys: New Orleans’ style po’ boys.
Mao’s Bao: Varieties of sheng jian bao dumplings.
Nada’s NYC: Colombian empanadas in the color of the rainbow.
Crepe n’ Bake: Crepes topped with sauces and berries.
In the center:
Baonanas: Fluffy mousse topped with wafers and fresh fruit.
The Boiis Co.: Mochi.
The Good Batch: Ice cream sandwiches and baked goods.
Vermont Maple Lemonade: Fresh and delicious lemonades.
Clutch Moto: Coffee, tea and specialty drinks.
Cake Jars: Cake layered with frosting in travel-ready jars.
Knead Some Love: Baked donuts inspired by Indian flavors.
Bona Bona: Small batch ice cream and milkshakes.
Other vendors to look out for:
Angry Arches: Food truck specializing in jumbo lump crab cakes, lobster rolls and lobster mac and cheese.
Berg’s Pastrami: Pastrami made from scratch in Queens.
Black Rican Vegan (V): Vegan empanadas, mushroom burgers, pastelon, mac and cheese and more.
Jakarta Munch: Indonesian food and customizable bowls.
Nansense: Afghan food such as mantu, chicken korma and masala fries.
Thai Bird: Thai fried chicken.
Rebecca King is a food writer for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.