(Published by South Bay Accent in April, 2014.)
The South Bay’s best al fresco dining these days is taking place at a farmers market near you. Years ago, when the much smaller number of local farmers markets had not yet been discovered by the masses, kettle corn was the ready-to-eat snack amidst all the produce vendors. Things have changed dramatically since then. As markets have proliferated, a new generation of food vendors has turned South Bay farmers markets into veritable outdoor food courts where the offerings are fresh, tasty and often preceded by irresistible samples.
You can start with nibbles like dried kale chips or seriously French charcuterie, segue into a dizzying array of main courses like crepes, spicy curry, fat vegetable spring rolls or juicy rotisseried free-range chicken, then round off your meal with a plethora of pies, cakes, cookies or divine chocolate truffles.
Not in the mood to munch? No worries. There are copious choices for take-home items such as tamales, pasta, sauces and other condiments. A prevalent theme is health as well as deliciousness, with ingredients frequently sourced from farmers in neighboring stalls.
While the volume of prepared foods varies by market — local government policies and turf-protecting eateries make sure of that — the booming popularity of non-produce items is undeniable in the dozens of markets being held across the region every week. Rather than being a novelty, farmers markets have turned into a significant shopping source and entertainment venue. Every city has one these days and many have multiple markets — San Jose alone has at least twelve running in the peak season that starts each spring.
Prepared foods at farmers markets — industry lingo calls this category “non-ag” — can be found at virtually every market, but some are more abundant than others. Among many farmers market organizers, the Urban Village Farmers Market Association runs markets particularly geared toward noshing and hanging out with family and friends. Their markets in Campbell, South Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and Cambrian Park (San Jose) include many food vendors, music and sometimes kids’ entertainment like face painters and balloon-animal creators.
Says association director Ron Pardini, “We feel food draws so it’s important to have food artisans — those vendors that are creating new and exciting things.” Other particularly promising markets for non-ag items are those San Jose markets in Santa Teresa and Willow Glen, as well as markets in Los Gatos, Saratoga, downtown Palo Alto, Belmont and San Mateo.
With demand for non-ag food items at the markets increasing, there seem to be plenty of corporate dropouts hoping to launch new food businesses. So much so that “we have a waiting list of vendors in all our markets. It just gets longer,” according to Pardini. Would-be vendors have dreams of becoming the next Bruce Aidells Sausage Company (sold by its founder for millions), Blue Bottle Coffee (now with a roasting plant, cafes and huge bi-coastal retail presence) or Bakesale Betty (became a thriving restaurant).
One of many farmers market success stories is Hodo Soy founder Minh Tsai, who first started selling artisan tofu like what he remembered from his childhood in Vietnam at the downtown Palo Alto farmers market in 2004. Now with a gorgeous plant in Oakland and a broad wholesale business, his company still maintains a booth at the South Palo Alto market and some others for a compelling reason: “The farmers markets remain the place where we test and refine our recipes,” he says.
While Tsai worked in finance before pursuing his tofu dreams, Peter Brydon spent 28 years as a printer before turning a hobby into Barlovento Chocolates. Among the French-style truffles in his repertoire are customer flavor ideas like Mayan Hot Chocolate, pairing cayenne, cinnamon and vanilla bean surrounded by his single-source Venezuelan chocolate.
“Most of my flavors have snap. They jump out at you,” says Brydon. With truffle fillings like old-vine zinfandel, tarragon and blackberry liqueur, customers are swooning. New additions include addictive salted chocolate bars and his look-alike son, who now handles the booth at the South Palo Alto market.
Besides being happy buyers of his chocolates, farmers market customers also play a key role in ingredient finding. According to Brydon, fruit used for his popular Meyer lemon zest truffles “comes from Bay Area back yards.” An easy call for the customers who trade their fruit for his chocolates.
A particularly ambitious vendor is James Hall, proprietor of Raw Daddy Foods, whose savory and sweet “fun cones” available at the South Palo Alto market turn uncooked, vegan, fresh ingredients into delicious concoctions. Consider this: a petite flax-seed cone filled with butternut squash marinated in spiced almond milk layered with harissa and a slaw of jicama, pine nuts and currants.
“I want to be the Colonel Sanders of raw fast food,” he reports. With his long white hair, slouchy fedora and friendly painted fingernails, “I’m trying to make eating vegetables fun,” he explains. So popular are his cones that on a super-windy day at the market when his freestanding booth and its contents blew over, he was ready to pack things up “but people said, ‘no, no, pick ’em up off the ground, we’ll eat ’em!’,” he enthuses. “That’s how hard core they are.”
Given the passion of vendors and the delight of their customers, the farmers market scene has definitely become a foodie happening. Here are profiles of just a few of the many non-ag food vendors appearing at South Bay farmers markets.
Blue Chair Jam – One of the country’s most esteemed artisanal jam and marmalade producers with mind-blowing choices like strawberry-pink peppercorn jam, this Oakland-based powerhouse recently debuted at the Campbell and South Palo Alto farmers markets.
