Walking back up 39th Street to my car, I contemplated calling in an order for a Meatball Grinder from Planet Sub. I’d just finished four sliders from the Meatball District, and for $13.30, my meatball craving had not been sufficed.
My party, the only one in the restaurant at noon, took our seats. An awkward waitress, whose eyes craved our approval, informed us that their kitchen cooked four types of meatballs: beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian.
Under the $3 slider special, I ordered one of each to see what the Meatball District had to offer. I asked for tomato, barbecue, parmesan and lemon pesto sauce on the side. After highly anticipating meaty-bliss during the 15 minute wait, my expectations plummeted at the first bite into the beef meatball slider. Even coupled with tomato sauce, I tasted only one thing: bread. Externally, the bronze buns looked enticing, but when paired with the meatball and tomato sauce, the starchy bun overpowered both the sauce and the pearl of flavorful beef on the inside.
That dry slider should have come with a warning sign: Beware of bread; drench in sauce. Accordingly, I doused the bun with parmesan sauce and successfully avoided culinary cotton mouth. Without the cream, the bite-size meatball was bland, but with it, my high hopes for the restaurant were resurfaced.
By the time I got to the pork meatball with barbecue sauce, I felt conflicted. The aesthetic of the restaurant said Italia, my taste buds said hometown barbeque, yet soft alternative music reverberated through the arched ceilings. I truly wanted to like this place, but the Italian vibe I initially felt was fading.
The vegetarian slider baffled me; I came here for a meatball, not this salmon-pink ball of bread crumb and herb. What meatball doesn’t have meat? A food joint shouldn’t cheat their staple dish for the sake of health junkies. Thank God for the tart lemon pesto sauce, the only salvation for this poor excuse of a meatball.
At this point, I was wondering how an entire restaurant could revolve around a meatball. The answer to that is – it can’t. That’s why the outliers on the menu – onion rings, ice cream sandwiches and liquor– seemed like a shot in the dark. If the chain’s CEO were to explain the diversification of this painfully simple food selection, it would probably go something like this:
“Here are our four meatballs. Sometimes we put them in a salad, sometimes we stick them in bread – don’t like it? Drag yourself to the bar and drink away your tastebuds!”
I must say, the service made up for the ensuing stomach ache. Our charmingly timid waitress greeted us, checked in on us once and sent us on our way with a genuine smile. She was patient in our party’s indecisiveness (the decision to pair pesto with with the vegetarian meatball was a lengthy one), and she brought perhaps the only authenticity to my experience at the Meatball District.
Map by Aidan Epstein