I first stumbled upon the Fort Mason farmers market two summers ago, as I wandered down the impossibly steep streets leading toward San Francisco Bay on an unusually fog-free Sunday morning. Wedged between the tourist sites of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District, this inauspicious collection of several dozen vendors clustered around an out-of-use Army outpost. Once I stepped inside the market, though, it immediately became clear that this was something quite different from the many farmers markets I’ve frequented on the East Coast.
For starters, there were more than a dozen varieties of just-ripe yellow, gold, red and orange peaches, not to mention apricots, kumquats and loquats, plus such hybrid fruits as apriums and pluots. Tasting the copious slices of free fruit samples provided a more than filling breakfast. One sample each of 12 kinds of peach? Yes, please.
Details, San Francisco farmers markets
But that was only the beginning. A thick aroma of fresh rosemary wafted across the market from the Roli Roti Gourmet Rotisserie roast chicken truck, which hawks crisp brown Sonoma chickens alongside roasted potatoes coated in that fragrant herb. Some marketgoers took the birds home for dinner with their fresh veggies; others sat down and devoured them right there by the water. Next to Roli Roti, the fast-moving staff at the Happy Dumpling food truck rapidly fried Shandong-style dumplings stuffed with pork and chives until the edges turned a perfect golden hue.
Spurred to investigate further, I quickly learned that the many farmers markets held throughout the Bay Area (there are more than 50; some year-round, others that start up in summer) are not only a source of these smorgasbords of fresh produce, but also a place where hungry visitors can sample some of the region’s most innovative meals at a fraction of the prices charged at high-end San Francisco restaurants. In recent years this nascent trend has climbed to a new level, with everyone from amateur gourmets to marquee chefs and food trucks showing off their best meals next to the peach stands.
At Ferry Plaza, long home to a popular farmers market held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, a recent initiative added stands offering made-to-order lunch options from some of the city’s trendiest new eateries. The weekday editions in particular draw long lines of downtown office workers eager for such fare as Hapa Ramen’s porky Japanese noodle soups brimming with overstuffed helpings of locally sourced veggies, and Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen’s pastrami, corned beef and mushroom Reuben sandwiches.
There are also only-at-the-market food options such as Joel Baecker and Naomi Crawford’s Pizza Politana. The husband-and-wife team shows up at Ferry Plaza and six other markets in the region throughout the week with a custom-built wood-fired oven in tow, dishing out thin, lightly charred Neapolitan pizzas that showcase seasonal ingredients such as cremini mushrooms, leek cream and artichokes, plucked from the markets themselves.