Yesterday I was driving through New Brunswick, NJ on my way home and what did I behold? A line of people waiting at the back of a truck–not a food truck or even a van, but a legit Penske truck. I was even more surprised to see that the thing they were all waiting for–purchasing with cash, and no, it wasn’t anything stolen–they were all buying whole watermelons out of the back of the truck. It’s August, and that means watermelon season again! A fruit that originated in Africa, watermelon is now grown and eaten worldwide, and can come in a multitude of colors and flavors. We’re best acquainted with the striped green skin and candy-pink fruity interior, but many different watermelons come in orange, white, or even bright yellow flesh! The watermelon holds a ton of nutrients for being 92% water: it’s a good source of vitamin C and beta carotene, and the amino-acid citrulline, mostly found in the edible rind, can help loosen blood vessels, and can be a libido-enhancer. Forget about Viagra; just nibble on some watermelon instead!
I’m not a huge fan of the fruit, though I think it’s because it costs so much for a food that has a ridiculously high water content. You’re basically eating water with little black seeds in it, what’s the fun in that? But if it’s given to me, I usually love the sweet, crisp taste of a watermelon slice. (I do, however, love the crap out of watermelon flavored things, like slice lollipops and watermelon-flavored Jolly Ranchers. The best.) Luckily, I’ve found some great places in New York that serve watermelon with a twist–something that makes it a little different from the run-of-the-mill slices you see in the grocery store. They’ve definitely intrigued me, so they might just get you watermelon-haters curious enough to try it out for yourself!
First off, did you know you can make watermelon wine? Or any kind of fermented alcohol, really. I certainly didn’t, but the Koreans have known for quite a while. They love to infuse their signature liquor, soju, with watermelon flavor, giving a sweet, almost floral note to a harsh and grating alcohol. (No, seriously, I hate soju. My friend got on a Korean cuisine kick and made us take shots of it. Like drinking turpentine straight.) You can get watermelon soju in many restaurants in the Midtown area known as Koreatown, but there’s one place that makes the drink extra special. Pocha 32 on–well, 32nd Street–makes their watermelon soju by the half-dozen servings. Why, you ask? Because the drink is elegantly and whimsically served in a hollowed out watermelon! Talk about your kitsch! The soju itself isn’t overly sweet, but the watermelon infusion (and the drink’s vessel) help give it that hint of watermelon taste. You can even eat the rest of the rind and meat out of the watermelon once you’re done with the drink–and that fruit is nicely saturated with the soju, so make sure to soak up your extra soju there! Just be sure to have someone else on hand to help: these drinks pack a punch, even though they taste fruity and fun. It’s perfect to share with a friend all night over Korean barbecue and the dramas on Pocha’s TVs.
15 W 32nd St, 2nd Fl (between 5th Ave & Broadway)
“Impress your friends at this Koreatown restaurant when you order the Watermelon Soju, which comes in a hollowed-out, halved watermelon and offers about six servings. Distilled from rice or other starches such as potatoes or barley, soju has a slightly sweeter taste than vodka, making it easily mixable. And when you’re done drinking, the leftover infused fruit makes a tasty, boozy snack.”–CBS New York
“The drink is refreshing, and not too sweet (an accomplishment for a fruit cocktail), and the flavor is a dead ringer for watermelon Bubbalicious gum. It evokes summer and backyard barbecues. The bonus, of course, is scraping out spoonfuls of the saturated fruit once all the soju has been downed. Just be forewarned: this stuff is more potent than the taste would suggest.”–The Daily Meal
“What a marvelous thing; an entire halved and scooped out watermelon filled with chilled, slightly watered down watermelon soju which you ladle generously into drinking bowls. It could have been cloying but it somehow avoided the extreme and was a pleasure to drink it through. $24 is a little steep, until we realized it’s more a four person drink— in which case it works out to be only $6 a pop.”–Midtown Lunch
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“First, I like the watermelon soju. It’s a nice bright combination of soda, sweetener, some watermelon juice, and trace amounts of soju. It comes in a halved watermelon and you can’t help but smile when you see it from far away, a beautiful beacon held aloft by a hunky Korean waiter who will break your heart with his aloofness. It’s also $32. I got it once and I don’t miss it too much, because it’s a little gimicky and it won’t get you super drunk. Unless you’re a petite Asian girl. Bottom’s up, then.”–Joy G.
“Pocha 32 has watermelon soju and it’s the bomb! When it’s 90 degrees and dry outside at night, you’ll want to drink something really cold to cool you down. I can drink watermelon soju from here all day long and not get sick of it. One order can yield enough for three people who moderately drink. For all you drunks out there, order an extra one!”–Tim G.
Like I said before, the watermelon rind has a surprising amount of amino acids that are helpful to the human body; but, unfortunately, the rind is far less appetizing than its fleshy counterpart. Sometimes it’s merely tasteless; most times, however, the rind is bitter and thus discarded. But discard no more! For centuries, different culinary cultures have found ways around this bitter yet nutritious part of the fruit. In Russian cuisine, you can order your watermelon to be pickled! This summer treat is great for not only preserving the watermelon, but giving it a unique tart, almost sour, taste. The flesh of the watermelon is also pickled, but the sweetness is left intact, so you get a delicious mix of sweet and sour all in one bite. Take the Q train down to Brighton Beach for this treat, found in many Russian delis along Brighton Beach Avenue, particularly M & I International Foods, an unassuming storefront filled with tons of Eastern European goodies. Then take your pickled watermelon and snack along the boardwalk for a very different take on summer watermelon!
