While “farmers market” conjures images of stands full of fresh veggies, crusty bread and pasture-raised eggs, most of D.C.’s lunchtime farmers markets function like open-air food courts. You can certainly find producers selling the ingredients for a great home-cooked meal, but you can also grab a ready-made lunch to enjoy alfresco. The diversity of the markets is their strength: You might have heard of some vendors, such as the ubiquitous Timber Pizza, which has a brick-and-mortar shop in Petworth, but you can also take your pick of barbecue, crab cakes, and Mexican and Ethiopian dishes.
These six recommended vendors can be found at one or more of the following markets: FreshFarm's Tuesday market at CityCenter and Thursday market on Vermont Avenue near the White House; the USDA's Friday market at its headquarters on the Mall; and Capital Harvest's Friday market at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center.
Bay Pearl Crab Cakes
Where: CityCenter (Tuesday), USDA (Friday).
Prices: Crabcake sandwich $12, coleslaw $3.
A good crab cake, Mark Peregory of Bay Pearl Crab Cakes, starts with “fresh crab meat — non-pasteurized and local.” But the secret of his popular fried, all-lump cakes is the complete lack of filler: “No bread, no crackers, no nothing.” A rémoulade sauce with green peppers, garlic and celery adds flavor without overshadowing the crab meat, which comes from Westmoreland County, Va. (All the suppliers, down to the eggs used in the sauce, are identified on Bay Pearl's signs.) Be warned: The homemade coleslaw sometimes sells out before the crab cakes.
Cucina Al Volo
Where: CityCenter (Tuesday) and White House (Thursday).
Price: All subs $10.
Housemade pastas and sauces are the stars at Al Volo's Adams Morgan osteria and Cleveland Park tratorria, while the downtown pizzeria sells pies by the slice. At its farmers market stands, however, subs are the focus: a tangy combo of pulled pork and pickled kale in the porchetta; a classic meatball sub smothered in marinara and basil; fried eggplant parm covered in tomato sauce and provolone. They're so big and saucy you may find yourself offering half to your cubicle mate.
Where: CityCenter (Tuesday).
FishScale serves fishburgers, but their version is nothing like the deep-fried slab of whitefish on a bun you might have had growing up. Instead, chef Brandon Williams hand-grinds sustainable fish into patties, which are then grilled. The result is a rich and surprisingly meaty burger, lightly dressed: A rockfish burger allowed the fish's sweet, fresh flavor to shine, accented by cucumber-tomato relish and a touch of sambal hot sauce. While FishScale moved into a full-time storefront on Florida Avenue NW last year, Williams still cooks two varieties of fish each week at the CityCenter market.
Manos de Maiz
Where: White House (Thursday), USDA (Friday).
Price: $6 for one maizope, or $11 for two.
Joahna Hernandez was born and raised in Mexico City, and after she moved to Washington for work, “I started looking for the tortillas I remember,” she says. It was a fruitless search. So after managing Adams Morgan's Cafe Oaxaca, and doing R&D on her own tortilla recipes, Hernandez launched Manos de Maiz at local farmers markets. Her specialty are maizopes — a portmanteau of maiz (corn) and sopes, a Mexican dish similar to an open-face sandwich. Hernandez's street food-inspired version piles smoky brisket tinga or sweetly spicy almond mole and chicken over a thick and flavorful puck of handmade, lightly fried corn masa.
Manos de Maiz used heritage varieties of Mexican corn for the previous two years. “I really wanted to support the farmers and bring back the tradition of corn,” Hernandez says. This year, to gain access to the larger FreshFarm markets, which require ingredients from the Mid-Atlantic region, she began working with an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania who grows organic whole-grain corn.
Mesisam: The Ethiopian Eatery
Where: Ronald Reagan International Trade Center (Friday).
Price: Combo platters with three to five items, $14-$16.
Dumplings, wood-fired pizza and even crab cakes have become common sights at local farmers markets. Ethiopian food? Not so much. After years of working at local farmers markets, Mesi Samuel decided to change that earlier this year, launching Mesisam. “Our food is always in a restaurant space, not in an outdoor space,” Samuel says. “I want to bring it to people wherever they are.”
Samuel's specialty is vegetarian and vegan dishes: Fragrant simmering stews ladled over a takeaway box lined with injera. She alternates between 11 recipes, she says, with miser key wot (red split lentils with garlic, onion and ginger simmered in spicy berbere) and gomen (collard greens with tomato, ginger and garlic) chief among them. She didn't originally offer meat, she says, “but my customers ask, 'where is the doro wat?'" so she's begun offering Ethiopia's national dish: chicken legs and a freshly scored hard-boiled egg seasoned with berbere, red onions and garlic. You'll want to use every leftover piece of injera to sop up the sauce.
Where: Ronald Reagan International Trade Center (Friday).
Price: Sandwiches $9-$11. Meals with two sides $14-$16.
The longest lines at the Capital Harvest market are frequently in front of Muggerz BBQ — probably because you can smell roasting brisket and ribs long before you can see the grills. Owner and pitmaster Jason Allen says that, because of the secure location at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, Muggerz can't smoke meat on site: The brisket and pork shoulder are smoked for 14 to 16 hours at a commercial facility in Lorton, Va., while the ribs and chicken take five to six. Allen fuels his fires with a mix of hickory and oak: With just oak, he says, the flavor was too strong and fruity, and the hickory adds a brightness to the moist and flavorful brisket. While Muggerz sells combos with sandwiches and two sides, such as coleslaw and baked beans, Allen says the most popular option is “the boat”: brisket piled high over creamy mac and cheese. Just don't eat it at your desk if you don't want your co-workers bothering you for a taste.
FreshFarm City Center: Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., through Oct. 30. New York Avenue NW between 10th and 11th streets.
FreshFarm White House: Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., through Nov. 15. Vermont Avenue NW between H and I streets.
USDA Farmers Market: Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., through Oct. 26. Independence Avenue and 12th Street SW.
Capital Harvest on the Plaza: Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., through Nov. 9. On the plaza of the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.