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Learning to Love the Haymarket

  • c

Two years ago I and my lovely DC became empty-nesters and moved from Andover to downtown. I have made some progress in coming to understand the opportunity that is the Haymarket, want to share as well as get your impressions.

1. If you do not care what you spend on produce, do not go to the Haymarket. If you can buy everything at Whole Foods or Wilson’s without flinching, do not subject yourself. I flinch.

2. The value of the Haymarket increases exponentially with how easily you access it. Needing to drive e.g. is probably a showstopper, but people do it. I am fortunate enough to walk past it on Saturday morning pilgrimage to the North End.

3. You can never count on any specific produce being available at the Haymarket. You need to go with the attitude that you will cook/eat what you buy rather than you are going to buy things you have already selected to cook. I like this, forces a sort of ‘Iron Chef’ thing every week.

4. Much of the produce at the Haymarket is on its way to a dumpster which is why it is at the Haymarket to begin with. If you want consistently, brilliantly fresh produce see number 1.

5. There are exceptions to number 4 and herein lies the opportunity. Each week there are generally several extraordinary values. E.g. 4 lb bags of baby spinach for $1. Passable asparagus for $1 a bunch. Really nice naval oranges (this past weekend), 6/$1. At these prices the produce is essentially free … and here is what is, for me, special about the Haymarket. What do you do with free asparagus? (hint: you buy a lot of it, blanch it, puree it, and fill up your freezer. Yes, you will get sick of asparagus soup but that takes a long time). Same with berries and fruit for smoothies (cut up and freeze).

6. The Cheese Guy: Probably deserves (and I am sure has) his own post. Again, the key is to not compare him to a regular cheese store. Use him in *addition*, not instead of. He has many cuts of cheese at undetermined weights. They are $3 for 1, $5 for 2, $7 for 3 … sometimes, like last week he will sell a last (after 3) piece for $1, not always, you need to discuss. Some weeks all of the cheese is crap. Others there can be real bargains. Last weekend very good feta and my favorite – Weinbergkse Vignotte. Just weighed a piece, exactly 7 oz., if you assume it was a $2 piece that’s $4.57/lb. which is a great value.

7. Haymarket Pizza: Cheap! Not bad, not great.

8. Clam Guy: 3 freshly chucked cherrystones for $2. Awesome with the qualification that I am frequently there early in the morning, raw clams are a weird breakfast. If it was later in the day and there was a ‘beer guy’ next door we’d be onto something.

9. Dealing with the vendors.: Do not ask them to make change if you can avoid it. Never ask them to deal with coins, remember the produce is essentially free, round up. They are a lively bunch, on your first visits watch others; you will get a feel for the rhythm.

Any other Haymarket fans out there? What has been your experience? Any tips?

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  1. Well, I've done ok with Haymarket but it may be that's because I'm friendly with a few of the vendors and they're willing to guide me on my purchases. As to item #8, what time does Durty Nellies open? Perfect spot for a beer.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Pegmeister

      I actually stopped in Durty Nelly's on Saruday for a couple of beers. I love that place and it is very cheap. They open at 9:00am on weekdays and 8:00am on the weekends! :)

      1. re: Pegmeister

        Durty Nelly's?

        Never heard of it. :))

        BTW, another Haymarket area hint is the Halal market right next to Nelly's. I buy spices of all kinds there dirt cheap.

        Or should I say Durty cheap?

      2. Carty - great post. Agreed on all counts.

        On Haymarket Pizza, just another reminder (and thanks) to the hound who posted about the fact that they sell their dough for $1. I have not ordered out pizza in months as a result. I think the dough may be one of the best in Boston - strong yeasty flavor that's a little sweet actually - when used the same day, it can be rolled very thinly and will crust up perfectly.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Bob Dobalina

          That's a great tip. I just paid $5 for dough at Upper Crust (Beacon Hill).

