Markets like this are where the really interesting food is, before it gets gussied up and watered down at those fancy Gaslamp tourist traps.
Friday night. Just got paid. Riding my stretch limo (the 933 bus) around, circling the coast of I.B. I figure on maybe going up the pier to that seafood place the Tin Fish.
But, then, begosh and begorrah, as my Irish grandma would say, this outdoor market appears like a movie set, all canvas and trestles and colorful umbrellas and smoke from instant eateries. I pull the cord because I know already: ain’t never going to make it onto the pier.
I jump off the bus. Crowds saunter and natter, teens show off, kids run around that wild plastic surfboard sculpture.
Then, the real grabber appears. Through the tents and bobbing heads, there’s blue sparkling waves, sand, sun setting on the horizon. Honestly, where else can you shop and eat with a backdrop like this?
Of course, with all these spicy food aromas, man’s gotta eat. I make my way through organic-farm produce tents, gold-jewelry stalls, knitted-hat stalls, flower stalls... That sea breeze sharpens ye olde nostril sensitivity. Something Indian going? Curry? Garlic? Spinach? Now I’m getting that burnt-corn smell. Elotes, for sure — sweet corn cobs roasting on open-flamed grills. Then I see a tent with a sign that reads “Balkan Grill.” They have these twisty pastries with what looks like spinach stuffed inside them. Burek, the lady says they’re called. Or, with spinach and cheese, zeljanica. They’re $5. I swear, markets like this are where the really interesting food is, before it gets gussied up and watered down at those fancy Gaslamp tourist traps.
It all looks great, but it’s getting late. Better not procrastinate. Vendors are already starting to pack things up. So I go straight to the elote tent: Señor Corn. Logo’s an ear of corn with a sombrero and maracas straddling a surfboard. “Three dollars each,” says Señor Corn himself, Tony Felix. “Tell you what, buy one, and I’ll give you the other four free. We’ve gotta go.”
Okay. I hand over three buckeroos. I see it’s white corn he uses. “Sweeter than yellow,” he says. He takes one off the grill, shucks it, wraps the base in paper.
“Butter?” he asks.
Tony’s not through. He adds mayo, lemon pepper, garlic salt, “soul seasoning,” which is some kind of Cajun spice, New Mexico chile. Finally he holds up an opaque bottle with a squirter nozzle.
“Lime spray?” he asks.
“Make my day.”
And you know what? He does. This is wicked delicious, all those spices and the parmesan. It messes me up real good, and I only get through the one. The rest — Carla and me, tonight. Newspaper on the floor.
Then, turns out, right across the midway, a guy named Ramadan is turning out samosas and baklava and other middle-eastern stuff. I stop, ’cause when I ask, he says he’s Egyptian, and in my humble opinion, Egyptians, along with the Lebanese, know how to cook.
He’s closing down, too, so for five Washingtons he gives me a bagful of samosas — they’re the mini pyramids of pastry stuffed with cream cheese or lentils or meat or potato. They’re also known as sambusas. Man, they are addictive. I have to buy a dollar can of soda just to wash them down.
Then, oh my giddy aunt, Carla will kill me if I don’t get something from this next one, Indian Fusion Cuisine. The guy behind the table, Chef Ranjit, mostly makes and sells curries and chutneys packed away in cardboard boxes and jars, but he’s also cooking up curries for eating fresh, right here. “I sell a box of three curries and rice,” he says. “Ten dollars. We’re closing up, so you’ll get a lot.”
Well, hey, have I timed this all perfectly, or what? “I’m from the Punjab,” says Chef Ranjit. “Northern India. I’ll give you food from there. Not Americanized. Real.” And he scoops up what looks like chunks of cheese — or tofu? — in a creamy sauce. “Paneer makhani,” he says. “Cow-milk cheese cubes in a creamy, tomato-based sauce.”
Now he brings out a big drift of spinach. “Saag,” he says. “Punjabi. And…” He spoons in what look like lentils. “Dahl curry,” he says. “Very traditional. One of the most ancient foods known to man.” He piles some rice in and closes the box, then puts the box in a plastic bag. Carla will be thrilled.
’Course, then I have to pop next door to a tent called Bella’s Crêpes, where this fun Frenchman, Jean-Michel, twists my arm to try one of his big-flap crêpes. I cave, and he sszzts a swirl of batter onto his hot plate, scoops it, folds it, throws powdered sugar, strawberry jam, and chocolate inside, and thrusts it at me. “While it’s fresh and hot,” he orders. The man’s right. Hot, tender, sweet. Six bucks.
What a trip around the world. All here beside the sea in li’l ol’ I.B. Actually, by the time I leave, I’ve got baklava from Ramadan ($3) (nice, not too sweet) and a quarter-pound box of Magical Toffee from this gal, Frances Figueroa ($5.95). The sample she gave me had crunchy toffee with almonds and walnuts crumbled on top. Wicked? Sin ain’t the word. And not a tooth-cracker.
Just before I leave, I see a gal closing up the info booth. Deanna Rose. Turns out she’s the one who made this whole market happen. Just decided I.B. needed this kind of place and started months of agitating and organizing. “What I love,” she says, “is there’s something about tents, canopies — here today, gone tomorrow. That circus thing. It pumps life into the old town.”
Remember, this is a weekly market, and some of these guys might not be here every week. But if my sampling’s anything to go by, snacking round I.B.’s temporary tent city’s gonna put a tiger in your tank. ■
The Place: Imperial Beach Farmers’ Market, 10 Evergreen Avenue (off Seacoast Drive), Imperial Beach, 619-397-1917
Type of Food: Market
Prices: Elotes (roasted corn cob), $3; falafel or hummus appetizer, $5; Indian three-curry combo plate; e.g. paneer makhani (cheese cubes in tomato-based sauce), Saag (spinach curry), and dahl (lentil), $10; samosas, $1 each; crêpes, $5-$7; Magical Toffee, $5.94 quarter-pound
Hours: 1:00–5:00 p.m., Fridays only (winter hours); 2:00–7:30 p.m., summer hours
Buses: 833, 834
Nearest Bus Stop: Seacoast at Evergreen