Chicken: expecting plenty of customers.
Teagan (“Think ‘Reagan’” she says) saws away at her violin right by the entrance. She’s playing Arianna Grande’s “34+35.” Sounds really cool. Actually, this whole scene is hard to beat. Saturday morning, sunshine, cool breeze to balance things out, your shadows following you everywhere, so the place looks more crowded than it is. Life is good, even if you do have to join a two-block line to get in. The waiting gives you a chance to pick up all the smells and colors of the Hillcrest Farmers’ Market. Turns out Hillcrest is the oldest of the markets, going since 1997. And the gal letting us in (when her walkie-talk tells her four people have just exited the market at the other end) says they have 10,000 coming every week.
“I’ll call when I am done,” says Annie. She wants to get her supplies solo. “Men just complicate things,” she says. Not a problem. Much better than fighting like two yo-yos on the ends of one string.
And even though they have extra volunteers telling us all to stay apart so we don’t cluster up when we’re supposed to be social distancing, it is such a kick, wandering about, strangers together, not touching the fruit, but sampling the goat cheese, drinking the Ethiopian coffee — so-oo delish! — and knowing that it comes from where these Ethiopian guys’ ancestors invented the whole idea of coffee (from an iffy-looking shrub that shepherds noticed made their goats frisky when they nibbled its red berries).
Oh boy. I see a couple of Brazilian guys have a stall going that says “Home of the Stuffed Hash Brown.” What a great idea. Only problem is wafts of jerk chicken kept hitting me on the way up here. Man. I could have stopped there and breathed in the jerk for hours. Not only that, but Annie’s talking about wanting some of “that African chicken” before we head off back out into the world. I make a private deal that I will be back for these hash brown guys. There are still lots of temptations on the way down, of course. We pass the House of Bao, which is mainly $4-5 dumplings and steamed buns; an avocado toast place ($8-10); a carrot cake tent; and Lady G’s Canteen, a Filipino food tent.
We know we’re at Jerk Central by the smoke, and the sight of dozens and dozens of chicken thighs and breasts all grilling away on giant flame-heated racks right here in the street. Another clue: the sound of the chop-chop as one of the crew picks up each breast and cleavers it into four parts.
But of course, above everything is the aroma. Oh baby! Spices in the smoke, dripping, blackened meat, carnivore’s heaven.
David, one of the guys keeping this chain of deliciousness going, stands under the shade of the tent, methodically stirring each of the dozen chafing dishes loaded with lentils, eggplant, beef stews, goat curries, different kinds of rice, and ugali, a mashed corn meal he says is a popular rice alternative in Africa.
“We have been doing this since 1995,” he says. “We have a restaurant now, but June, the Kenyan guy who started it up, put in sixteen years just cooking at markets like this before he could get his own place.”
So, what to eat? He points to the menus. “But don’t worry,” he says, “you can mix it any way you want.”
And mama, quite a choice. You can start with small dishes like dengu ($5.95), lentils in a curry sauce; or niyoyo, a hominy, kidney bean, carrot and potato mix, also $5.95; or biringanya ($7.95), eggplant in a tomato-based sauce. Or I almost go for goat soup ($8.50), with a slice of injera, the fermented, spongey Ethiopian bread ($1, or $2.95 for a whole round).
But then there are the big plates. Like, seven sambusas ($13.50. Or $2 each), stuffed with fillers such as spicy beef, chicken, spinach, potato, shrimp, cream cheese, pineapple, and spicy lentil. Or African jerk chicken in a sweet or a spicy sauce, with veggies and rice or ugali ($15.95). Or nyama choma (“African roast beef steak”), $19.95. But I end up with an awesome deal: a medium chicken combo plate for $12. And David is good to his word. “Can I have half spicy jerk chicken and half sweet jerk chicken?” I whine. “Not a problem,” he says. Then he slops my biringanya, eggplant, and dengu into spare spaces. “Can I have half coconut rice and half saffron?” I say now. “Not a problem,” David says. Guy’s a saint.
And I swear, when Annie and I get to a table (outside the market, natch), it is a festival of flavors, a mix of African and Indian. But the outstanding flavor to come through is that smoky, jerky chicken. Sweet option is good, but I like the spicy best.
Honestly, this smoke-jerk-veggie mix is addictive. Even though, come to find out, East Africans, who have always treasured their herds of cattle, have not traditionally been great meat eaters. Animals were wealth. You didn’t eat your assets.
“How could you improve on this meal?” says Annie.
“About the only thing,” I say, “is when we can actually eat the danged thing there, at tables, in the market, with a beer, and not out here like we’re on the run from the law.”
Annie gives me one of her looks.
“So you’re not?”
- The Place: Flavors of East Africa at the farmers’ market, 3960 Normal Street, Hillcrest, Sundays. (Other days, at 2322 El Cajon Boulevard), 619-955-8778
- Hours: At Hillcrest Farmers Market: 9am-2pm Sundays; at 2322 El Cajon Blvd, 11am-9pm daily (till 8pm Thursdays)
- Prices: Dengu (lentils in a curry sauce), $5.95; niyoyo (hominy, kidney bean, carrot, potatoes) $5.95; mandizi (fried plantains), $5.95; jungle fries, (with jerk chicken, seasoned ground beef, chicken curry, or veggies), $9.99; biringanya, (eggplant), $7.95; goat soup, $8.50; slice of injera, $1 ($2.95 for a whole round); seven sambusas, $13.50 (or $2 each); curried shrimp, $15.95; African jerk chicken with veggie and rice or ugali, $15.95; nyama choma (African roast beef steak), $19.95; medium chicken combo plate special, $12
- Buses: 1, 7, 10, 11, 215 (to farmers market)
- Nearest Bus Stops: Park and University