All You Can Eat at Florida Market
This is the first of a few posts I’m planning on Florida market (aka Union, aka Capitol City). The whole area is slated for redevelopment — a plan that’s been evolving for the past 3+ years and is surrounded by controversy. It’s a totally fascinating story and something I wish a real journalist would take up. Sara R?!
I am obsessed with Florida market. Anyone I meet these days ends up with an earful about my favorite place in the whole district. I love markets. I really really do. Especially the ones that are a little gritty, that remind one that food isn’t meant to be intimidating or inaccessible, or elitist, but something elemental, raw, real, that we all share.
The Union Market buildings were built in the first phase of market construction from 1929 to 1931 and designed by architect E.L. Bullock Jr. in a reduced “Classical Revival” style.
Florida market is gritty. So much so in fact, that people who have visited sometimes crinkle their noses when I mention it. “You buy things there?” they ask. “But those dumpsters with rotting produce! The trucks! The exhaust! The derelicts! The peeling paint and vacant buildings and signs in foreign languages. The noise, the heat and the smell, and the butchers in that warehouse with all that MEAT.”
I eat it up. This is the place that feeds DC. The wholesalers in the market distribute to restaurants and retail grocers throughout the district. No one who eats out or shops outside of farmers’ markets can pretend like they don’t eat from here. And when you come here in person, you can find all sorts of treasures you can’t find at Safeway, at Eastern, or even at the wonderful Freshfarm markets.
Also known as Capitol City market or Union Market, this is the place where the “other half” of DC shops. Mostly African and Latino families, with some Southeast Asian representation and occasional neighborhood hipster looking for a deal on tahini.
On Saturdays, most of the shops are open for retail sales, including Sam Wang produce, where besides the staples, you can find banana flowers, shiso leaf, nopales, chayote, lotus root, thai parsley, mini thai eggplant, masa, frozen banana leaves, tamarind pods, plantain, and every starchy root your heart desireth.
Most families fill up two or three cardboard boxes with produce. Receipts I’ve average $60-100. Many folks ask the cashier to let them know when they hit a limit — “All I’ve got is $67 today, so let me know when we get there.” — some get to the end of the weighing and decide to put back the pumelo or melon because it puts them just over.
Sam Wang’s just one of the many shops. Down the way is a tofu production facility where you can get a tub of three super-fresh tofu blocks for $3. My roommate who once ran the kitchen at a vegetarian restaurant in town used to bike here every morning to buy in bulk.
You can also get a huge bag of fresh sprouts for $3 that’s bigger than a baby, but I don’t recommend it unless you plan to make pho for an army.
So far, I’ve brought about a dozen friends to the market with me on mini trips and all of them have found something to love:
Besides the produce, there’s a wonderful Halal market with basil seed juice (?!), samosas, frozen ready-made paratha, ginger tea, and lots of spices. Apparently you can also get goats, but I haven’t had time to set up a spit, so I haven’t indulged yet.
Then there’s the flea market where you can find everything from rusty industrial muffin tins to dancing panda radios, and also some useful things like an adapter for your beat-up no-frills cell-phone or sea foam stilettos to add a splash to your otherwise staid pantsuit.
There’s a great market directory here of the businesses that sell direct to consumers. See you there Saturdays.