Two years ago, my lovely girlfriend, Sarah, moved here for a job. To entice me to follow, she custom-tailored my San Francisco visits: shrimp tacos at Pancho Villa, fresh bread at Outerlands and, most importantly, Saturday morning at the Alemany Farmers’ Market. Very clever, Sarah is.
How could I not be seduced by Alemany’s rows of genial hawkers, pushing pink mushrooms, fresh oysters, duck eggs and pomelos (a booming baritone: “Po-mellll-oh!”)? It’s sweet ambrosia for the home cook; the California magnet pulled me westward.
Now Alemany shopping is a frequent part of my Saturday routine.
But while I love planning future meals, I’m also an instant gratification guy. Prolonged exposure to that dizzying spectrum of ingredients whets my appetite. What can I eat RIGHT NOW?
My friend Mike is a weekly shopper at the market, but until recently never tried its prepared foods. The Alemany booths don’t have the flash (or the Twitter feeds) of the grass-fed burger and upscale ramen stands at the Ferry Building; Mike wasn’t convinced there’s anything worth eating.
It’s true that Alemany’s prepared food booths are a scrappy mish-mash on the market’s far side, flanking the bathrooms. Most of them aren’t slickly designed — I witnessed an Indian booth blow away in a strong breeze — and some look downright dingy.
But sleek appearance is an unreliable food predictor (no offense, Off the Grid). Alemany has some gems.
The first stop is Estrellita’s Snacks, where my pupusa addiction might put the owner’s kids through college. Each corn disk is grilled slowly until the outside has a stiff char. Black bean paste, melted cheese and assorted fillings are cooked inside the blistering, chewy masa, finished with a splash of hot sauce and curtido (a tart Salvadoran slaw of cabbage, carrots, and jalapenos).
Budget some time for your pupusa; I’ve waited upwards of a half-hour. The workers move at a languorous pace, and new customers can get punchy. But anticipation builds excitement, no? And you can always pass time watching that bright-eyed old woman play the saw (a longtime Alemany staple).
Note: I’ve enjoyed many of Estrellita’s fillers — pork, spinach, mushrooms — but will never again order the Frisbee-sized Pupusa Loca, a chaotic mash-up of every ingredient. Leave this one for the gluttons and the show-offs.
Next to Estrellita’s is Copper Top Ovens, the mobile pizzeria that won San Francisco’s Nomadic Pizza Throwdown last spring. These guys build and sell their own pizza ovens, their booth serving as a display model for the aspiring pizzaiolo: “You too could make pizza of this caliber, with a certified Copper Top Oven! (TM)”
Copper Top makes a thin, chewy crust with a spotting of crackly brown underneath. Some toppings work better than others; drizzled egg gets lost in the mix, for instance, and raw spinach withers in the oven.
But the “Market Special” pizza (always offered) is a sweet delight: dates, apples and walnuts topped with honey and truffle oil-infused mascarpone. It’s a well-balanced ingredient showcase, and a nice hat-tip to the market’s bounty.
Eye contact at the Sukhi’s or Hummus Guy booths ensures you’ll be swiftly assaulted with free samples. Hummus on pita and chutneys on flatbread are proffered rapid-fire, with the deft hand of a blackjack dealer. Will your conscience allow you to accept the free bounty, without making a take-home purchase? Mine won’t.
For all the moaning over the lack of a decent bagel in San Francisco, somehow Panorama Baking remains semi-obscure. Alemany regulars know the score, though: lines form early at the Panorama booth, and the bagels sell fast. The products easily rival the Brooklyn-style bagels at Schmendricks, at one-third the price. I usually grab a few.
My last Alemany stop is El Huarache Loco, a La Cocina graduate (like Estrellita’s and Sukhi’s). The namesake item, a sandal-shaped masa cake with assorted toppings, runs a little dry, but the huevos divorciados are a must-try. It’s a simple dish, two lightly fried tortillas topped with fried eggs, pinto beans, crema and queso fresco. The plate is “divorced” into two sides, with an orange tomato salsa on one egg and a green tomatillo salsa on the other. It achieves a perfect textural and flavor balance.
Fresh produce will always be the main draw of the Alemany Farmers’ Market: cheap, bountiful and straight from the farm. But as I drive over each Saturday, I’m often thinking of pupusas and pizza, not berries and beets.
When I try convincing friends to move here, you know where I’ll take them.
Location: 100 Alemany Blvd., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 647-9423
Hours: 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays
Price range: $3 to $10
Recommended dishes: Estrellita’s pupusas ($3), Copper Top Market Special pizza ($6 half, $10 whole), Panorama bagels ($1), El Huarache Loco huevos divorciados ($7.50)
Credit cards: Cash only
Reservations: Not accepted