The North Park Farmer’s Market
The problem with writing about my favorite food places is that more people will know about them. I know that’s supposed to be the point, but it’s one I have trouble accepting: Why would I want lines where there were none, crowds in places that had been moderately populated, and quality that may decline as a result? It has always seemed to me that the spoils should remain with those willing to venture first into unknown territory. Yet here I am, writing about maybe my favorite North Park eatery, which isn’t really an eatery, it’s the North Park Farmer’s Market – in my opinion, the only great bargain left in the area.
North Park ain’t the Boho haven it used to be. The North Park Farmer’s Market is one of the only places that can recreate rolling through the neighborhood with that “I’m a queen with $15 in my pocket” feeling. And while I may have felt reluctant to share it, the heyday of sparser attendance has passed, which is probably why it’s still there — and we’re here:
Merchants started setting up stalls on the south side of CVS Pharmacy’s parking lot in July, 2007. Evolution was slow, with more arriving once traffic had inched forward. I’ve loved it from the beginning. The fruits and vegetables aren’t the star here, with produce stands comprising maybe one-eighth of the activity. However, the best cherries I’ve had this season have been from a Mexican concern (called, I think, R&L Farms) that says the cherries have “no spray” and which offers samples of all its fruits. There’s also a very small Asian-run stand that occasionally has incredibly cheap greens and green beans (depending on the season); I just check to see what’s there. Rodriguez Farms carries organic lettuces, radishes, and other produce, and there’s a recent arrival that appears to have been transplanted from some pastoral region of Mexico – the elderly female vendor dresses samplings of yucca, summer squash, and tomatoes in oil and vinegar and speaks absolutely no English.
As I fill my tote with any desirable produce, I remember my first farmer’s market experiences, one of which was in New York City, as part of a delightful Saturday outing that often included lugging home fresh apple cider and Concord grapes from upstate, the aromatics of fresh herbs escaping my backpack to enhance my walk home, past whatever was happening in Washington Square Park (musicians, comics, jugglers, and, best of all, crowds gathered around surprises: things never before named or seen). My trek took me through a truly nirvanic merging of the best of city and country.
In North Park, sweet little sprays of flowers can be grabbed for $3-4, which means if you’ve got more to spend you can grab enough for numerous arrangements. There are several stands with clothes or handmade jewelry, including one that benefits the Kenyan women who craft the goods. Sometimes a bookseller sets up shop. About six months ago, “vegan-friendly,” California-based Majestic Garlic Paste appeared with tubs full of samples. I’m currently addicted, shuddering at the idea of cooking without this elixir. I really hate to broadcast this one – the last time I was there with cash in hand, there was a line, and they were out of my favorite variety of the paste.
I’m going to say something that may sound pretty wacky, but the appearance of an entire stand devoted to garlic is a really good thing, kind of like a Senora de la Guadalupe statue finally being dragged into an empty desert cathedral. If you’ve ever seen Les Blank’s Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers you’ll understand, and if you haven’t, I’d recommend it, especially if you’ve been starting to wonder exactly what purpose is served by all those other bodies with faces – the documentary is a joyful, life-affirming affair, the kind that might never have happened without the existence of hippies, and pre-hippie populists like the Beats, and people who went to help the Spanish fight the Civil War, and union workers.
Talk like that gets me all excited, kind of like “dirty talking” for others, but if there’s one thing capable of distracting me, it’s coffee. In May, Freedom Coffee started setting up a little table dressed in a hemp cloth, over which are arrayed several varieties of Guatemalan fair-trade, organic, no-shade-tree (meaning various species of birds in the growing region still have a fighting chance) coffee. Unless you pile a few extra scoops into your maker, its mellow, rather acquired taste is less aggressive than Seattle’s Best or Peet’s, and, in my opinion, worth the acquisition.
The cheeky purveyor of Baba Foods always lays out rows of sample-able hummus and other Greek delights, which can be made into take-away combos with pita, baba ganoush, tabouleh (also known as tabouli), and olives. The University Avenue fish storefront that closed several years ago now sports the grand moniker of World Famous Smoked Fish. However famous it may be, I can practically smell salt air around the WFSF tables, from which you can sample ceviche, or salmon and other spreads (very useful party food). Whether you slice your own for sushi or want to kill it on a grill, the star there is the chunks of fresh-frozen ahi tuna, mahi mahi and salmon.
Speaking of seafood, at the stand set up by a Normal Heights pet store (a place I otherwise couldn’t fit into my travels) I procure “Tiki Cat,” a gourmet canned food with which the cats are now obsessed. Since it’s rather expensive (about $85 per small can) it’s good to know, per the “human grading,” that I could wrestle them for it in the event of an apocalypse or natural disaster.
