The Hidden New Orleans Flea Market No One Wants You to Know About
In post-Katrina New Orleans, Latin cuisine is beginning to thrive in the ethnic flea markets of New Orleans's West Bank neighborhood, where most of the vendors don't want people to find out about this hidden culinary treasure.
People at the Algiers flea market. All photos by Alana Pryor Ackerman
Three massive ethnic flea markets open simultaneously at the base of New Orleans's West Bank Expressway each Saturday and Sunday. Because this weekly conglomeration blooms on the relatively uncool side of the Mississippi in Algiers—the second oldest neighborhood in Orleans Parish, directly across the water from the French Quarter—the thrifterati have no idea about it, nor do New Orleans's gastronomes, who sleep late during the market's weekly Latin feast, where there are as many booths and trucks as at your average New Orleans music festival. Currently divided into three big areas—each with a different name and run by a different family—this Algiers market is over 40 years old.
I step out of my car behind a table where two black ladies haggle over some New Orleans Saints gear. "You gotta represent!" the older one says. I scan tables stacked with makeup, shoes, toys, sunglasses, hair bows and balls, used tools, baseball hats—everything you'd expect and more, laid neatly across crammed-together plywood booths. Within a few steps, I've bought a nice student guitar for my daughter for $10. I inspect a Master P "I Got the Hook Up" T-shirt at the booth of the old lady who, the last time I was here, sold me a brand-new Michael Jackson "R.I.P." shirt for $2.
Food-wise, the first of the three markets, called Algiers Mini Mart, hosts but one humble fruit and vegetable stand and a small fry kitchen in what looks like a big white outhouse. Robert Cottonhas run this kitchen in this section of the market for 13 years, but he started running the whole shebang six months ago on behalf of 91-year-old owner Betty Grandbouche, who opened the market in 1974 as a simple New Orleans sno-ball stand with a little yard sale area. For health reasons, Betty now prefers to stay at home. "They're ruining the market," she says when I ask about all the great new Latin food that's moved onto the lot behind hers since Katrina. "I have tried my best to keep them off of that lot."
Robert's new duties mostly entail collecting the vendors' money at the end of each weekend, but he still considers cooking to be his real job. The section of the market he runs for Betty doesn't allow other food vendors, so Robert sold the market's only food until after Katrina, when, he says, tons of Latin food stands moved into Dix Jazz Mart (the third of the neighboring markets, located behind Algiers Mini Mart). "I used to make $1,000 a weekend selling gumbo and red beans, fried catfish and shrimp, burgers, hot sausage sandwiches—American food," Robert replies when asked how the market has changed over the years. "It used to be African American and white folks. But since all these Mexicans moved here, I make about half what I used to make."
The market's middle section, simply known as Algiers Flea Market, is owned by the mellow Chris Thompson. This is where you will find children crying over their first haircuts in several little barber shops. "Before the storm, the market was more heavily African American," explains Chris. "The migrant workers came here after Katrina. Everyone refers to them all as 'Mexicans,' but most of them are Central American, actually, mostly Honduran. But I don't care; they all add to the family. Everything here is very family."
A market vendor
Although Chris's Algiers Flea Market offers very little food, it does host the whole market's sole Salvadoran pupusería: a hut with a wide flat grill centerpiece for frying up thick cornmeal pancakes known as pupusas, which come mixed with beans or cheese or chicharrón paste. The pupusa revuelta mixes all three. I eat two mixed on a paper plate at a shaded picnic table with a Honduran family who tell me they moved to New Orleans from Miami because it was too expensive there, and because Hurricane Katrina created jobs. The family and the chef identify the three jars of colorful toppings laid out for our pupusa: the curtido, a fermented Salvadoran coleslaw drowning in vinegar; chumol, which is a mixture ofpickled cauliflower, carrot, and jalapeño; and encurtido, or pickled onion, jalapeño, and beets, which are "good for the blood," the chef tells me.
Bean-and-cheese pupusa with pickled vegetables
I wash down my two pupusas ($5 for two) with Coca-Cola from the kind of big, heavy glass bottle you never see in America. I ask the chef, "Do y'all recycle?"
"We do in Central America," he smiles. I impress him by adding that in Central America they don't recycle but actually wash the original bottles, refill, and recap them over and over and over, which makes far more sense than smashing them up and making new glass containers. Drinking a beer in Costa Rica, you may notice your scuffed up bottle looks ten years old.
Other than the pupusería and a small stand that sells peeled fruit and jugos naturales, the Algiers Flea Market section hosts no other food. But stepping just around the corner into the section called Dix Jazz Mart feels like stepping into a Central American food festival. Twelve or so different booths and trucks sell comidas típicas from a slew of Latin American countries. I sit down in front of one sign to write down the long list of dishes for sale at just one booth: pollo con tajadas (fried chicken and crispy, fried green plantains covered in mole sauce, served on a bed of shredded cabbage and sometimes encurtido), chuletas (spicy fried pork chops served over fried yellow rice or in taco shells), carne asada (a fan-shaped cut of short-loin beef flap steak, marinated, slightly seared, and topped with gravy, usually served over yellow rice), costilla puerco (red barbecued pork back ribs in a green sauce of onion, garlic, and tomatoes), and chicharra con yuca (a sort of stew made from fatty lemon-fried pork—often skin or cheek meat—that's served over the starchy yuca plant).
Baleadas con carne (beef)
I ask permission of the teenage boy running another stand to take a picture of his bagged Mexican pinwheel snacks called churros (not the long cinnamon sticks, but more like giant pieces of Honeycomb-brand cereal). He hesitantly agrees. I feel my snapping of photos arousing suspicion. But they're so photogenic, all of the many booths offering deliciously greasy beef and chicken empanadas and other meat pastries displayed in heated glass boxes. I buy a big spicy beef pie, huge and flaky, from Sara Peña and her daughter and grandchild, whose specialty is Honduran baleadas, beans, crumbled cheese, and sour cream on wheat tortillas. "Sometimes they lie flat, but ours are wrapped up like a burrito," says the daughter, who doesn't want to be quoted or photographed.
Passing a man selling cheap drums, tambourines, and goat-hoof jewelry, I walk to the very back of the market, where two black dudes are selling stereo equipment and porn DVDs. They've heard of VICE, so they ask to take a picture with me before they point me to the Taquería los Poblanos truck and its owner, Miguel, who doesn't seem happy to shake my hand, so I leave him alone. The Mexican taco booth Gorditas Zacatecanas, selling $2 gorditas, lets me photograph them. I take one last photo of the sopa stand, which is open only on Sundays because the owner also runs a brick-and-mortar restaurant in nearby Gretna, Louisiana.
Finally, the presence of a lone white man taking notes and snapping photos conjures up a small, silent posse headed up by Angela Dix, a black lady who does not look happy. She and two others stand, arms folded, wanting to know why I am taking photos. Their leader and spokesperson Angela has run the back Dix Jazz Mart section–essentially the food section—for the last eight years. I explain to her what I am doing, that I'm just writing a food article, and her mood lightens, but she remains visibly skeptical.I tell her I am done taking photos. She gives me her number, but I get the distinct feeling that she doesn't necessarily want more people finding out about this hidden Latin culinary treasure.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.