Long Beach Downtown Farmer's Market by Kaite Hillenbrand
One of my absolute favorite places to frequent is the Long Beach Downtown Farmer's Market, a great place to people-watch, get a little sun and air, and be literally surrounded by great food, crafts, and musicians. When I lived in Long Beach, I had the luxury of being a student, then a teacher, which meant that I was often free to go to the market, which comes to town on Fridays. If you're not free on Fridays, though, I have it on good authority that this experience is worth playing hooky from work. (And, since I don't live in Long Beach any more, I'd like to thank my friends Kim and Jim for taking the wonderful pictures accompanying this article.)
On Friday mornings, after a week of school, I'd sleep in, then slip on overalls, put my hair in pigtails, grab my sweetie, my friends, my girls, or a mixture of those folks, and I'd head over to the Farmers Market. Lunch was first. I could never decide on one meal, which meant I usually ended up buying lunch from a few booths and taking home whatever I couldn't finish. I'd start with Nolin Roasted Corn. If you've never had corn on a stick, you need to try it. You can get your run-of-the-mill butter, salt, and pepper as toppings (or any number of sprinkle-able toppings, like cayenne and garlic salt), but I'd like to recommend a flavor combo I didn't know about until this booth recommended it. They'll roll an ear of fire-roasted corn-on-the-cob in a little mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, and then squeeze lime over the whole thing. I won't lie. I'm salivating just thinking about it. I might have to go out and buy some corn and try it in my oven. What's more, I usually didn't even finish my entire ear, because the best was still coming and I didn't want to fill up.
The main course was always a tough call, and usually depended on the whims of my taste buds. Occasionally, I'd try out the tamales or Greek food. Usually, though, I set the locally made hummus, tzatziki, olives, and pita chips aside to take home, and headed to QT's Smokehouse BBQ or Grill Masters' rotisserie chicken. Excuse me while I find a tissue to wipe the drool from my mouth.
Grill Masters has the most wonderful rotisserie chicken I have ever tasted. They offer several packages, including a whole or half chicken, sides, and drinks. The potato salad is out of this world, creamy and flavorful with big chunks of soft-but-still-firm potato—none of that grainy-textured stuff you get at the store sometimes. The roasted potatoes cook underneath the chicken, so they get the benefit of the chicken's drippings. But whatever else you try, try the chicken. Grill Masters roasts a rotating wall of chicken at once, so the drippings from each row of chickens bastes the rows underneath, creating a crispy, snappy skin that, if you have the willpower, you will fight yourself to keep from eating all at once. Now, I'm not one of those people who likes chicken skin no matter what. If it's at all flabby-feeling, I'm repulsed. At Grill Masters, though, every centimeter of skin is perfectly crisped. I would tear it into pieces and eat one piece with each bite, and very generously leave half of it for my sweetie when he was with me (and he, of course, would do the same. It's a relationship built on trust.) The chicken inside this skin tastes like what I realized chicken is supposed to taste like: it's fresh, moist, tender, and infused with herbs, which each chicken is stuffed full of. I never knew I liked rosemary so much. I called it "rosemary chicken" and was impressed at the way each chicken there was veritably stuffed full of herbs. Grill Masters does not skimp, and they have the recipe right.
For a while, it was a no-brainer: I'd eat Grill Masters chicken every Friday. But it wasn't that easy forever, because a new booth showed up one week, and the smell of its barbeque called me from a block away. Remember the old Looney Tunes cartoons where characters actually lifted off the ground and rode a cloud of delicious food-smell on their noses? That was me with QT's Smokehouse BBQ. When I say BBQ, I don't mean meat stewed in barbeque sauce. I mean a slew of meats—beef brisket, pork ribs, chicken, links, and pulled pork—prepared for hours in a BBQ smoker. My favorite there was the link sandwich. Don't try to order this too early in the day, though, because these guys are purists, and they will not sell you food before it's reached its peak. The pulled pork must reach that moist, tender, fall-apart point. The links, a good inch-and-a-half or two inches in diameter, have to be soft and nearly bursting through their crisp skins before they'll be inserted inside a soft bun and slathered with barbeque sauce. The links are just a bit spicy and a bit sweet, and they're mixed with an earthy, woody barbeque sauce. Add the pressure of the hot, moist meat inside the crisp link skin, and flavor will literally explode inside your mouth with every bite.The Long Beach Downtown Farmer's Market doesn't have a dining area, so it's up to you to find a seat. The streets are lined with options, including benches, planters, and wooden crates graciously supplied by kind produce venders. Sometimes I'd situate myself near one of the many live, local musicians, in the sun or in the shade, and people-watch. Sometimes I just settled on an empty curb with my lunch and fresh-squeezed juice, sold out of coolers, in surprising, healthy combinations like pomegranate-apple-cherry (my favorite!) and pomegranate-orange.
When my fingers were greasy and my tummy was full, I'd peruse the dried fruits and nuts, the crafts (some of which are painted to order in front of you), clothes, hats, tsatskes—and the bakery, whose goodies I was always able to find room for...if not then, later.
And I would finally turn to the rainbow of fresh produce. Walls of crisp, sweet, locally-grown apples; seas of pre-measured pints of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries. Amber, gold, and nearly black jars of honey. I always sought out the juiciest, most flavorful organic cantaloupes and honeydews, and I rooted through the stacks and stacks of carrots, lettuces, onions, potatoes, radishes, tomatoes, and more types of citrus than a West Virginia girl could imagine—including the basketball-sized pomelo, which I just had to ask about. The vendors are all friendly and know so much about their own produce that talking to them is like taking an agriculture class. Many of them are the farmers themselves. They're all happy to pick out their best fruits for you, once you tell them exactly when you want to eat it. Today? Take this tender melon. Next week? Take this apple with the little dent and keep it in the refrigerator. The dent will help it sweeten fast, but it won't last months like the pristine ones.
And for those of you thinking Long Beach just means Snoop Dogg and LA, remember, it's surprisingly close to some of the best agricultural land in the country. That fresh produce you see was picked and grown just hours from its booth across the street from Q T's Smokehouse BBQ and Grill Masters. It is some of the best and freshest in the world, and it provided me with a week's worth of great food until Friday came around again, and I returned for more curbside corn, chicken, and barbeque.
For some reason, the website makes the Long Beach Downtown Farmer’s Market hard to find. So, for those of you trying to find it on Google Maps, try “5th and Walmart.” On Mapquest, try “The Promenade N” (the 300 or 400 block will do). It starts at the Walmart on 5th St. between Long Beach Blvd and Pine Ave. It’s worth finding. Get your parking stub from either of the two parking buildings validated, and you can park free for two hours.
Photographs by JCL Images