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Jan 22, 2008 08:46 AM

"Ethnic" farmers markets?

Another post reminded me that the selection of produce varies a lot at different markets -- some of the less chi-chi markets have a much wider selection of Asian produce (most notably the Old Oakland Farmers' market), and there must be some that have more Latin American specialities as well.

Any tips on markets that are less focused on heirloom/organic produce and more on "ethnic" specialties? Alemany would be one, I think, but that's a bit of a trek from the East Bay.

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  1. The Heart of the City farmers market in SF Civic Center (Wed & Sun) has several vendors offering produce mostly used in Chinese and southeast Asian cooking. Chinese greens are available at many stalls. Thai herbs and chiles (including both Thai basil and holy basil) are available at a stall nearest the chicken truck. Vietnamese herbs are available at a stall on the western edge of the market, right near the popcorn seller.

    It's on top of the Civic Center BART station and therefore much easier to get to than Alemany from the East Bay. Parking is also much easier than that horrible lot at Alemany, especially before 9 on Sunday. The market is up and running by 7 both days.

    1. You might consider checken out some of the Flea Markets near you. The Richmond Flea market has a few Mexican-oriented vendors. Not that much out of the ordinary, but the prices are less expensive and one vendor will hack up a fresh coconut for you and stick a straw in it. This time of year there's only one vendor there, but there are about a half dozen during the summer.

      With Mexican food the thing is that the regular markets are so good that a farmers market isn't a real draw. Add to that that many people have gardens in their yards and people share with neighbors. We were getting some lovely eggs from some neighbors till someone sqealed ... not zoned here for poultry. Also, it is more of looking for the truck on the corner that sells strawberries, oranges, watermelons, or garbanzos in season.

      The El Cerrito market has lots of Asian veggies but not the selection of Old Oakland.

      The Richmond farmers market (not flea) is also Asian-oriented but it so sucks I wouldn't recommend it if you lived next door.

      10 Replies
      1. re: rworange

        Yes and no on the Mexican markets. The selection is good, but in the larger markets I question how local it is, and in the smaller ones with less turnover, how fresh it is. To me, that's the main benefit of a farmers' market: getting stuff you know is very fresh and local, not picked many days ago and trucked up from Mexico.

        1. re: rworange

          Really? When I lived in Richmond and raised chickens, the only problem was a nuisance ordinance. In other words, if it crows, eat it. That was a bit ago though.

          1. re: rworange

            "With Mexican food the thing is that the regular markets are so good that a farmers market isn't a real draw."

            Don't agree--maybe in Mexico, but the ones in the mission district in SF are okay at best--definitely cheap, but the produce quality ranges from 'acceptable and a bargain' to 'unusable for anything but stock'. Nothing really organic or local, not a lot of interesting varieties, just commercial/commodity produce. There is some decent tropical fruit and mexican/central-american specialties (eg tomatillos and mangos) though.

            1. re: xanadude

              I'm not saying to shop at Mexican markets, only opining as why there's not that much Mexican-oriented produce at farmers markets. Many of the single-item street produce trucks are local and seasonal but not always top quality.

              The strawberry guys near me buy their berries in Watsonville / Salinas. One vendor's cherries last year were from Brentwood. I forget where the garbanzo guy is from but it is fairly nearby. The oranges/ melons are usually from around Fresno or that area. None of it organic, but all inexpensive ... especially if you bargain.

              The flea markets aren't, for the most part too much better that the markets, but there can be some fresh boxes of stuff with leaves still attached.

              And while the most of the small Mexican market produce is coming from the big wholesale produce markets like those in Jack London Square or SF, some local stuff creeps in. La Loma #11 is good for this. Someone has a tree or too much in their garden and they buy a box or two of the stuff. We ain't talking Ferry Plaza quality in any of this.

              1. re: rworange

                That seems reasonable; another reason is that a lot of Mexican produce can't very easily be grown locally due to climate, or at least not for much of the year.

                1. re: xanadude

                  Exactly. I doubt that there is any such thing as a commercially viable production of local mangoes, tamarind, or platanos.

                  On the other hand, it seems that items like chiles, tomatillos, garbanzos, herbs (epazote, Mexican oregano), chayote, Mexican squash varieties, and nopales could be produced locally (again, broadly defined) on a seasonal basis. Indeed, some of these items do show up at the Saturday Berkeley FM in the summer.

                  1. re: hohokam

                    Those items also show up at most of the farmers markets. There is just not the big presence of them like the Asian veggies.

                    The one thing that ticks me off is the prices of chayote ... anywhere ... small Mexican markets Berkeley Bowl type joints, farmers markets, Flea markets.

                    I have a renegade chayote plant in my backyard that will not die despite my best efforts. It is not that I don't love chayote, but one vine took over the back yard, started to cover the house, and stages major comebacks. It produces dozens and dozens of chayote. The are not a fragile fruit. They take NO effort to grow. They should be dirt cheap.

                    The only exception is fresh garbanzos only appear on trucks. One Ferry Plaza vendor tried to sell them and no one would buy them. They take up alot of room because they are pretty bushy.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Have you tried Chinese markets for chayotes? They often have them.

                      I believe I've seen fresh garbanzos at the Heart of the City FM.

                      1. re: rworange

                        Heh. I hear what you're saying about chayote. I used to live near Wildcat Creek in the flats of Richmond, and I still remember a volunteer chayote vine that had taken over a fence of a house that backed up the the creek. Many times I was tempted to pick one of the fruit to use in my dinner. If they hadn't been the spiny variety, I might have given in to the temptation. ;-)

                        I also remember a "garbanzo guy" who would set up on 23rd St near Garvin in Richmond, but to my regret, I never got around to buying from him.

                        When I think back on these memories, I wonder if some enterprising food activist might see an opportunity to get a local food initiative going in the Richmond/San Pablo area. Hmm.

                        1. re: hohokam

                          The garbanzo guy still shows up in-season

                          Occasionally he has watermelons ... and sometimes he will tell you about the latest litter of puppies he has at home if you are interested.

                          Between the local markets / trucks / street corner vendors, I think what is happening meets community needs. Actully San Pablo seems insanely intent on eliminating these businesses. I love that the strawberry guy will wander my street and bring a flat of strawberries directly to my kitchen.

                          The only thing I hate is that Richmond farmers market which is a disgrace and one of the worst I've ever visited ... and I've visited a lot.

            2. I've been rolling this over in my mind trying to think of examples, but I still haven't had any luck. I tend to shop at the Saturday Berkeley FM where there is one vendor who sells some Asian vegetables and a couple who sell chiles, but that's about it.

              When I think about Mexican/Latin American specialty foods, I wonder (a) which ones you would expect or like to see at a street market and (b) which ones the local (broadly defined) climate would actually support.