Shortly after being sent to Los Angeles for work, my husband developed a grapefruit addiction.
He started showing up at the office with a bag of grapefruits every morning, working his way through a pound or two of citrus before lunch. His colleagues apparently found this amusing. When I went out to visit, I quickly honed in on the source of his addiction.
It was the Canoga Park Farmer’s Market, a modest, one-block affair in a working-class neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley. Oggi’s source was an organic farmer from Oxnard who sells Oro Blanco grapefruits, a variety that tastes like a cross between lemons and honey; from the farmer’s enthusiasm, I could tell Oggi was his most devoted grapefruit client.
And over the next few weekends, I quickly discovered what Angelenos all know. Farmer’s markets in the nation’s sunny agricultural mecca are much more than places to shop; they’re the perfect entertainment for our local-and-seasonal, foodie-obsessed era, brimming year-round with mouthwatering selections of just-picked produce.
In a city short on public spaces, markets are oases of communal activity, places where Californians of diverse backgrounds meet over such common human denominators as cherries, broccoli and squash. As such, any traveler looking for something to do — or something to eat — on any morning, not just Sunday, ought to check out the listings on the L.A. Times website (projects.latimes.com/farmers-markets) and explore.
While Oggi remained faithful to his grapefruit source, he indulged my curiosity in a tour of markets that ranged from the very basic (a handful of produce stalls) to elaborate layouts resembling amusement parks, complete with carousels and petting zoos. We started in the hills just north of Malibu, worked our way across the Valley, and ended our survey on the trendy West Side.
Northwest L.A. is home to smaller, more modest markets like the one in Agoura Hills. This picturesque Western town, nestled into the mountains and dotted with cactus, hosts nearby farmers, bakers and fishmongers in a sprawling parking lot. The market is sparsely populated and has absolutely no atmosphere — but there was no denying the freshness of the Navel oranges I bought.
Canoga Park was nearly as low-key, though the downtown location, the guitar player and the Mexican families lining up for chicharrones lent a neighborly feel. Moving east, we found a much larger array of produce in Encino, where a particularly strong flower selection as well as artisanal honeys and jams spread out across two vacant lots and a lawn. In the back, a corner with prepared-food trucks offered a nosh under shady trees — shade being a rare, precious thing in L.A.
Mere produce is almost a sideline at some of the bigger, more popular markets. First came the crepe stands, taco trucks and falafel stalls, catering to all the shoppers who ignored the advice about not going shopping while already hungry. Then came makeshift benches and tables, encouraging families to picnic.
The result was several blocks of pupusas, Korean tacos and quinoa bowls in Studio City, where the farmer’s market — on an urban block just off Ventura Boulevard — has distinctly Brooklyn vibe. Bearded fathers wearing Baby Bjorns and spectacled tamale connoisseurs abounded. They all seemed to be heading toward one end of the strip, where the delighted shrieks of children called attention to a swing set, a giant inflatable playpen and a carousel of live horses. Goats, rabbits, chickens and at least one black hog found eager hands and laps at the petting zoo.
Encino and Studio City drew a sizeable Jewish crowd, so it was striking that we made it all the way to Mar Vista before hitting on a genre that is puzzlingly rare: kosher prepared food. At Kosher Palate, pareve dishes offer a modern, locally sourced spin on global Jewish tastes. But amid the plethora of dietary options — raw, vegan, low-glycemic, gluten-free, paleo-friendly (this is L.A., after all) — this was the only glatt kosher fare we found.
Another commodity in short supply is parking, a real problem at the more popular urban spots. On a Sunday in Santa Monica, which hosts several highly competitive markets, it took well over a half-hour to stow our Toyota within walking distance of the market. I’m still debating whether the congestion, hassle and outrageous private-parking rackets outweighed the loveliness of the experience — an incredibly tasty array of food and an attractive young crowd, all on a charming, boutique-dotted stretch of Main Street. If you’re already strolling with a latte in hand, it might be just perfect.
But if you prefer something a little more relaxed, there are literally dozens of markets on any given day of the week — and each one is like a little microcosm of the surrounding community, given that people tend to shop where they live. Sometimes I filled my tote with fresh berries; other times, I stopped by for lunch and peoplewatching.
The one constant? You guessed it: a fresh supply of grapefruit.