Sistrunk Marketplace’s Surreal Pandemic Dining Experience

Five weeks ago, the first food hall in Fort Lauderdale opened to the public, but don’t be surprised if you’re not hip to it yet. Owing to this plague year, Sistrunk Marketplace has kept a low profile in what would ordinarily be one of the buzziest dining stories of the year: a 40,000-square-foot space featuring 11 food vendors, a bar and a brewery in the heart of the city’s historic arts district. Such is the reality of opening a social hall at a time when socializing is nearly verboten, and when management keeps a fastidious watch on the number of patrons inside the building.

To wit: Visitors to Sistrunk Marketplace must make a reservation, which allows the managers to maintain no more than 50-percent capacity at all times. Hours are limited for the time being, too—from 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Friday to Sunday, and 4 to 9:45 p.m. Thursday. The first three days of the week are devoted to a deep cleaning of the facility, a process the owners share on the Marketplace’s social media.

I visited last night for a media dinner, and was happy to discover that even during a pandemic, and with capacity restrictions, plenty of people are discovering Sistrunk; by 6 p.m. plenty of tables were occupied by happy customers, even if the venue’s strict anti-socializing measures felt surreal. I ran into an acquaintance, for instance, who was scolded repeatedly by the eagle-eyed hostess for standing around and chatting rather than sitting at her table.

The strangeness of post-COVID dining continued once we arrived at our table. Ordering the old-fashioned way—at the counter of the vendor you choose—is a thing of the past, at least for now. All ordering is completed via a QR code on your smartphone, which leads you to a website with the entire menu of every vendor. You punch in what you want, fill in your credit card information, and the nosh is cooked to order and swiftly delivered to your table. It sounds simple, but the system proved cumbersome when we tried to alter our order; some kinks still need to be worked out.

General Manager Gregory Ricciulli showed me around the chic-industrial space, with its exposed ductwork ceilings and low lighting from stylish fixtures. The various local food purveyors surround a centrally located bar—aptly named the Central Bar, which at this time is bar stool-less, so no loitering, thank you very much—and endeavor to offer, in Ricciulli’s words, “a little bit of food from all around the world.”

Senbazuru

There’s the Empanada Bodega, specializing in scratch-made, Argentinean-style empanadas; the Chop Shoppe, a neighborhood butcher shop-plus-restaurant with unusual specialties like South African biltong; and Senbazuru, which features Asian fusion tapas and signature ramen dishes that take eight to 10 hours to prepare.

Kasai & Koori offers whimsically presented Asian desserts and street foods with decadent roots in Japanese royalty, Heavenly Raw is the marketplace’s purveyor of healthy living foods, and Poke OG serves fresh pescatarian and vegan bowls. There’s also Needa Pita, a brotherly operated food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar with spinning shawarma in the back; Fuoco, an open kitchen pizza and “Italian soul food” joint; Osom Crepes, a made-to-order crepery; and the inevitable street-taco place, Hot Lime. This vendor has arguably the most distinctive space, cooking out of a fire-engine-red truck “driven” by skeletons.

Hot Lime

There’s also Koffner Brewery, with 20 beers on tap; original art on the walls, a special VIP/event room, and a recording studio upstairs. At the beginning of the pandemic, Koffner focused its attention on 80-percent-alcohol hand sanitizer, bottles of which are placed on every table. Cooking, bartending and DJ classes are on the docket eventually, when the world is less topsy-turvy.

For now, visitors can still enjoy this limited iteration of Sistrunk Marketplace. I recommend Fuoco, whose strips of “pizza by the inch” arrive with a lingering and satisfactory flavor kick, and which serves a mean meatball. The Empanada Bodega’s chicken empanada, smartly seasoned and studded with hard-boiled egg and green onion, is rich and addictive.

Island on Ice from Kasai & Koori

And there’s no better way to end a meal than with Kasai & Koori’s ribbon ice, a thin-shaved ice cream delicacy from Southeast Asia. We tried the Island on Ice, with ribbon ice topped with whipped cream, toasted coconut, coconut sauce and a dolce de leche drizzle. This dish alone is reason enough to return.

Sistrunk Marketplace is at 115 N.W. Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. For information, call 954/329-2551 or visit sistrunkmarketplace.com.


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