Alive & Radiant Foods – Potato chips are forgettable compared to the “dried, not fried” kale chips in enticing flavors from this vendor, who sells at the San Mateo market.
Farmhouse Culture – Healthful and fabulous, this vendor’s sauerkrauts, kimchee and other preserved vegetables come in imaginative flavors like ginger beet kraut. They’re available at the Los Gatos, Campbell, South Palo Alto and San Mateo markets.
Hodo Soy – Proving that tofu can be as tasty as other proteins, this vendor also sells flavorful salads like five-spice tofu nuggets and other creations, available at the South Palo Alto market.
Dibrova Sausages – From bratwurst to andouille, apple chicken and hot links, this local company offers outstanding sausages for the barbie and elsewhere. Sold at the Sunnyvale, Campbell, South Palo Alto and San Mateo markets.
Jerk ‘n Pickle – Between the to-die-for beef jerky made from grass-fed Angus and killer pickled cukes, beans, chiles and more, this vendor has healthful snacking covered. Available at the Cupertino, San Carlos, Belmont, San Mateo and Burlingame markets.
Fabrique Délices – Take a quick trip to France via the incredible pâtés, mousses, rillettes, boudins, sausages, truffle butter, macarons, cornichons and other delicacies sold by this producer at the Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, downtown and South Palo Alto and San Mateo markets.
Home Maid Ravioli – Outstanding and impeccably fresh filled pastas, noodles and sauces made from Italian family recipes beat, hands down, what’s in supermarkets in both taste and value. Sold at markets in San Jose (Willow Glen, Santana Row, Kaiser Santa Teresa, Cambrian Park), Los Gatos, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Kaiser Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Kaiser Redwood City, San Bruno, Belmont, San Mateo and Burlingame.
Four Seasons Tamales – Among several tamale vendors at local markets, this one gets high taste marks for its fresh, flavorful products, sold in San Jose at the Berryessa and Japantown markets.
East & West Gourmet Afghan Food – Between the unleavened, vegetable-filled bolani bread and zippy toppings like mint garlic cheese and cilantro pesto, this family-run operation has brought delicious Middle Eastern street food to the masses. Available at the Santana Row and Blossom Hill (San Jose), Campbell, Mountain View, South Palo Alto, Burlingame, Belmont and San Mateo markets.
Big Paw Olive Oil – As if the cold-pressed olive oils from this vendor aren’t enough — they’re lush and habit forming — they offer various infused oils like white sage, chile chipotle and lemon as well, plus tasty bread dippers and marinades. Also available are balsamic vinegars flavored with hibiscus, cherry, fig, strawberry, sweet peach and more. Sold at the Santa Teresa (San Jose), South Palo Alto and San Mateo markets.
Hot Foods/Ready to Eat
Roli Roti — The rotisseried free-range chickens marinated in “secret spice” and the outrageous rosemary potatoes cooked in the chicken drippings are the main event from this popular vendor, who appears at markets in Santa Clara, Saratoga, Los Altos/DeMartini’s Orchard, Cupertino, South Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Burlingame, San Mateo and Brisbane.
Bare Knuckle Pizza – The young Vietnamese-American owner fanatically developed a superb version of East Coast pizza featuring local ingredients, which he fires up in his mobile oven that appears at these San Jose markets: Cambrian Park, Willow Glen and Japantown
Satkar Indian Cuisine – This vendor of soulful Indian food from breads to curries has been at the markets for many years and offers foods for eating on site or taking home. See them at markets in Cambrian Park (San Jose), Santa Clara, Campbell and South Palo Alto.
Gourmet Crepes – There are a few such vendors at local markets but this Asian couple delivers the goods, whipping up fresh savory and dessert crepes before your eyes like crab, tomato and cheese or strawberry, banana and nutella. See them at the downtown and South Palo Alto markets.
Falafel Fresh & Gyros – The best — and healthiest — falafels in town, say fans, plus juicy, freshly cooked spiced lamb in the gyros are converting throngs to superb Middle Eastern fast food. At these markets in San Jose: Evergreen, Santa Teresa, downtown and Almaden.
Raw Daddy’s Fun Cones – Who knew raw vegan food could be so tasty? Whether stuffed with veggies and sauces or fruit and nut-based “ice cream,” these little cones are worth a trip to the South Palo Alto market.
Four Season Rolls – Called “spring rolls on steroids,” the offerings here include proteins and/or veggies wrapped in rice paper with sweet and hot sauces, as well as crisp, freshly fried rolls. They’ll also customize your roll and appear at markets in San Jose (Evergreen, Cambrian Park, Kaiser Santa Teresa, downtown), Kaiser Santa Clara, Campbell and Cupertino.
Hummus Heaven – Dip the fried pita chips into wondrous concoctions such as tomato basil hummus, artichoke garlic hummus or roasted red pepper tapenade and luxuriate. Items for instant eating or taking home are found at markets in San Jose (Berryessa, Evergreen , Japantown, Kaiser Santa Teresa), Kaiser Santa Clara, Morgan Hill, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Mountain View, Redwood City, Brisbane and Foster City.
