In the spring, we go to market. We jockey for ramps and fret over the funkiness of samples of raw cheese. We hunt — under the tents, at the flea markets and in the covered, year-round smorgasbords — with the tenacity of truffle pigs, sniffing out the greenest veggies, the coolest tatted-up woodworker.
The hunt has made us hungry for more than beets. Farmers markets and flea markets across the region are increasingly wooing new patrons with eclectic street foods, serving up dumplings, tacos, heaping barbecue sandwiches and the promise of open-air noshing.
Last month, as District Flea in Shaw began its second season, it debuted eight new communal tables. It made sense after last year, says District Flea manager, when the Frank hot-dog cart and Vigilante Coffee stand proved as big a draw as the vintage Danish chairs and broken-in denim jackets.
This season, they’re focusing a lot on food vendors. People love a market that’s very different every week.
District Flea has plenty of food-makers to choose from. Many businesses have emerged in past year from Union Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen that opened in December 2012 as an incubator for pickle-makers, taco shops and kombucha-brewers. More than 50 producers now fry, cure and bake at the Northeast Washington hub.
Rather than dealing with the hassle of renting and building out storefronts, many have gotten their start with a simple market stand.
FreshFarm Markets, transformed its Thursday market near the White House into a kind of open-air food court in 2012, after seeing street food catch on at markets nationwide.
People weren’t just coming to market to shop, but for the experience.
A year ago, FreshFarm launch the taco stand Chaia at the White House market. Now the line stretches a dozen deep, and the business has expanded to two other markets.
Now that all these outdoor markets are becoming these community hubs, it makes sense to have food. And the producers win because you get to come in and sell on a very small-scale basis, which allows you to grow gradually. It’s a win-win for both parties.
Hungry? We’ve hunted down some of the best bites from markets old and new:
FreshFarm White House Farmers Market
After a highly publicized kickoff in 2009 with first lady Michelle Obama, this weekday market re-thought its strategy, changing its hours to coincide with the hunger pangs of the office crowd. Offerings this season include vegan sandwiches, fired-to-order pizzas, dumplings and French-inspired baked goods from vendors who adhere to the FreshFarm ethos of using locally sourced ingredients.
What to try: Chaia tacos
The “farm to taco” stand at the White House market was opened last year, and in no time, a cloud of e-mail-checking office workers began to surround their little assembly line of organic cooking. Chaia’s tacos begin with corn tortillas pressed fresh (and somewhat frantically) for the waiting crowd. Inside the rustic shells goes a Pinterest-ready pile of colorful veggies and a smattering of herbs that change as frequently as the local crops. Garlic-laced greens get a sprinkle of goat cheese; feta might make a chewy mix of mushrooms tart; a cumin-lemon vinaigrette may kick up a roasted carrot taco. Order when you get to the market, then do a little shopping. Making the tortillas fresh typically means a 10-minute wait for your meal.
Westover Farmers Market
Rub N’ Roost, a stand that serves prepared chickens for folks to take home — and is so popular they regularly sell out of all their chickens — helps prepare an order at the Westover Farmers Market. This tiny street market in northwest Arlington, run by Field to Table Inc., has just 20 vendors but boasts some nice surprises, including a handpie and fresh-pressed juice stand, raw-milk cheese from West Virginia and spicy chickens (whole, half or quartered) from Rub N’ Roost that you’ll want to order in advance.
What to try: Mama’s Donut Bites
A few years ago, the Hosein siblings of Virginia joined in a new venture: they decided to make sweets for the Vienna Farmers Market. The market manager had just lost a doughnut vendor and suggested that the Hoseins try their hand at frying dough. The family’s hot-pink truck on Sundays at Westover, doling out the tiny, melt-in-your-mouth cake doughnuts to a steady stream of regulars, many younger than 10. Flavors on a given day vary (it was apple cider on a recent visit), but they always come undressed. Reach for the bottles of glaze to customize your sweets; raspberry and white chocolate are among the favorites.
Stoneybrook Farm and Market
Deep in a vineyard-filled pocket of Loudoun County in 2010, an enterprising collective of farmers turned their market stand into a cottagelike shop selling Virginia foods. But it was the savvy addition of a deli that made Stoneybrook Farm and Market a destination for winery-hoppers. There are as many people who stop in for Stoneybrook’s organic and locally sourced sandwiches as for its impeccable kale, beets, carrots and chard, which are available year-round from the farm’s greenhouse and fields.
In the warm months, when the farm’s fields are heavy with veggies, the lettuce, tomato and other vegetables on the Garden Burger come fresh from the organic farm.
What to try: sandwiches
For those without the time or inclination to lug home a canvas bag of veggies and cook a locally sourced dinner, Stoneybrook can be a revelation. Veggie burgers, lambwiches and fluffy egg sandwiches stand as a testament to Stoneybrook’s organic onsite farming. The unbelievably pillowy buns are baked in-house; the eggs hail from the farm’s hundred-odd hens; and, later this month, lettuce, onions and tomatoes will be harvested for every sandwich. Double down: The best way to nosh here is on the patio, which overlooks the picturesque fields.
Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market
Opened in the 1930s as the Depression was crippling families and farmers, the Farm Women’s Cooperative Market isn’t the hippest, newest market. It is, instead, like the old Union Market, a reminder of a time when such venues were a centerpiece of social life. Once an economic vehicle for cash-strapped women, the market has changed incrementally since its early days, adding wine tastings from Maryland’s growing winemaking industry, food trucks and vintage jewelry from vendors in the bustling parking lot.
What to try: Saint Michel Bakery chocolate-almond croissant
Over just a handful of years, one French bakery has drawn Francophiles to a Rockville strip mall for the closest things you’ll find to Parisian pastries. Saint Michel’s draw at the Farm Women’s market is its croissants, made with French butter and browned to an unusual crispness. The bakery stacks chocolate, almond, plain and chocolate-almond versions in quaint wicker baskets and simply waits till they’re all snapped up, as they often are on Saturday mornings. Nowadays, chocolate croissants aren’t hard to come by, but try one of Saint Michel’s croissants made with almond-paste-filling and dark, bitter chocolate, and you’ll understand why customers have been known to cut the long line to snag the last one.