The North Park Farmer’s Market houses some of my favorite place to dispose of my precious “dine out” budget. I’m addicted to the East African sambussas (five for $6, whether stuffed with spinach, potato, lentil, beef, or cream cheese). This vendor will also make a $6-7 combo deal if you don’t see one that appeals. To the left of that stand is another recent addition, the Egyptian Oasis, which is operated by a family that crafts fat, freshly-doughed spinach pies (also known as spanakopita), does creative things with tabouleh/tabouli, and adds sesame seeds to the outsides of the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) I tried last week – nice idea. They seem to home-cook everything, like a little slice of their kitchen has appeared in the middle of the market.
There are two more African food purveyors, one of whom cooks tureens full of greens – kale or mustard – each week. Also present are tamales and other specialties from south-of-the-border (I don’t tend to bother with these as, like many Southern Californians, I already consume lots of Mexican food – I mention the tamales because a fresh one is still special). Attention, meat-lovers: there are stands for British sausages, fresh-grilled gyros, and, at the House of Jerky, rows full of dried meat.
Unfairly placed, at the southern end of a row at the market’s center, are Lisko Imports’s long tables of to-die-for tarts, cookies, baklava, and other pastries. (I just sort of run past this one — it’s that tempting — and I’m allergic to pretty much everything there). However, if I want to feel I’m getting my fix from Lisko’s somehow, they also have an impressive array of olives and dipping oils, along fresh cheeses for the crowd’s dairy-lovers. Another regular is a friendly raw food guy in a Rasta cap who recreates an array of dishes, including desserts, with living green matter, and who must be getting some business, ‘cause he’s there every week.
Since some of these vendors are factoring in the price of plastic containers, I try to remember to do the environment a favor – and sometimes get a discount off whatever I’m purchasing – by throwing some in my tote, along with plastic bags for moisture/leak protection, before hitting the market. This is a particularly significant tip if you want greens from the East African guy at the far SE corner – he can get pissy if you see his sign for those greens, which says, I think, $2.99, then want to buy them a la carte, i.e., without spending more money on a combo.
As a foodie who’s hypoglycemic and allergic to dairy, I’m bored or sickened by what at least half the population seems to consider good or “upscale.” So for me the ethnic fare at North Park Farmer’s Market, which includes so much that’s vegetable-based, fresh, and interestingly seasoned, provides an oasis. Although I’m not strictly vegan I do my own little “Fast Food Nation”-style boycott of the big meat packers by avoiding anything that isn’t free of hormones and antibiotics. And in my world a bit of meat can go a long way (as Asians traditionally tend to cook). Many tricks used by restaurants to sate diners – cheeses, cream sauces, breads, uninspired pastas – are a yawn to me. For this reason I don’t really miss the food I can’t afford at the upscale wine and food joints popping up all over my neighborhood and its adjoining arteries. I just want something else — like the Kabul (an Afghani restaurant that moved from North Park to Hillcrest).
Since I’ve so often been a city girl (seven years in NYC, eight in Washington, D.C., and one in Sevilla), being unable to enjoy the stimulation of an open-air array of different cultures, smells and tastes would have made me cranky if I’d thought about what I was missing for years here. Happily, I didn’t, considering cheap, convenient Mexican and the occasional Ethiopian, Thai, dim sum, or Vietnamese treat to be the trade-off — until the Farmer’s Market popped up in North Park (the crowded Hillcrest Farmer’s Market is not my idea of Sunday R&R).
The proliferation of these markets is one of the upsides to the increasing crowding and sophistication of San Diego. I may be annoyed by all the breed dogs with which I have to share the sidewalk or the frat house parties that break out in my neighborhood. But these dog-owners and energetic students, who are often new to San Diego, are more likely to support things like the Farmer’s Market, and that’s a breakdown that didn’t exist here in the early ‘90s, when a girl behind the (supposedly worldly) Kensington Café’s gourmet food counter spouted, “AIR-BDE WHAAT?” when I needed Herbes de Provence for a ragout I was trying.
If there was any ice left between myself and my favorite vendors, it got broken on my most recent visit, when I insisted on snapping pictures for this article. I softened their reluctance (except the sambussa queen, who posed immediately, like a supermodel), by saying, “People are more interesting than pictures of food!” which surprised them enough to help me accomplish my task. Last on my route were the Freedom Coffee folks, across from the area where Daniele Spadavecchia was making one of his occasional appearances.
The Freedom Coffee people kept offering me samples, one child started dancing, other children and parents were attracted, and passers-by were smiling and throwing more dollars in Daniele’s hat. Before we knew it, a moderate gathering of strangers was talking and then pausing to cheer Daniele’s stunning mix of vintage swing with flamenco, classical, and Vegas (he seemed to channel Dean Martin for one song). For about half an hour I basked in a slice of the spontaneity I used to experience in New York. I think Les Blank would have loved it.
North Park Farmers Market
- 3150 North Park Way (Behind CVS)
San Diego, Calif. 92104
- Thursdays, 3 p.m. to sunset (spring/summer), 2 p.m. to dark (fall/winter)