        2. I agree too. I think the people in the middle with cilantro, scallions, etc. are very dependable. If you ask nicely after looking in your bag and seeing some crappy pieces, most of them are okay with switching. Just don't handle the merch in advance. Those boxes of raspberries and blackberries for $1 can't be beat (and you usually can pick those up to check for fuzziness which doesn't happen *too* often). There are a couple real assholes that I know to avoid. I love that cheese guy, wicked nice. I almost always find what I'm looking for (random stuff like berries, dill, celery) but I don't go all that often.

          1. I don't shop at Haymarket often any more, though in my younger days I did quite a bit. I still remember getting an amazing deal on a flat of cherries about 25 years ago, bringing them home and spending forever pitting them, and making a huge batch of cherry jam. And only this past Saturday Barmy and I were eying a very good-looking sack of onions that a couple were toting away.

            There are several reasons I don't shop there as much anymore. I'm more willing to spend more money on fresher produce, and in season I'd far rather shop the farmer's markets for locally grown goods. But the biggest reason is that I had the unpleasant experience of being trapped in a crowd so dense that I couldn't move and having my pocket picked. That's made me quite paranoid in any kind of dense crowd and really took the fun out of joining the Haymarket scrum.

            I'll agree with the advice about not asking vendors to make change if you can avoid it. The best thing is to just go with a big wad of $1 bills.

            1. A long while ago when I lived in the North End I used to shop there regularly.

              You neglect to mention two the key rules of Hay Market, one is a bit of a secret:

              - You can not pick the produce yourself! If you try you risk getting yelled at or worse!

              - After you purchase, take a step back, and sort through the bag. If they really gave you junk, you have the right to return the bag and get your money back. After a while you will learn who sells junk and who does not. And some of the borderline vendors will start to recognize you and hesitate to stick junk into your bag knowing they will just get it back. It takes real bravery to return a bag to those tough colorful folks, and they will not be happy, but they will generally not object. It is the secret law of Haymarket they get to pick 'em, but if you are not pleased you can return them.

              3 Replies
              1. re: StriperGuy

                Many of the vendors now let you pick your own. The old line vendors still fill your bag from the back so you don't know what you're getting. I only shop at the ones which let you pick, mostly the Asian and Latino vendors.

                If you park in the Parcel 7 Garage next door and buy a slice of pizza at Haymarket Pizza ($1.25 for cheese), you get validated so it's $1 for 2 hours, $3 for 3 hours. This is a perk from the Big Dig.

                1. re: lergnom

                  This actually preceded the Dig - you could park under the the highway for cheap with validation. And you can get this from most vendors, not just Haymarket Pizza.

                  1. re: drb

                    You can get validated anywhere that's a member of the North End Business Alliance. I mentioned Haymarket Pizza because they're in the middle of the market. The Big Dig provided financing for this program and moved it into the garage.

              2. I love getting oranges and tangerines there for juicing, they are so so cheap. I think I get the honey tangerines 10 for a dollar. Berries cant be beat, yes there will be some yucky ones, but they are so so cheap. Freezing berries for smoothies is great. I also like getting onions there. I also walk by it at lunch on fridays so it is easy for me, dont think I would go out of my way to go there.

                1. Carty,

                  I think you have it about right. i often tell folks that if you buy 12 of one item and 5 of them are not so good, you have still saved a huge amount of money over what you would have spent at a supermarket. i like to buy lemons and limes, garlic, and whatever else looks good that week. I always say to a vendor "I'll take a dollar limes".. etc. Always have exact change, and never quibble with them. they appreciate it and will usually give you a better assortment of items. If you go late in the day on Saturday and you have a strong back, you can get a crate of tomatoes or oranges or somethng similar for whatever you are willing to pay. they would probably give it away but it's expected that you give them something out of principle.

                  It is terrific fun to see the new immigrants interact with the vendors. Lots of fake spats and arguments but generally happy interactions. It is a great place to people watch and a great place to take out of town visitors.

                  1. Haymarket is worth it for the entertainment value alone. 3 foot tall Asian ladies elbowing their way to the front getting yelled at by 6 foot tall italian vendors, not understanding a single word, to save $.25 - priceless. Drive is a moderate pain, but parking in Parcel 9 is cheap (albeit disgusting), get there early on summer Saturday before it gets warm, wander into North End for pizza at Ernestos, spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what to do with all that insanely cheap produce before it goes bad. My daughters learned to like clams by slurping lemon juice off the Clam Guy's cherrystones for breakfast. Probably earns me a visit from DSS.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: drb

                      What you describe is exactly what I love about Haymarket; tussle, bustle, madness of it all.

