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A Critic’s Guide to Eating at the Laney Flea Market

Enjoy pozole, mangonadas, raspados, Mexico City-style lamb barbacoa tacos, and more.

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Every Sunday, the Laney College parking lot transforms into an open-air market. It's full of pretty much any type of wares you could imagine: new and secondhand clothes, bicycles, toiletries, pots and pans, power tools, remotes for 20-year-old TVs, an entire fleet of Thomas the Tank Engine collectibles, and even carnivorous plants. "How much for the handcuffs?" I overheard one potential customer inquiring.

Even if you're not in the mood to shop, the market is a must-visit for its array of food stands offering both crowd favorites and hard-to-find dishes, all at a bargain price. Here are just a few of the flea market's noteworthy vendors.

La Barbacoa

If you're looking for a reason to wake up early on a Sunday morning, look no further than La Barbacoa, which, according to its sign, offers un pedacito de Mexico DF, a little taste of Mexico's Distrito Federal (aka Mexico City). This stand has been a mainstay at the flea market for the past seven years. It was founded by Javier Dominguez, whose family has been in the barbacoa business in Mexico City for generations. Dominguez passed away about a year ago, but now his brother-in-law, Esteban Hernandez, is carrying on the family business.

Traditional Mexico City-style lamb barbacoa is the centerpiece of the menu here, and Hernandez and his family take no shortcuts in making their barbacoa the right way. In fact, they spend the entire week preparing for Sunday's flea market. Each week, they purchase 10 whole lambs, which they butcher themselves. Four days before serving, they begin prepping the barbacoa by adding a secret blend of spices, including bay leaves, and wrapping the lamb in maguey leaves — the same plant that mezcal is made out of. The lamb marinates for two full days before being placed in a wood oven, where it cooks for eight hours. The pancita, or sheep stomach, follows a similar three-day process, with the addition of red chili for an extra kick of flavor. Afterward, the barbacoa is placed in a pot so that the consome, or broth, can develop.

At the register, pay for your tacos, consome, and aguas frescas, then let the cooks know whether you'd like barbacoa, pancita, or a combination of the two. The meat is placed onto warm tortillas, then topped with optional onions and cilantro. Don't miss the garnishes to the left. The mild green salsa is made with avocado and plenty of cilantro, while the spicier red salsa is actually a mole made with seven different types of chilies. A squeeze of lime is a must, and for those who love the heat, add some of the fiery, refreshing Hidalgo-style pico de gallo made with cucumbers, red onions, and fresh habanero peppers.

Take a seat at the outdoor tables and enjoy your tacos amid the sound of cumbia from the speakers. The barbacoa is melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a hint of natural sweetness and complex umami flavor. The consome is an essential sidekick, distilling all the savoriness of the lamb and spices into a comforting broth with nubby chickpeas and soft grains of rice.

It's easy to see why people flock to La Barbacoa every weekend for tacos and consome. Some swear by barbacoa as a hangover cure. For many of Hernandez's customers, it offers a taste of home. Be sure to arrive early — the barbacoa often sells out by 12:30. Customers often ask Hernandez why he doesn't just make more barbacoa. He could make more barbacoa — or charge more money for his tacos — but Hernandez wants to continue offering a high-quality product at an affordable price, and that's exactly what you'll get.

Jorge's Kettle + Roasted Corn

There are plenty of vendors at the flea market selling elotes, or corn on the cob. But only one vendor roasts its corn rather than boiling it, and that's Jorge's Kettle + Roasted Corn. Jorge Anaya, who runs the business along with his wife, Nora, and sons Jorge and Arturo, is a longtime Laney Flea Market vendor. He got his start selling CDs and clothes in the market, then switched to roasting elote when another vendor decided to call it quits and sell his roaster.

The corn gets roasted at between 500 to 700 degrees with the husk on, which the younger Jorge says allows the naturally occurring sugars in the corn to caramelize. After ordering, the husk is peeled off and the corn is handed to the customer along with a wooden coffee stirrer. Squeeze some mayonnaise from the bottle onto the elote, then use the coffee stirrer to spread the mayonnaise evenly on the corn. Next, add a spritz of lemon juice from the spray bottle and a shake of chili powder. Bring your elote back to the counter, where a member of the Anaya family will perform the final step of coating your elote with cheese. The resulting elote is sweeter and more flavorful than your average boiled elote, with toasty, chewy golden brown kernels at both ends.

Xingones

I'm a big fan of Xingones's permanent pop-up location at Fort Green Bar in Old Oakland (see the July 24 review if you need a refresher). But Xingones' menu at Laney shows a different side of chefs Tino Perez and Mayra Velasquez. While the menu at Fort Green offers a mixture of bar snacks, tacos, salads, sandwiches, and specialty plates, the menu at Laney College is reminiscent of both county fairs and family celebrations. Xingones' famous fried chicken and waffles are on the menu here, but so are traditional comfort foods you won't find at Fort Green. Try the Jalisco-style pozole rojo, which comes with chunks of pork meat and succulent, bouncy-textured pig feet. The birria de chivo tacos are another Laney exclusive, made with tender, delicately spiced lean stewed goat that's fragrant and rich without any gamey taste.

Raspados La Piña

For a little pick-me-up, look no further than Raspados La Piña, a family business that offers a wide array of snacks and drinks. There's fresh fruit like sliced jicama and cactus fruit, salty snacks like Tostilocos or chicharron preparado, refreshing drinks like coconut water and homemade aguas frescas, and cool treats like raspados flavored with homemade fruit syrups. Try the guava raspado and the Tostilocos (a bag of Tostitos cut open and topped with cueritos, or pickled pork skin, tamarind candy, candied peanuts, and Chamoy).

Evelyn's Ice Cream

Save a little stomach space for Evelyn's Ice Cream, which truly makes some of the best ice cream I've tried in the East Bay. This truck is one of the market's longtime vendors — it has been in business here since 1999. Miguel Montiel and his wife Irene quit their jobs in order to start the truck, making just two flavors of ice cream in two barrels. They named the truck after their daughter, Evelyn, and their son, Miguel Montiel Jr., also works at the truck, along with a handful of nieces and nephews.

The Montiel family carries ice cream-making talent in their blood. Montiel Sr.'s mother, Elisa, was an ice cream maker in Jalisco, and at Evelyn's Ice Cream, they serve classic American ice cream alongside a handful of flavors made the traditional way. Limón was their first and most popular flavor, a refreshingly tart, not-too-sweet sorbet with a soft, creamy texture despite the fact that it contains no dairy. Arroz con leche is the second most popular flavor, custardy and creamy without being overly heavy. Fresh guava ice cream is another mainstay. It's also a bargain at $2 for a scoop or $2.50 for two scoops.

Next to the Evelyn's Ice Cream truck is the mangonada stand that Evelyn started in 2010, which serves up the best mangonada I've had the pleasure of eating. The base of the mangonada is a velvety sorbet made with Champagne mangoes, while chunks of fresh mango dressed with a squeeze of lime and Chamoy enhance the flavor of the sorbet. You can dress your mangonada with a variety of toppings depending on how spicy you like it: with Chamoy, with Tajín, or with pico de gallo powder. But those in the know ask for chile de arbol, which Irene roasts and grinds herself to make the perfect smoky-spicy topping.

The Laney College Flea Market takes place every Sunday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 510 Fallon Street in Oakland.

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