Thursday, February 07, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted by Alice Q. Foodie on Thursday, February 07, 2008