                      Sorry that Kobuta's mom had such jerk's to deal with and I do believe it has improved in that regard. Boston was also sadly the epicenter of a major struggle of the civil right movement during the school desegregation and busing of 1974-77. Hopefully we have come a long way since then.

                      But Haymarket is still a rough and tumble urban place to buy food at very low cost. I have also seen restaurant chefs stocking up on basics, huge bags of carrots, onions, etc.

                    2. Has anyone ever gotten the falafel from the take-out counter at one of the middle eastern grocers that is "below" Haymarket? I've always been curious as to how it is...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: SaraASR

                        It's very good traditional falafel, very similar to what you would get on the street in Amman, etc. Not large, very simple, folded over pita not opened and stuffed. Inexpensive. What I call "medium speed food"; it's not an assembly line but a little area in the shop where men sit around reading the Arabic papers and talking.

                      2. One of our favorite family sayings came from a visit to Haymarket. It was the end of the day when one is looking for even bigger bargains. We paused to look at some eggplant and there was an older man trying to bargain for a bushel of them. The vendor was a young man of crude manner. He exploded at the man, "I'll f-ing throw them in the street before I'll give them to you at that price!"

                        Since then, whenever we're at our limit with someone or something, my husband or I will say "I'll f-ing throw them into the street before they'll get it at that price!" to indicate how angry and frustrated and tired we are. It alwasy breaks the tension and makes us smile.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: three of us

                          Not sure if anyone remembers the guy who used to say: "Pssst, hey... want some meat" to everyone who walked by?

                          1. re: StriperGuy

                            I remember him when I was a kid. It retrospect it seems a bit creepy.

                            1. re: StriperGuy

                              I'm not sure if it is the same guy that you are talking about... but last summer when I was there, there was a 'gentleman' that keep telling young passers-by that "I'll give you something to grab!" and other unmentionably worse things involving meat.

                              I do enjoy the challenge of the Haymarket however. It was great fun to successfully leave with 2 pounds of mushrooms that the stoned booth attendant accidently sold me for 50 cents.

                              1. re: StriperGuy

                                omg: "Smilin' Jack" I used to refer to him as. Way bakc when roomamates and i went down there to buy something for a dinner we wanted to make to impress some of our women friends to show them we weren't lame (we were). We decided to take him up and went in to the store. He took us in to his meat locker and started sharpening his knives while speaking to us. We hoofed it out of there in terror and never went back. Good times.

                                1. re: StriperGuy

                                  Oh, yeah - "Want some meat? Want some meat?" and he was always wearing a really gross bloody butcher's coat. I remember him well, but never went in. We used Morris the Butcher over on Salem Street (now D&R Meats.) I went to a Halloween party once where someone came dressed as the Want Some Meat guy.

                              2. I love Haymarket ... and have gone there regularly on Saturday mornings for the last 5 years, since I was in college. I almost always go with a list, which really helps ... and after this many Saturdays down there - you begin to know the vendors, which is key. There are the vendors that a little flirting can get me 3 extra oranges from the non-bruised box, there are the chain-smoking vendors with yellowed fingernails that scam people every week, there's the man that after a few fights after giving me rotten produce (and i do mean "fight") knows never to try again, and the butcher who loves to freak out passerbys with the goat heads and flopping fish.

                                I will say though, that after this long going, going earlier in the morning is key. Some friends from Berkeley first tried to fight me on this - saying the prices should of course drop in the afternoon -- which sometimes they do - but at that point, I wouldn't eat the produce. Early in the morning assures better quality, less people, and as much peace as you could probably get.

                                Also, outside of some of the Asian vendors in the middle, the man with herbs and yuccas down by the Point, and an odd bargain, the vendors when you walk in from the McCormick and Shmicks side (there are about 5 in that first pass) are by far the best quality and most reliable.

