Thursday, February 07, 2008

An Old Fashioned "Chowdown" at the Imperial Ave. Farmers' Market

Stalls and Tables in the Imperial Farmers' Market building
This past Saturday, a few of my fellow Chowhounds and I got together for a meet and eat, known in Chowhound parlance as a "Chowdown," at the Imperial Avenue Farmers' Market Building. I was excited not only to check out the Mexican food - but to meet some of the folks who I have been exchanging tips, complaints and chit chat with for the past year and a half or so. Josh, Alex (Kare Raisu), Jen (jturtle) and I had a great time, and I think it's something we'll be doing again in the future - I certainly hope so.
Another view of the Salsa Verde
I hadn't been to the Farmers' Market building in a number of years, and it was a little different from what I remember. In the old days there were fresh fruit and vegetable vendors in the center, and shops around the outside edges selling various wares reminiscent of Tijuana. When I walked into the front of the building, I saw a large empty area to the right - to the left however, the building was full of life - a long corridor of stalls selling various food items: guisados - or Mexican stews - in steam tables, women making torillas, huge pots of carnitas bubbling away, an honest to goodness panaderia, and long tables of people eating the best looking Mexican food I've seen just about anywhere. Most of them were eating large bowls of red Pozole, garnished with the fresh salsas, cilantro and other garnishes in bowls lined up on the tables. A strolling guitarist was serenading the room. Stumbling onto this scene unexpectedly felt like walking through the set of a movie.
Chowdown at the Imperial Farmers Market 002
I found my cohorts on the outside of the building at the side entrance - we spotted each other immediately, as people somehow always do when they are looking for each other. We waited a few minutes to make sure we had everyone, and headed inside to the Bahia Mariscos for some ceviche. Alex chose this "course" for us, and he and Josh selected a ceviche pescado and "agua chile" - a dish made with raw shrimp marinated in a habanero sauce. Both were delicious - the fish ceviche benefited from some additional lime and hot sauce, and the agua chile was sweet and intensely spicy. It's definitely a good thing we shared it.
Chowdown at the Imperial Farmers Market 007
Josh chose the next destination and led us to the Carnitas Estilo Michoacan Stand - which features just about any part of the pig you could possibly desire to eat. He had his eye on the pork rib and pork belly cuts and ordered two tacos filled with each for us to share, but something was lost in the translation, and we wound up with pork stomach instead. Alex had a pork ear taco (which he thoroughly enjoyed) and I ordered a couple of plain carnitas tacos.
Carnitas taco with salsas
The carnitas and rib tacos were good, but the meat was a bit softer than I prefer, not enough crispy edges. The tortillas they used were outstanding - they may have come from one of the stalls directly across the corridor, where two women were making tortillas side by side. There were bowls of the most vibrant green salsa I've ever seen sitting on the tables, and lots of fresh onions, cilantro and pico de gallo. I kept piling them on the carnitas, but after awhile, it just tasted like onion. As Alex pointed out, maybe the salt shaker would have helped.
Guisados - we had the chile relleno, far top left, and the barbacoa, middle front
The next course was chosen by Jen, and we all had our eye on the steam table of guisados just across from the Carnitas stall. She chose wisely - a plate of barbacoa and a chile relleno coupled with some of those fresh tortillas.
Barbacoa and Chile Relleno
These were my favorite dishes of the day - the barbacoa was well seasoned, not overly greasy, and had a good chile flavor. The chile relleno was cooked al dente, filled with a mild white cheese and coated with a thin eggy batter. The sauce was seasoned with fresh oregano and had a nice depth and balance to it, like a good complex sauce should. The tortillas were really note-worthy. It would be worth a trip there just to pick some of those up.
Pan Dulces at the Panaderia
Having finished with the savory portion of the meal, it was left to me to chose the pan dulces from the panaderia just next to the carnitas stand. The panaderia was a charming throwback, with a huge vintage oven and large cases with glass doors filled with good looking pastries. Most pan dulces I've had in the past have been too sweet and som have sort of an ersatz flavor. These were more subtle and were made with better quality ingredients. Many of them looked like Italian pastries.
Pan Dulces at the Panaderia
To choose, they give you a pizza tray, and you're asked to place what you want on the tray. I chose a flan, a couple of glazed crisp flat cookies - one like a palmier and the other like a glazed piece of pie crust; a pound cake-like muffin wrapped in crisp pastry and baked; a cakey cinnamon butter cookie; and a cake made of the same poundcake shaped like a snowball - two halves stuck together and covered with raspberry jam and coconut. All of that, including the flan, cost $6.50. The owner was very helpful - he even made me a fresh pot of coffee.
The mess we made...
Overall the food was fabulous and I think we were all full - but since we were eating a little of everything, it never felt like too much. I enjoyed the company just as much as the food - we spent nearly three hours together chatting and trading stories. I'm really looking forward to future outings, both to meet more Chowhounds, and to try new things. I'd really love to explore Vietnamese food, more of Convoy, etc. It's just so easy to get in a rut, and going somewhere new and out of the ordinary feels a little like traveling, with all the benefits and none of the hassles. Like traveling, it's also a lot more fun when you have someone to to show you around.

