Market Hall's Baja shrimp taco: yellow “thread” is carrot
This was where I learned to appreciate the humble carrot.
It started simply enough. I was heading along Market past that cool newish condo tower Strata, when I came across this sign:
“Café Now Open.”
Huh. Seem to remember this site had been promising a café forever. Now, here it was, with red slat tables and chairs outside and a ginormous space inside.
And another sign.
“Happy Hour, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., $4 beer/wine. Small plates starting at $5.”
So, now I have to go see.
The welcoming gal says they’ve actually been open since the end of last year.
Inside’s what you might call industrial chic. Think: Seattle. To the left, it’s gourmet store, up-market deli, wine, salmon lying on ice, steaming bowls of meats and veggies and soups. Straight in front, a cavernous kitchen. Salads, pizzas, pasta-type dishes coming out. And to the right, a kinda bar-café.
“Happy hour?” I ask.
Bruce the barkeep nods.
He lays a slim page in front of me. “And a special deal tonight,” he says. “Our cheeseburger, fries, and any draft beer for $10.”
Wow. I check the rest of the happy-hour menu. Yes, it has the usual herd of starter-type dishes such as bruschetta ($5), fritto misto (calamari and shrimp with zucchini, $6), caprese salad ($5), and the cheeseburger with fries, $10. But then, a couple that really grab me: a Baja shrimp taco, with two beer-battered tiger shrimp in corn tortillas for $2.50. And ahi tuna tartare — raw — with avocado, and mango confit. Five bucks. Sounds delish.
Ahi tuna tartare: art on a plate for five bucks. And filling, if you can bear to bust it up.
Of course, the $10 burger-beer deal is too much to resist. Have to grab that. Seven-ounce patty, almost half a pound. Lots of oozy cheese. A sea of spicy fries. And good draft-beer choice. Stone, Eel River, Avery Brewing. Or I could have had a glass of wine. But I go for a Modern Times Booming Rollers. American IPA. Works well with the salad and cheese and the slightly crunchy (but still juicy) meat of this burger.
But as I munch, I get greedy. Order that $5 raw tuna poke deal as well. Turns out greed is good! Because what Bruce brings is, well, beautiful ahi art. It’s a pile of tuna chunks among squirted patterns of soy and liquid mango, with avocado and mango slices on top. And crowning all this, a snake bed of curling carrot, red onion, and ginger. You hate to bust it up, but once you’re into it, that combo of ahi, soy, ginger, mango, and avo dazzles. Ginger kick’s especially delicious. Looks so good, too. And for $5?
So, fast-forward a couple of weeks and here I am again. Partly because I saw they had a $9.95 “hot table dinner.” Partly, that happy-hour taco. Two-bucks-fifty can’t be bad in these downtown parts.
This time I’m facing Maria and a dozen steaming chafing bowls on a hot plate. They’re bubbling with pulled pork, beef brisket, beans, creamy pasta, and lots of sides. I taste the pork: BBQ flavor. I taste the brisket. Brisket wins. More smoky, less predictable.
“And your two sides?” says Maria. She’s pointing to other things, such as roasted veggies, lentil soup, and a delicious-looking golden mess she says is creamed squash. Ooh. Gotta taste.
That’s it. I get the squash and the mixed veggies, and a big, solid, free glass of iced water.
Problem: it’s past 3 p.m. Too late for the lunch price of $9.95. Evening price is $12.50. “But you get bigger portions,” says Maria.
I take it outside. The setting sun lights up all the red chairs and tables along the sidewalk. Adds a glow to the food in front of me. Brisket’s juicy, smoky. The veggies taste pretty good. Except, what are these white and yellow and purple sticks?
Taste-wise, it’s the creamed squash that wins out. Garlicky, cheesy. So good, I finish it before all the rest.
But delicious and filling as this all is, I’m still dreaming of that happy-hour $2.50 Baja shrimp taco. I go back to the bar and order one up. And out comes more art. On a wooden artist’s palette, this time, a double layer of flame-singed corn tortillas holds two beer-battered shrimp with arugula and red cabbage and this yellow kinda stiff spaghetti snaking around on top, plus pickled carrots and peppers on the side. But one bite, and, oh...so good. With no added hot sauce, it’s already spiky and prickly hot, and the two tiger shrimp inside are lightly crunchy, not clogged with batter.
“I try to keep the batter thin. More beer, less flour,” says Dave, who’s the taco chef, when I ask. He says the beer’s Modern Times IPA.
And the brisket? “We smoke it for 12 hours,” says Joseph, the sous chef. “And we make our own barbecue sauce, too.”
I ask Mariano, who’s kitchen manager, about that delicious creamed squash. “I put in garlic, cream, and mixed cheeses,” he says. “Also hash browns. They thicken it up.”
Oh, and the carrot lesson?
So, I’m still mulling over these veggie sticks in my mixed veggies. They’re yellow, or purple, or violet with white stripes.
“What are these?” I ask.
“Heirloom carrots,” says Joseph. “Ancient. Survived the ice age.”
Turns out, purple carrots come from Afghanistan. And it was only 400 years ago that the Dutch crossed the Afghan purple with their own lemon carrots, and, presto! They created the orange carrot we all know today. Orange is the new purple!
I guess this explains the “spaghetti” on top of my taco, too. It is yellow heirloom carrot.
You want to learn stuff? Just keep eating.
969 Market Street, San Diego
Kitchen Hours: 11 a.m.–9 p.m. daily; happy hour, 4–9 p.m. daily; brunch, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Saturday, Sunday
Happy Hour Prices: bruschetta ($5), fritto misto (calamari, shrimp, zucchini), $6; caprese salad, $5; Baja shrimp taco (two beer-battered tiger shrimp in corn tortillas), $2.50; ahi tuna tartare with avocado, mango confit, $5; cheeseburger, fries, $10; (hot table dinners:) e.g., BBQ pulled pork, chicken curry, smoked salmon, BBQ brisket plus two sides, $9.95 lunchtime, $12.50 dinnertime
Buses: 3, 5, 11, 901, 929
Nearest bus stop: Tenth and Market
Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Park and Market