What's your favorite food at the farmers market? Apples or oranges? Strawberries or zucchini? How about ribs? In fact, it's quite possible that two of the best barbecue restaurants in Southern California can be found only at farmers markets.
And some of the best pizza comes from a wood-burning oven hitched to a trailer that visits the Manhattan Beach farmers market every week.
FOR THE RECORD:
Farmers markets: In a listing of farmers markets in Wednesday's Food section, the address for the Westchester market was incorrect. It is at 7000 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles, across from the Otis College of Art and Design. —
While most of the action at the markets quite appropriately centers around the farmers and their fruits and vegetables, there's some great hot food to be had as well, if you know where to look. In fact, at some markets -- the ones in Torrance on Saturday and Hollywood on Sunday leap to mind -- the hot food may be almost as much of a draw.
You know you're in for a treat when you're at the Dray's Bar-B-Que stand in Westchester, gnawing a thick, moist pork rib, and smoke-master Andre Weathersby's wife, Diana, offers you a slice of the best sweet potato pie you can imagine, saying, "I'm gonna give you a taste because I know you're gonna want some."
And it's a good sign when you see pizzaiolo Bradford Kent wearing a Caputo Tipo 00 Pizza Flour T-shirt, stoking the fire for his wood-burning oven with California olive wood.
Barbecue and pizza are just the start of the prepared foods that are available at local farmers markets. To get an overview, we visited more than a dozen markets, sampling as widely as we could whatever looked good.
We found a lot: ribs and brisket, tamales and tri-tip, roasted chicken, pupusas, empanadas, crepes, even aebleskivers (those melt-in-your-mouth Danish pastries that look like spherical pancakes).
Prepared foods sold at farmers markets must be made in local health department-certified kitchens. Furthermore, the individual booths must have a hand-washing area as well as access to running water.
Still, their presence is not without controversy. Some purists object to markets offering anything but farm-grown produce. But Mary Lou Weiss, founding manager of the Torrance farmers markets, where food has been sold since the early 1990s, says it has become an integral part of the market experience.
"It's helped our market become a community event every Saturday," Weiss says. "People can have their breakfast and shop, or they can shop and then have lunch. We used to think people would come to a farmers market and be in and out in under an hour. Now we think they spend more time because there's more for them to do. They can see their friends and talk and listen to good music while they're enjoying good food. And then they can go shop."
Indeed, the food court end of the Torrance market resembles nothing so much as a festival in full swing. Booths selling hot food surround a tent where diners sit at crowded tables and listen to live music. Farmers market food doesn't mean just Kettle Korn anymore.
Acadie Crepes: There's nothing instant about this. Order a crepe and watch the batter being poured, spread and cooked before being filled. You can get them basic (butter and cinnamon sugar) or elaborate (banana, toasted almonds, sour cream and honey).
Crepes from $3.50 to $8. Torrance, Saturday; and Santa Monica (Ocean Park), Sunday.
Aebleskivers: Puffy little dough balls hot from the pan, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with strawberry jam. What could be better?
Three for $2.75. Torrance, Saturday; and Hollywood, Sunday.
Ara's Kitchen: One of the standouts among the big, thick pupusas at Ara's Kitchen are the ones stuffed with cheese and loroco, an edible Central American flower. (You'll see a photo of a pile of the green buds taped to the booth.) And don't forget the aguas frescas. Recently on offer: watermelon, pineapple-mango-green-apple and horchata -- a version made with seeds from the Calabash gourd.
Pupusas, $4. Aguas frescas, $2.50 to $5. Downtown L.A. (Little Tokyo), Thursday; Eagle Rock, Friday; Encino, Sunday.
Bigmista's Barbecue: Bigmista-mania is all over the Internet and there's a good reason why -- Neil Strawder really knows how to smoke meat. His pork ribs are lean and dense with just the perfect balance of smoke and sweet. And about that brisket? Take your choice: The lean side is mostly about the smoke, the fatty side is rich and beefy, almost like Kobe barbecue.
Sandwiches, $4 to $7; meat a la carte, $5 to $12; sides, $1 to $6. Atwater Village, Sunday; Torrance, Tuesday; El Segundo, Thursday; and Watts, Saturday.
Corn Maiden Tamales: Pascal Dropsy started his company by selling gourmet tamales only at farmers markets and was so successful that they're now sold in supermarkets. But you can still find them at a dozen markets every week.
Tamales, $3.50 (also available by the dozen, $30 to $34). Culver City, Tuesday; downtown L.A. (Figueroa), downtown L.A. (Little Tokyo), Westwood and South Pasadena, Thursday; Torrance, Calabasas and La Cañada, Saturday; and Hollywood, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica and Studio City, Sunday.
Curiel's Mediterranean Cuisine: "People always ask me, 'If you're Mexican, why cook Greek food?' " says Maria Curiel, proprietor of Curiel's Mediterranean Cuisine. "I tell them, 'All the cooks at all the restaurants in L.A. are Latino." Fair enough. Curiel, who has worked in Mediterranean kitchens in New York and L.A., and her crew turn out juicy, smoky kebabs -- such as skewers threaded with chunks of rib-eye, lamb kefta or beef lula, the ground beef marinated in paprika, garlic, dried mint and "other secret ingredients."
Kebabs, $3 to $5. Kebab combination plates, $7 to $12. Montrose and Brentwood, Sunday; Long Beachand Sherman Oaks, Tuesday; Northridge, Wednesday; downtown L.A. (Little Tokyo), Thursday; Exposition Park, Saturday.