For the rest of the participants reports on the Chowdown, read the Chowhound thread here

Josh's photos can be viewed here, the rest of mine are here.

San Diego Farmers' Market
2100 Imperial Avenue
Just East of the 5, take the Imperial Avenue exit from S. 5 just past downtown.
We went on Saturday morning at 10 AM, which seemed to be a perfect time - I bet it's also bustling on Sundays.


  1. Hey Alice - Sounds like a great of your photos also reminded me that I have run out of Bufalo Hot sauce, and need to restock!

  2. I suggest going east from this place and buying tortillas at Gabriels and then head over to Golden Hill and Panchitas for the best pan dulce. From what I understand the Farmers Market is being torn down soon to make way for condos. El Comal in North Park is the best place for a real Mexican meal - birria and all. If you want to go further, try Tony's Jacal in Solana Beach. It is an institution for all Del Mar folks.

  3. Damn! I wish I was near a market like this and not just enjoying your experience. Although, I guess it's best for my scale that I can't get to all that food first-hand.

  4. you're so lucky! your farmer's market looks so much better than ours here in dallas!

    i just joined the DB this month, just checking out everyone else’s blogs, wanted to say hello :)

  5. Kirk - it was a good time, were your ears burning? Cause we were talking about you! :-) Only good stuff, of course. I am hoping we can do one with you soon, or maybe do something with Candace?

    Anonymous - damn damn damn - tearing it down? That just sucks. It doesn't surprise me though, since half the building is basically empty. I've heard about the pan dulce at Panchita's and I want to try El Comal. I haven't been to Tony's Jacal, but I have been to Don Chuy, which I love - their fish taco is the best.

    Deborah - yes, it's best to limit the intake - I need to work on that!

    Mrs. Presley - hello and welcome to DB - thanks for stopping by!

  6. There is no place like Tony's Jacal. The Gonzalez family has owned it since 1947. Try the turkey tacos, cabbage salad, and chile rellenos. I remember this place from my childhood and still go there. In the bar you will see lots of photos of famous jockeys and stars who also have eaten there. The place is very crowded during racing season. When it is warm, there is a garden area for outside dining. And no I am not part of the Gonzalez family but I wish that I was !

  7. Alice!
    I really liked how you described that going here is like stepping into a movie set. It seems so different - a unique cultural/culinary transport - to what we are used to.

    It is indeed traveling in your hometown. Pretty cool!
    Again, stunning pictures.
    --alex ;)

  8. Alice! You must stop doing this to me! Tea-time at Cafe Chloe - followed by Mexican fare??? You are making me homesick :-(

  9. Alex - it was a good time and I really enjoyed meeting you - let's do something again soon!

    Tracy! - Sorry! That's what you get for moving away! ;-) I am jealous of what you are doing too, if that's any consolation!!

  10. i know that place, great food...!
    nice job girl! ★★★★★