Get this. I'm holding a mulberry. Pale little thing...I've never seen one before in my life. "We only grow these for the birds," says Pio. "They love them. So they come and they eat the insects. We don't have to use pesticides. The birds are kind enough to leave about 25 percent of the fruit for us humans, which we bring here."
I bite into it. It tastes sweet in an apologetic way, no tart end-kick, the way you get with blackberries. Still, I buy a $2.00 tray to take home to impress Carla.
And that's just the first five minutes here in Escondido. I've been eating market fodder all week before realizing: This is where Mom and Pop went to when the Wal-Marts levered them out of Main Street. This is where town meets country, the people in contact with -- eek! -- Nature. Turns out, more than 6000 farmers grow food in San Diego County. Most are small family farms, nine acres or less.
No surprise we have about 25 farmers' markets operating around the county.
My interest in these places starts accidentally on a Sunday morning, when I wander past that mural of a five-toed dragon painted on a wall at Third and Market -- I hear it represents the Emperor of China -- a herald to let you know you're entering Chinatown.
I wander down Third to the awesome statue of Chin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in the garden of the Chinese Mission Building. And suddenly, I'm into the Third Avenue Farmers' Market and Asian Bazaar, a bunch of tents and stalls on J between Third and Fourth. I'm hungry, and I like the idea of looking for unexpected foods. I walk past flower trucks, fresh veggie stands, a stall where a lady crochets hats, a fresh-bread stand, and a Mexican food tent called "Picnic Stop," which a couple of people tell me has delicious tacos. Two bucks each.
But my nose is twitching at the smells coming from a stall with paper signs you can hardly read in the breeze. I catch the word "Sambussas." Aha. This is great. A Somali business. They make these little pyramids of pastry and fillings just as Indians and Pakistanis do (except in those cultures, they call them samosas). This guy Hamse says his are stuffed with chicken or beef or "spicy spinach" or lentils, with green chili and herbs. It all sounds good, but the deal-closer is the last on his list: a cream cheese, coconut, and potato sambussa. They're a dollar each, 3 for $2.50, 6 for $5.00. Delicious. Abdul, one of the other guys behind the counter, says I've got to have Somalian tea with it. I take a sip of one of the samples they have laid out. Hmm. Intriguing. "It is Lipton's," he says, "but with honey, ginger, and Somali spices." Costs $2.00 for 16 ounces.
But now I've spotted a place two tents down that I've gotta try. "Malaysian Satay," it says. "Five sticks, $3.00, or combo, $5.00." The combo includes rice and veggies.
Just the sight of golden chicken spiked on satay sticks and smoking away on the fire grill makes me think of those famous night markets in Singapore, like the Newton Circus Car Park market, or the Orchard Road Car Park market. I order the combo, get seven sticks with a nice blob of peanut sauce, plus rice and veggies, and go find the sole table in the entire market that you can sit down at. A family from Hyderabad in India is seated there too. The mother, Lakshmi, eats a crêpe from La Crêperie, another food tent at this Third Street end.
I usually think of crêpes as sweet: strawberries, cream, Grand Marnier. But Lakshmi has ordered a vegetarian, bulging with jack and cheddar cheese, raw veggies like spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms. "It is very good," Lakshmi says, "but I thought $7.00 was a bit steep for market food."
I really want to try them, except the satay and rice have left no room whatsoever. But don't feel sorry for La Crêperie. The joking, singing, boisterous, flamboyant, French-speaking chef has a never-ending line waiting just for him. Chef Louda's his name. A character. His customers seem mostly a downtown condo crowd, well-off empty-nesters who'll pay to get their veggies and fruit fresh, local, and organic.
Oddly, the one thing that's missing here is Chinese. This was supposed to be an Asian market for the historically Asian part of town, but David Klaman, who manages the market, says he just hasn't been able to get interest from Asian foodies. Well, at least we had the satay.
A few days later I'm up at UCSD, near that incredible library that looks like a 3-D crossword puzzle. It's a Tuesday, lunchtime, and the wide pathway is packed. Tents and tables, smoke from barbecues, and some guy shouting over music about a band called Ludacris.
Except it seems Ludacris is a rapper, not a band. Famous. And he himself is here handing out free tix (the rest of us'd pay $32.50 and up) for the "Anger Management tour," which -- wow -- also features Eminem. Except the longest line isn't for Ludacris and Eminem. It's for the lemongrass barbecue. A white tent, and behind it, two way-big barbecue grill racks, with guys turning chicken pieces by the dozens, sending out that smoke that makes me dizzy. I stand behind a student wearing a T-shirt that says, "I [heart] Nerds." She orders a rice combo with teriyaki chicken, rice, and grilled vegetables. She pays $6.00, and $1.00 for a soda.
"Uh, line here," says this guy, and I realized I've cut to the front. I go around to the end of the line. Eight back, I'm looking over the half a dozen selections, combos, or wraps with satay chicken, teriyaki chicken. But everyone ahead of me just says, "Green wrap." The board describes it as chicken, grilled veggies, lettuce, lightly pickled cucumber, and red onion wrapped in a flappy flour tortilla. So I go for it too (it's $7.00), with the lemongrass chicken -- seeing as that's what they're all about. Besides, I have good memories of the dish from when I was this spotty, sweaty kid, happily lost in Thailand and Laos. Suzanne, who takes my order, is from Battambang, in Cambodia. The owner, Pat, grew up Thai-Lao. She's originally from Laos. She escaped when she was young, a night trip with her family by tiny boat across the Mekong River. "It's amazing," she says. "I started off here with one little grill. But UCSD...the students have been wonderful." And the wrap? Doesn't sound too Thai. "I just dreamed that up about four months ago." She'd noticed how students were always eating on the run. It's now her most popular item. "Here I am living the American dream," she says, looking at the long line.