M & I International Foods
249 Brighton Beach Ave (between Brighton 1st Pl & Brighton 2nd St), Brighton Beach
“Russia may be more famous for its brutal winters than its balmy summers, but believe it or not, Russians have their dog days, too. That’s why no trip to Brighton Beach is complete without a sampling of the local summer fare — in this case, a distinctly Eastern European take on the classic hot-weather favorite. While pickled watermelon might sound like a tongue-curling oxymoron, the slightly briny, vinegar-based preparation preserves much of the melon’s innate sweetness, while giving it a beachy bite.”–DNAInfo
“First dish: assorted pickles. My favorite is the watermelon, whose texture becomes more substantial through the magic of vinegar-and-other-stuff infusion and whose flavor becomes saturated in sweet and sour goodness while still retaining a hint of watermelon-ness.”–The Girl Who Ate Everything
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Just a short walk from Coney Island in the shadow of the B/Q line is M & I International Foods, a place with zero ambiance and excellent Russian food. Counters and open refrigerators encircle the place filled with fish, soups, sausage, meats, vegetable dishes, drinks, and desserts. Much of it I’ve never seen before, maybe you too, so you’ll have to just strike up a conversation and ask if you are not sure. All of the women speak English and are glad to help. Worse case, it’s trial and error eating and you’ll only be out a few dollars because nothing costs that much. There are foods that I’ve never had before, like…pickled watermelon. Not something that I would have thought of pickling, but on a hot day it’s excellent. Got some to go.”–Craig B.
But pickled watermelon rind wasn’t even the strangest thing I saw when researching for National Watermelon Day. No, that would have to be what Yerba Buena Perry is serving. The new Latin American fusion restaurant brings in traditional Latin dishes like arepas and lechon, but also has some new, inventive foods on their menu, like their watermelon French fries appetizer. Yep, I said that right: deep-fried watermelon fries. I didn’t think it was even possible, but they manage to do it! Not only that, but it comes out tasting great: the crunchiness of the deep fried batter mixes well with the sweetness of the watermelon, which is still preserved behind that layer of deep-fried goodness. They fry all different kinds of fruits and vegetables here for your finger-lickin’ pleasure, including avocado and cactus, so I guess watermelon wasn’t that far off the radar for them, lol. Try it with their special ketchup dip that includes a habanero pepper kick, for some sweet, salty, and spicy all in one bite. This dish is great for the watermelon lovers, for those looking to jump into the watermelon love, or just for the curious who want to say they’ve tried a deep-fried watermelon! Enjoy!
Yerba Buena Perry
1 Perry St (between Greenwich Ave & S 7 Ave)
“The watermelon fries—juicy and crisp and hot—are nothing short of brilliant; the arepas with coffee-glazed pork belly, though a little sweet, are among the best in town; and the ropa vieja de pato (tamarind-glazed duck confit with puréed plantains and fried duck egg) is rich and satisfying in the best possible meanings of those words.”–Gourmet
“Chef Julian Medina has had his share of restaurant successes, but Yerba Buena Perry is his best and most creative effort yet. Have you ever eaten watermelon fries? Or even imagined eating them for that matter? They’re terrific — a combination of crunchy, sweet, and salty. There’s a considerable and exotic fry menu with hearts of palm, cactus, and avocado fries coated in panko and served with a homemade mate ketchup made with a slightly sweet, bitter tea that adds depth to ordinary ketchup.”–Restaurant Girl
“We have eaten a lot of fried food in our day, but Yerba Buena Perry’s watermelon fries ($7) are in a league of their own. Crunchy, sweet, and somewhat greasy, this dish proved that potatoes are not the only way to go to make fries. Not content to serve just ordinary Heinz with this unorthodox side, chef Julian Median spices up the traditional tomato condiment by adding habanero. The result? A spicy dip that plays well against the saltiness of the fried exterior and the interior sweetness of the watermelon fries.”–Serious Eats
“A couple years ago, chef/partner Julian Medina, who had been frying panko-breaded avocados, cactus and hearts of palm for several years, decided he wanted to do something different. So, he asked himself, “Why not fry watermelon?…It was like an epiphany,” he says. The caramelized sugars matches with a tangy mate-infused ketchup concocted using chipotle peppers, yuzu and sherry vinegar, while the middle stays juicy and crisp.”–New York Post
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Continuing the Tuna Ceviche watermelon trend, we ordered the Watermelon Fries. Really, fries? Yessir, fries indeed. Strips of watermelon deep fried. It was an interesting experience, with the crunchy/salty exterior and then the tangy juice that rolls out. The warmth of the juice, while expected, was a bit of a contradiction to the images of eating a refreshing watermelon slice on a hot summer’s day. Overall, the fries were an interesting and enjoyable experience.”–Mark S.
“The fried watermelon, however, was awesome! It’s just really interesting texture and I’m still wondering how to this that does that work (freezing the watermelon comes to mind, but then how do you thaw it and fry it without letting too much juice out??? A secret I will never know). And, the watermelon was indeed still really juicy.”–Stephanie C.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!