Dinner Deals | Meals Under $15

Meals Under $15: Finding Eastern Market's Edible Treasures

By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

Eastern Market is an icon, and as with all icons, the place is many things to many people.

It's a flea market, an art fair, a farm stand and a grocery store. And with a little creative thinking (and a tolerance for long lines), the place is also an eclectic buffet. Especially on weekends, when outdoor food tents augment the offerings from South Hall merchants, assembling lunch from market vendors is like going on a treasure hunt: seeking out the best the market has to offer and pairing it with a park bench.

Here are a few menus I've enjoyed the past few weekends. I chose my dishes from mostly ready-to-eat items. Sure, you could make a killer sandwich out of market fixin's, but I wanted to put together a meal that didn't require the use of utensils (i.e., knives) and that I couldn't just pick up at the grocery store.

Sandwich & sides: Over the past few weeks, the longest lines have snaked around the counter at Market Lunch, the eatery at the north end of the South Hall, which recently reopened after a devastating fire two years ago. The crab cake sandwich there is one of the most beloved lunchtime offerings among market devotees, and it's easy to see why. It's heavy on crab, light on filler and served with a simple mayonnaise-y tartar sauce. Coleslaw makes a nice accompaniment.

Salted soft pretzels go nicely with the summery sandwich, and they can be found at A Pretzel Twist, one of the stands that pop up each weekend on the patio in front of the William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center on North Carolina Avenue SE. Bite into the twist's crisp exterior and find a chewy center. (The fresh lemonade at the stand looks appetizing, but I had a much better-tasting glass from Fine Sweet Shop in the South Hall.)

For those who prefer meat to shellfish, the South Hall's Canales Delicatessen offers a pulled pork sandwich. It has more bun than meat, but the tangy barbecue sauce pairs well with the shredded pork and helps keep the sub roll moist. On weekends, venture out to the aquatic center patio to scoop up a pint of the crunchy dill pickles at In a Pickle. That might seem like a lot for lunch, but you'll be glad to have the leftovers to munch on later in the week. Finish the meal with a red velvet cupcake from Fine Sweet Shop.

The line at the Crepes at the Market stand in front of the aquatic center rivals that at Market Lunch. Those who wait are rewarded with an impressive array of crepe combinations to choose from or the option of crafting their own. A sweet-meets-savory creation of ham, Muenster cheese, apples and maple syrup was one of the best I tasted. It teamed nicely with a handful of seasoned pecans from the Sweet Nuthouse vendor in front of the aquatic center and an iced coffee from neighboring Hondo Coffee.

Antipasti inspired: The market is a snacker's paradise. Eastern Market Grocery sells eight kinds of olives (I opted for the Mixed Country variety), small containers of hummus and pita, boules of fresh mozzarella and slivers of roasted red peppers. A selection of these pairs nicely with grapes from Calomiris Fruits & Vegetables or slices of prosciutto or Serrano ham from Canales Delicatessen. In a Pickle's marinated mushrooms are a must-try. The tangy treats are pickled, then marinated in olive oil and Italian seasoning. Bread from Fine Sweet Shop and brie from Bowers Fancy Dairy Products would complement the meal. Finish it off with a honey-coated baklava from Fine Sweet Shop.

Sugar rush: Market Lunch's blueberry-buckwheat pancakes (known as "blue-bucks") are a market favorite. They're sold only on Saturdays, but if you arrive on a weekday, the fluffy, buttery plain pancakes are a decent substitute.

Crepes at the Market has a slew of sweet options, many with Nutella, honey, syrup and fruit. My favorite was the blueberry, peach, banana and honey wrap, which was like summer in a pancake.

A few caveats: Since the market's reopening last month, it has been packed. The South Hall can feel claustrophobic on the weekends, and a recent Saturday wait for crepes exceeded 30 minutes. So either be prepared to do a lot of waiting or focus on getting your entire meal from one vendor.

It's worth taking note of schedules. The vendors in front of the aquatic center are on-site only on weekends, as are the farmers. The South Hall merchants are open Tuesdays through Sundays. Market Lunch serves some of its specialty breakfast items (those blue-buck pancakes, for one) only on Saturdays; on Sundays, it's lunch only.

Finally, bring cash; some merchants (including, notably, Market Lunch) do not take plastic.

Got some Eastern Market favorites to add to this list? Let us know.

Eastern Market
Seventh Street and North Carolina Avenue SE (Metro: Eastern Market). http://www.easternmarketdc.com.
Hours: South Hall open Tuesday-Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Farmers Market and aquatic center vendors open Saturday-Sunday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: $1.75-$17.95
Wheelchair access: Wheelchairs should enter the South Hall through the doors on the North Carolina Avenue side.
Kid-friendliness: The lines and the crowds can try a child's patience. Treats such as crepes are a great reward for the well-behaved.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company