Union Market is no Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Let’s get that out of the way up front. I don’t know that it’s even trying to be like Reading Terminal. The expectation was my own — that Union Market was a scaled-down version of the legendary Philly market. It’s not.
I’m not quite sure what Union Market is, really. It appears to have helped revitalize an up-and-coming area of DC. The collection of food merchants and vendors have created nice niches for themselves, catering to primarily upper middle class clientele (from what I could tell). I’m not sure that the general neighborhood population would be able to shop or dine regularly there — and that’s not a good thing.
My friend Leah and I paid a visit to Union Market on a recent weekend. We’ve shared several food experiences together, the best being dinner at Little Serow.
We walked in and took a lap around the place. There was a nice energy inside, although it was quickly apparent that the crowd was rather homogenous. Well-heeled yuppies and hipsters in funky eyeglasses abounded.
I saw people enjoying brunch at what looked like an old-style soda fountain; there were fish, meat, wine, and cheese vendors, dried herbs and spices, pricey boutiques, dessert stops, and a host of food stalls. Didn’t see a single produce vendor, but I’ve been told one exists.
We wandered around pondering our first move until Leah spotted this lady selling steamed pork buns.
Sold! Pork buns sounded perfect for our first sampling of the day.
We placed our order and waited. It was a lot of work for this poor woman. She was cooking solo, making each bun by hand, then placing them into the steamers.
After 5-10 minutes, they were ready. Leah and I took our two buns apiece and found a table.
These were very good. Denser than the steamed buns you’ll find at dim sum, and the pork was shredded, rather than chopped. There were also some chiles in there, because these had a kick to them!
We were off to a good start.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.
The sandwich line was long at Red Apron Butchery. A good sign, right?
And what could sound better than a “Porkstrami” sandwich? Thin slices of pastrami-style pork, mustard, and sauerkraut on Red Apron’s own bread.
I hate to be so harsh, but… the sandwich was kind of terrible. Leah knew she didn’t like it after the first bite. It took me several bites to realize that things were going wrong. Mushy, lifeless bread (begging to be toasted) formed a sandwich around sliced pork that was half meat, and half fat. You can see it in the picture. Half the meat was inedible, and I ended up picking it out and forming a mound of fat on the tin foil.
The sauerkraut was the best component of the sandwich, but even that couldn’t save it. Really disappointing.
We took another lap around, looking for a dessert to make up for the porkstrami.
We stopped at the Harvey’s Market stall and admired the great looking meat. Leah asked the young guy working the counter, “Where is this lamb from?”
He paused, sort of shrugged, and with a confused look, said, “I’m not sure. New Zealand?”
He ambled off to go check.
I looked closely at the label on the lamb. It read, ‘Shenandoah.’
Then I read the signs placed on the display case: ‘Local.’ ‘Maryland.’ ‘Local.’ ‘Virginia.’
I’m venturing a guess that the young guy was a hair off base with his New Zealand answer. Unless New Zealand is considered local, and there’s a Shenandoah, New Zealand.
Leah and I walked some more, finally settling at the cupcake stand. I’m not much of a cupcake person, but splitting one between the two of us sounded about right. We picked out a cookies ‘n cream cupcake.
Leah tried to cut the cupcake in half, but the thing was chilled solid. She could barely work her way through it.
And it tasted bad. Not the texture of a cupcake at all; more like cold cookie dough with a mound of frosting. A couple of bites were all I could handle.
As food success goes, we went 1 out of 3. That’s good for a baseball batting average; it’s not so good for sampling food. It’s possible we made the wrong choices, or the particular vendors we stopped at were having a bad day. I’d like to think what we ate isn’t representative of the market as a whole. That’d be a real shame.
I’d like to return to Union Market again, because my first impression was … iffy. What does it want to be? Reading Terminal Market has something for everyone, and seems to function as both a tourist destination and a stop for Philly regulars of all types. Union Market exudes a more exclusive sheen. Rather than being exclusive, isn’t there some room for inclusive?
1309 5th St. NE