                                Ones to *avoid* - Maybe 3-4 into the middle from the McCormicks side is the booth with huge signs saying "do not touch". They're by far the biggest scammers there. It's remarkable to see people fall for it. Also, there's an older man on the far side by the seafood that yells at customers, who drives me nuts.

                                Otherwise, I recommend bringing a list, always checking your bag, don't be afraid to argue a little, and the Middle Eastern bread (mmm, the armenian bread especially) is always fresh and so cheap. Enjoy!

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: kay.em.tea.

                                  Yes, I remember the 'want some meat?" man. He was there in the seventies when I started going there. I left the area for about fifteen years and took it as a sign of gentrification on my return that the 'want some meat?' guy was still there, though this time also selling a t-shirt with his likeness on it, along with the catchphrase 'want some meat?' Even a hardscrabble place like Haymarket proved no match for boomer irony.

                                  There was also a time way back in the seventies when we impoverished post-hipsters went there to find some cheap ground beef for a large cook-out. We found some for what I recall as 25 cents a pound. When we asked the seller how it was he could sell it so cheap, he shrugged his shoulders and said "eet's got a lot of fet in eet." Indeed it did: our half pound burgers shrunk to the size of large coins amid a lot of flames.

                                  I still go back, but with all the caveats mentioned above.

                                  1. re: fenstermoop

                                    in a very serious cost-conscious mode these last few years, i've been trying to shop haymaket as often as possible, and i've shopped there off-and-on over the 20 years i've lived here.

                                    i think the general quality has improved dramatically in the last few years, and i rarely get rotten pieces anymore. if the display produce doesn't look good, i take a pass. the latino and asian vendors usually let you pick your own. agreed with the above that early mornings are best, especially when it's NOT winter, because the stuff has been sitting out all day.

                                    one of the larger stalls, closer to the hotel end, is one i never frequent, because the stuff is terrible. the fruit guy with the square stall on the end by the parking garage has great stuff.

                                    as long as you don't have large bills, most of them don't have an issue making change, and i've never had a problem asking (and getting) 50 cents of something, instead of a dollar.

                                    last week, 2 pears at whole foods cost me nearly $4.00. there were not organic. pears at haymarket are often 4-8 for $1.00. i buy lemons, limes, garlic, jalapeno peppers, parsley, cilantro, onions for a fraction of what they cost at shaw's.

                                    the halal butchers have very good quality meat and right near harry the cheese guy is a very good middle-eastern market, with cheap-cheap prices.

                                    if you go inside harry the cheese guy, he has great stuff at amazing prices, and will offer you a taste of anything. the outside stuff can be iffy, but the pieces he sells 2-for-$5 out there are usually about 1/2 pound each. so that's $5 a pound for feta or cabot cheddar. inside, he has very good olives for $3 a pound!

                                    most weeks, i spend about $15 for more fruit and veggies than i can consume, with very little waste. i'd rather support these little guys than shaw's 69 cents for a freakin' lemon.

                                    i also enjoy the mix of language and cultures all bumping up against each other and think the halal meat guys, as well as harry, should get more props!

                                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                                      Slightly off topic but Arax in Watertown has great Olives at about $3/lb for the small ones and Feta at various price points (Bulgarian, French, Greek, Domestic) ranging from $3-$7 a pound.

                                      1. re: StriperGuy

                                        I can only speak for the seafood aspect.

                                        If you knew what was sent over there on a weekly basis, I would not be purchasing my seafood over there. EVER. End of Story.

                                        Downright scary.

                                        1. re: StriperGuy

                                          haymarket is a 5 minute t-ride for me. watertown might as well be the moon. :)

                                  2. I don't frequent Haymarket often, but the clams seem very good...where exactly is this clam guy?

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: chowda

                                      He's on the end between the parking garage and the Bell in Hand.

                                      Just make sure you go for the fresh shucked ones. Use a discerning eye.
                                      And if any taste a bit off, spit. Hey, it happens.

                                      1. re: Bob Dobalina


                                        I guess that's the price you gotta pay for cheaper oysters ;-)