3740 Mission Boulevard, San Diego
"Okay. Watch my hand carefully,"" says this guy Rafael. Me and a bunch of kids follow it like eagles. He slowly unfolds the two single dollars he started with, and -- whack! -- they've become one ten-dollar bill. He hasn't moved, and there's nothing up his sleeves, 'cause he don't have no sleeves.
Now he gets a kid to choose between a silver quarter and a black-and-gold Chinese coin with a hole in the middle. No way to confuse the two. But before you can say ""Jack Robinson,"" the quarter has changed into the Chinese coin.
While I'm scratching my head, a woman from the Greek food stall next door stretches out a fork with a piece of gyro meat on it. ""Like to try a sample?""
This is happening halfway down the alley of tents and tables at the farmers' market on Center Street in downtown Chula Vista, around dusk. Mmm. That gyro meat sure tastes good. While Rafael shows the kids how he can levitate two inches off the ground -- truly! looks real to me -- I check out the tent. The gal, Vahida, has a bunch of pastries wrapped around meat, spinach, chicken. ""Greek Food,"" says a sign. What the heck. I may as well chow down here. Carla's eating her special diet food with Linda tonight (they're into losing 20 pounds for summer). The choices are simple. Eggplant ""sandwich,"" $5.55; chicken sandwich, $6.00; chicken plate (with greens), $7.00. The gyro plate is also $7.00, and so is the sausage plate. They also have a Greek salad for $6.00, but maybe that's packed away already. What attracts me is the way the flaky pastry curls around the meat but doesn't cover it.
""Which one's best?"" I ask.
""The beef sausage one,"" says Vahida's offsider, Aldo.
So heck, I order one and add a ""European fruit pie strudel"" ($3.00) that I see sitting on the counter, with bits of strawberries and apple popping through the pastry fingers.
I go sit down at their lone table. It's metal, classy with a mosaic of red roses designed into a cream ceramic-chip surface. When Vahida brings my two orders, they're piping hot, heated in the wok she has on a small gas stove. Great, 'cause there's a cool evening breeze. I order a ($1.00) soda. Mountain Dew.
So okay, my meal is in a polystyrene box. But, oh man. The flavors. They're beautiful. The chunked-up meat and pastry sit on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes, scattered with olives, topped by swirls of white tzatziki sauce and more swirls of a sexy red sauce that Vahida says she makes from roasted eggplant and bell peppers. That's the point. She makes everything. ""The only way you'd know you weren't eating this in Sanjak, where I come from, near Skopje,"" says Vahida, ""is because I added some potatoes and onion and garlic, to make it softer.""
Actually, Vahida's lucky to be here at all. She's from Bosnia. In the early '90s, when she was 20, she got caught up in the whole horror of the civil war.
""I couldn't stand it,"" she says. ""I had to leave.""
She escaped to Germany and in 1998 made it to the U.S.
She says the sausage I'm eating is famous in the Balkans. It's called the Burck or Chevapchichi, made like the sausages of the city of Skopje. She's chopped them into the pastry she whipped up this morning, mixed them with kalamata olives and salad -- and a feta cheese that comes all the way from Bulgaria.
""I get it because of the flavor,"" she says.
The cheese comes from free-ranging ewes -- female sheep, not goats -- eating up in the, uh, Rodopi Mountains. It's as strong as regular feta, only softer, not crumbly, less harsh.
I swear, some of the best food in town is at these farmers' markets. Plus, they're always changing. Last time I was here Afghans, Argentineans, and Tunisians were cooking up a storm.
""So if you're from Bosnia, why do you call it Greek food?"" I ask Vahida.
""Greek, Bosnian, Turkish, it's all the same. But people here are familiar with Greek food, so we call it Greek,"" she says.
Rafael and his trim girlfriend Jeanelle come over. They've wrapped up their magic act. He's a schoolteacher at Rancho Del Rey Middle School in Bonita. He lives nearby, so he comes to hone his act, and, yes, they eat here a lot. 'Specially Vahida's chicken gyro. ""This is good food,"" Jeanelle says.
Which is great to hear, because she should know. It turns out Jeanelle is a weight-loss consultant for Jenny Craig. In light of this, I decide to take my strudel home and have it later. Guilt, I guess. Don't want to seem like a garbage-gut.
Besides, Aldo's taking the canvas tent down. ""Vahida's got to be up baking at three tomorrow morning,"" he says.
""And I've still got gym tonight,"" Vahida says, ""and four kids at home. I tell my relatives in Bosnia, 'I work harder in America than I ever did in Bosnia or Germany.'""
I check my watch. Seven. Before I go, I've got two questions for Rafael.
""Where can I learn to do what you do?""
""Easy,"" he says. ""The library, or PenguinMagic.com. They're good.""
""And, uh, can you levitate one more time?""
And dag-gone it, he does, for all I can see. Two inches off the ground. Yes, there's probably an explanation. But that would spoil it. I like to keep these markets the way they are: magic."