Empire Market is a classic German butcher shop that has been in the College Point neighborhood of Queens for 91 years, owned and operated by the Lepine family, now in its fourth generation of business. The full array of classic German meats can be found here – sausages of every ilk, including frankfurters, bratwurst, cold cuts and kielbasa, as well as good ‘ole pork (ham, bacon, chops), beef and chicken. Empire’s frankfurters appear on “best hot dog in New York City” lists – it’s no surprise since their products are mostly made on-site and, where appropriate, with a smoker, which is rare anywhere these days. Empire is a lively, good-humored establishment with a loyal following of old-guard Germans looking for blood-and-tongue sausage, local home cooks seeking high quality meats, and kids picking up penny candy.
The butcher shop is a legitimate legacy of the neighborhood’s long German heritage. In 1853, with a license from Charles Goodyear, an industrious immigrant from Hamburg, Germany named Conrad Poppenhusen started a major rubber factory in College Point. He built railroads, established ferries, and for his employees, many of whom followed him from Hamburg, he made available educational opportunities and supported the country’s first free kindergarden. At one point, College Point had more bars and beer gardens per capita than anywhere in the country.
Empire Market is a grocery, not a deli, everything is wrapped up to go for preparation at home. The meats are all made without nitrates or other preservatives, and the bacon has been double-smoked, which means you can eat it as-is, if that’s your preference. The widely popular hot dogs and bacon come out of the smoker on Wednesdays, so the best supply is from then until the end of the week. Empire also stocks a selection of traditional German foods, such as sauerkraut, egg noodles, pickles, horseradish mustard and favorite cheeses – including tilsit, a classic that smells like dirty feet but tastes fantastic.
I picked up a container of sauerkraut along with bratwurst in order to make a long-enduring German recipe that’s easy and filling, Bratwurst with Sauerkraut, Apples, Onions and Carraway Seeds – here’s an excellent example of it at Epicurious. A tip from John Lepine: try rubbing the carraway seeds together firmly in your palm, it breaks them up gently through friction. This dish is delicious – especially with the Empire Market supplies – the sour flavor of the sauerkraut balances the sweetness of the apples, all settled in with the rich juices of the bratwurst.
It’s uncommon and inspiring to see a family that has stayed together, thriving, in business for so long. Mike and Pat Lepine, and their sons, John and Michael, continue to serve up hand-made, all-natural sausages using methods unchanged for decades. How lucky for us. Empire Market is worth a trip.