El Porteño Empanadas – These little filled packets of flaky dough are the ultimate comfort food and this vendor has a legion of fans flipping out over creations like mushroom, sweet corn or beef and olive empanadas on the savory end or stuffed dessert pockets containing items like apple or lemon curd. Available at the San Carlos, Burlingame and San Mateo markets.
Manresa Bread Project — Oh, lucky Campbellites! Yours was the first market featuring the remarkable breads and baked goods from this Los Gatos Michelin two-star restaurant, such as buckwheat cherry boule, potato gruyère focaccia or chocolate brioche. But now northerners will get a shot as a booth has just appeared this year at the ever-expanding South Palo Alto market. Not surprisingly, every costly crumb sells out in just two hours at both markets.
Beckmann’s Old World Bakery Although this operation specializes in hearty German baked goods, the sourdough baguettes also rise to the top. It’s worth a trip to the bakery in Santa Cruz to see the whole offering — or scarf up items like savory focaccias, rich brownies and snickerdoodle cookies at markets in San Jose (downtown, Evergreen, Blossom Hill, Cambrian Park, Japantown, Kaiser San Jose), Morgan Hill, Campbell, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Saratoga, San Carlos, Belmont and San Mateo.
Edna’s Success Bakery – All-American family recipes are the focus of this bakery, such as pecan crisps, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, red velvet cupcakes and whoopie pies. They’re available at markets in San Jose (downtown, Evergreen, Cambrian Park, Santa Teresa), Kaiser Santa Clara, Campbell, Cupertino and South Palo Alto.
Flour Chylde Bakery – Serving the growing gluten-free crowd with tortes, breads and more, this bakery also makes very-agreeable flour-based items like chai-doodle cookies, focaccias and espresso nib sables. Find them at markets in downtown San Jose, Campbell, Saratoga, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Mountain View, Palo Alto (VA), San Carlos, Portola Valley and Woodside.
Significant Bites – Absolutely incredible little cheesecakes cooked from scratch are creating addictions for flavors like Mexican chocolate, dulce de leche and key lime. It takes willpower not to eat the four-flavor, $5 sampler pack before leaving the markets in Santa Teresa (San Jose), Cupertino and Burlingame.
Debbie’s Rugelach – This decadent, freshly made Jewish pastry appears in three appealing flavors: currant walnut, chocolate chip and apricot. Based on a traditional recipe, Debbie’s little treats are available at the Burlingame and San Mateo markets.
Her Coconess Confections – Handcrafted from high-quality ingredients, these artisan sweets — salted and infused caramels and bittersweet nibby rocky road — can be found at the downtown Palo Alto market.
Ipie – These delicious, tiny, double-crust fruit pies — they’re like a little muffin — are crafted from organic ingredients and are tender, flaky and divine. A unique product only available at the downtown Palo Alto market.
R & J Toffees – Brothers Ryan and Joel have turned their grandmother’s recipe into the most wondrous chocolate-covered almond toffee found anywhere. See it at the Los Gatos, Campbell and downtown Palo Alto markets.
Barlovento Chocolates – Many chocolatiers have burst onto the scene in recent years but the amazing products from this father-and-son team easily beat the competitors. Getting a perfect score from Yelp reviewers, these gorgeous truffles, bars and other confections explode in the mouth with rich chocolate goodness. Find them at the South Palo Alto market.
And to complete your table…….
Those who want the ultimate in ready-to-go, impress-the-guests dinner parties can not only snag fine, fresh prepared foods at local farmers markets, but can decorate their tables with a profusion of flowers available at several markets. With spring arriving, the flower choices are ramping up, although some flower vendors grow out-of-season blooms in hot houses to extend what Mother Nature can accomplish and charge accordingly. But going strictly seasonal, centerpieces bursting with spring blooms like dahlias, freesias, tulips and heather can be assembled from cut flowers sold at the markets while some stalls have arrangements ready to plop right on the dinner table.
Particularly splendiferous centerpieces are assembled by Astone’s Protea, a vendor from Aptos who attends the Menlo Park farmers market and showcases these eye-catching South African blooms that look like they come from outer space. The Astone’s colorful wreaths are attention grabbers but their elaborate arrangements are even more spectacular, stuffed with large protea blooms that often look like feathers rather than petals.
Orchids are another often-seen item in flower stalls at the markets, such as those from Rose Mae Orchids, a vendor who attends many South Bay markets weekly. Owner Lilybeth Dayrit once grew orchids as a hobby and was so prolific that by 2005, she launched her business. Despite the work involved — orchids take two years to grow — Dayrit’s plants are not only beautiful but well priced.
There are several other Bay Area flower growers that bring their blooms to a variety of different markets, offering patrons well-priced cut flowers and bouquets compared to flower shops and supermarkets. Beyond that, a few farmers markets have vendors offering bulbs and flower, herb and vegetable seedlings at attractive prices for those green thumbs who want to get a jump on their spring planting.