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 Hugh McIntosh, 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, I'm focused a lot on food vendors," says McIntosh, who each week lines up new stands from such proprietors as Jose Andres's Pepe sandwich truck, pasta-maker Ravioli Revolution and baker Rare Sweets. "I love a market that's very different every week."
McIntosh 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.
Reg Godin, director of markets for 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," he says. "We decided if we were going to save that market, it was going to be going after the most food dollars. And that meant lunchtime."
A year ago, FreshFarm approached Suzanne Simon to launch her 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," Simon says. "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
Cooking bloggers Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern opened their "farm to taco" stand at the White House market 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. ($3.50 for one taco; $10 for three.)
Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., through Oct. 30. Vermont Avenue between H and I streets NW. www.freshfarmmarkets.org.
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
After Janette Hosein was laid off a few years ago, the Hosein siblings of Virginia joined her in a new venture: To keep Mom occupied, 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 venture was so successful that Mama's can now be found at four Virginia markets.) Rod Hosein mans 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. ($3 for six doughnuts; $5 for a dozen.)
Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon through November; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. December through April. Washington Boulevard and North McKinley Road, Arlington. www.westoverfarmersmarket.org.
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.
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. (Sandwiches, $5-$7.75.)
Sunday through Friday; hours vary, 37091 Charles Town Pike, Hillsboro, Va. 540-668-9067. www.stoneybrookfarm.org.
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 (hello, Starbucks), 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. (Chocolate almond croissant, $1.75.)
Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. 7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 301-652-2291. www.farmwomensmarket.com.
The District Flea
Update: On May 13, the organizers of the District Flea announced the market would take an indefinite hiatus.
The spinoff of New York's popular Brooklyn Flea opened last fall in a 30,000-square-foot lot in Shaw that packs in vintage furniture and clothes, jewelry and old records. Of all the markets in town, the Flea has honed a reputation for being the place to try the newest, most eclectic food, regularly tapping into the pool of creative bakers and picklers working out of Union Kitchen and rotating them week to week. The market even serves local beers.
What to try: Room 11 scones, Cured DC sandwiches and Baodown steamed bao buns
It's best to come to the Flea with an empty stomach and a couple of crisp 20 dollar bills in your pocket. This is the premier spot to snack on fare from the District's future restaurateurs, and the smaller portions are ideal for trying several stands at once. Go in the morning and begin with a delicate, Japanese-style iced coffee, made to order by D.C.-based roaster Vigilante Coffee Co., then zip over to the Room 11 booth for a perfect, not-too-sweet scone ($3) made by pastry chef Lizzy Evelyn. After shopping, refuel at Cured, which has been building a name as a charcuterie brand while also layering its salty meats on sandwiches (prices vary). Be sure to save room for a pork bun (or vegetarian-friendly tempeh bun) at Baodown ($3.50 apiece or $9 for three), which opened at the Flea last week and sold out its fare before 2 p.m.
Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., tentatively through the end of October. 945 Florida Ave. NW. www.districtflea.com.