Delmy's Pupusas: Delmy Sandoval makes the most delicious pupusas -- thick and chewy and stuffed with things like cheese, pork, zucchini and mushrooms, and topped with curtido (pickled cabbage) and a bright, fiery salsa.
Pupusas, $2 each. Wilmington, Thursday; Torrance, Saturday; Hollywood and Atwater Village, Sunday.
Dray's Bar-B-Q: This is the real deal. New Orleans native Andre Weathersby, a retired meat cutter, smokes his meats at the market in a portable pit over mostly mesquite wood. The tri-tip is tender and moist (get it in a sandwich topped with grilled onions and sweet peppers), and the pork ribs are tender but with that perfect snap that lets you know they weren't precooked. Also try his pork butt, which he slices into steaks before smoking. Wife Diana's desserts are terrific as well.
Barbecue plates, $5 to $12. Westchester, Wednesday; Leimert Park, Saturday; and Mar Vista, Sunday.
Farmers Market Pizza: Incredibly, Bradford Kent is making pizzas every week at the Manhattan Beach farmers market from his mobile wood-fired oven. They're 10-inch pies with a crisp-chewy crust that Kent spent five years perfecting. A recent special: a Thai basil-shrimp pizza topped with a pesto of Thai basil, fresh mint, cilantro, fish sauce and Thai bird chiles; fresh spinach; shrimp seasoned with penang curry and aromatic peanut oil; a little Monterey Jack cheese; wok-charred cashews; and a drizzle of Thai curry sauce he makes with reduced coconut milk, his penang curry and kaffir lime leaf. For purists, his pizza Margherita is delicious with a juicy fresh tomato sauce, Gioia mozzarella and fresh basil.
Pizzas, $8. Manhattan Beach, Tuesday.
Flava Lady: For your fix of Caribbean, Flava Lady's selection of what caterer-owner Marlene Myrie calls Caribbean-Creole cuisine includes Jamaican patties and jerk chicken. The golden-yellow turmeric-tinged pastry for the patties is pliable but flaky; fillings of beef, chicken, vegetable or shrimp and crab are full-on flavorful. (The chicken is special because she adds a little curry.) Her jerk chicken is marinated in a heady mixture of homemade chicken stock, garlic, green onions, thyme, allspice, fresh ginger, brown sugar, mango chutney and more. It's grilled right there at the Hollywood Farmers' Market, served with sides such as green beans, plantains and spinach quiche.
Patties, $3; jerk chicken, $6 with one side. Hollywood, Sunday.
Gourmet Grill Masters: This rotisserie chicken truck is all about the skin. It's so crisp it almost seems like it must have been deep-fried. The meat is moist too and redolent of herbs and aromatics such as rosemary, oregano, garlic and ginger that the birds have been marinated in.
Half a chicken with roasted potatoes, $6. West Hollywood, Monday; Torrance, Manhattan Beach and Sherman Oaks, Tuesday; Westchester and Sierra Madre, Wednesday; Redondo Beach, Westwood and South Pasadena, Thursday; Long Beach and Echo Park, Friday; Calabassas and Laguna Beach, Saturday; Hollywood and Larchmont, Sunday.
Gourmet Korean B.B.Q.: Owner David Kim is busy at several area farmers markets throughout the week offering a variety of homemade Korean fermented and marinated vegetables and sauces, but Sundays are when he offers his hot Korean pancakes, or pajeon. These big (8- to 10-inch) griddle cakes are made to order, crisp on the outside, soft and tender within. They're filled with vegetables such as green onions, carrots, leeks, onions, bean sprouts, zucchini or celery. A seafood pancake includes shrimp, crab, scallops and vegetables. They're offered a la carte with a side of kimchi and "Dave's Gourmet Magic" dipping sauce.
Pancakes, $5, or $9 for a pancake meal (with kimchi, dipping sauce, rice, mung bean noodles and pot stickers). West Hollywood, Monday; Culver City and Manhattan Beach, Tuesday; Westchester, Wednesday; South Pasadena, Thursday; Venice, Friday; Burbank and Silver Lake, Saturday; Hollywood, Sunday.
Grand Casino Bakery: Among the offerings from Argentinian bakery Grand Casino (such as palmeritas, canyoncitos, alfajores and other South American pastries) are its baked empanadas. They're golden brown, almost glossy half-moons of savory pastry filled with spinach and artichoke, chicken and mushrooms, or spicy beef, the edges folded into a neat braid. Sometimes there's a caprese version with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. The beef empanadas are hard to resist: chubby pillows filled with nicely spicy ground beef, they have a bit of a kick.
Empanadas, $2. Culver City, Tuesday.
Hawaiian Chicken: There are few sights as enticing as three guys working two grills the size of refrigerators, every square inch of them filled with marinated chicken on its way to being charred just right. Long lines such as at the Century City farmers market on Thursdays -- hungry office workers know what they like -- aren't uncommon. Hawaiian-born owner Eugene Hong marinates his shoyu chicken for two days; it's then grilled at the farmers markets and served with his Asian-fusion hot sauce, his mom's recipe. The huli-huli chicken -- dry rubbed with a Hawaiian seasoning salt -- is grilled on a specially built rotisserie over mesquite charcoal and is available only at select markets.
Shoyu and huli-huli chicken, $7 to $12. Montrose, Sunday; Long Beach and Culver City, Tuesday; downtown Pershing Square, Wednesday; downtown L.A. (Little Tokyo) and Century City, Thursday; downtown Bank of America, Wilshire Center and Eagle Rock, Friday; Exposition Park, Saturday. (Huli-huli chicken is available only at Montrose, Eagle Rock and Exposition Park.)