Photo by Daniel Berson
To view images of the historic Ferry Building's Thursday market, click here for a slide show.
When I was first anxiously contemplating a cross-country move to the West Coast, it was a Saturday morning visit to San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that ultimately clinched the decision. Mesmerized by the bounteous displays of freshly harvested produce, artisanal breads, and locally raised meats, I salivated with greedy glee, thinking of the market-inspired menus I could prepare if I moved here.
A similar impulse has inspired chefs, home cooks, and tourists alike since the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) first opened the market at the city's historic Ferry Building seven years ago. And now in that same spot, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, that rotating cycle of stone fruit in the summer, root veggies in the fall, and citrus in the winter has ignited the hottest lunch ticket in town: the new Thursday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. At this regular outdoor food festival, some of the area's most exciting chefs try their hand at street food, therein bringing together two of San Francisco's culinary calling cards—glorious local harvests and a burgeoning food cart culture.
The next stop is Tacolicious, which fills warm corn tortillas with braised short ribs, chicken, traditional carnitas, or market-inspired vegetables.
Previously, the midweek market had struggled to find its niche. "It wasn't working," says Lulu Meyer, CUESA's associate director of market operations. So CUESA shuttered the market and did some rethinking. Putting vendors at the forefront was different, and it worked. A hot ticket since it launched in July, the market draws area workers, restaurant industry folks, families, and tourists with regular offerings ranging from Neapolitan pizza to smoked fish to Korean tacos, along with weekly market-inspired specials.
Already, the Thursday market has dramatically changed the San Francisco restaurant scene. Joe Hargrave, for example, recently shuttered his popular Spanish restaurant Laiola after realizing that making his signature tacos with slow braised meats—at a taco truck at the Thursday market—was his true passion. "The lines got longer and the brand grew," he says, so he transformed Laiola into a taco palace, naming it after the stand, Tacolicious. While the restaurant is doing well, Hargrave has no plans to abandon the market. "It's the urban center of this town,"he says. "Taking that break and working there, being in the sunshine. We love that day."
Photo by Sarah Logan
And as the long lines at lunchtime on Thursdays suggest, San Franciscans love that day too. Here's a look at what you can find at the market:
At the north end is RoliRoti, a rotisserie on wheels and one of a couple of vendors here that is a veteran of the Saturday market. The queue for the porchetta sandwich, rotisserie chicken, and roasted potatoes is always long—they pull in a lot of "guys in suits," according to Meyer—but it's well worth the wait. The chefs sop up stray pork drippings with freshly baked bread before sandwiching slices of crispy roast pork loin and belly to create a spectacularly rich feast. The chicken features a crackling, herb-encrusted skin and moist, tender meat.
Just next door is Pizza Politana, run by Chez Panisse alum Joel Baecker. While the Neapolitan crusts, with their charred outer corniciones, draw in the crowds, Politana's outdoor wood-fired pizza oven, imported from Italy, entertains waiting diners with a kind of street theater. "We wanted to build a business around the pizza oven," Baecker says. "Because we are at the market and everybody can see what we're doing, we have to be transparent and encourage people to watch the process." So as customers wait for their breakfast pizza, which is served until noon, or the weekly special Market Pizza, inspired by what's in season, they can watch dough being stretched; topped with fresh veggies, cheese, and meat; and placed in the fiery oven.