Now reading How to Master the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market

How to Master the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market

Your plan for making the most of the best farmers' market there is.


This comes from our “Los Angeles” issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.

Los Angeles is home to dozens of farmers’ markets, including noteworthy ones like Torrance, which supplies the South Bay, and Hollywood, where you might run into Jimmy Kimmel buying a head of celery. But the Wednesday market in downtown Santa Monica, located a block from the Pacific Ocean, is where you’ll find the most farm stands (eighty-five at its peak). A smaller sister market pops up in the same location on Saturday, worth mentioning mostly for the presence of Kong Thao, whose Thao Farms is the only thing missing from Wednesday mornings on Arizona Avenue. Note that unlike other farmers’ markets, you won’t find elote stalls or barbecue stands—it’s farmers only, which, just like the dating site, is exactly the point.

Los Angeles’s multiculturalism is less a melting pot than a meze platter. In the city’s expansiveness, communities carve out their own territory—you don’t necessarily have to mingle with your neighbors. You can drive down blocks in the San Gabriel Valley, home to over half a million Asian Americans, and not see a single sign in English. The same is true in Boyle Heights, a community in East LA that is 94 percent Latino.

But on Wednesday mornings, at the farmers’ market in downtown Santa Monica, a table of herbs reads like a census of the city. Korean and Japanese varieties of shiso share table space with Mexican, Greek, Italian, and Syrian oreganos; rau ram, huacatay, and Persian mint are there, too. Thai grandmothers line up early for the best water spinach, and French expats tear up at the sight of a mirabelle plum. I’ve seen a Oaxacan minister from Gardena buy a dolly’s worth of chilacayote for his agua fresca side business. And then there are the chefs and produce buyers hunting for the rare and the seasonal, injecting enough cash into the farmers’ coffers to convince them they should drive back the next week and do it all over again.

There are notable farmers’ markets across the United States—Portland, Madison, New York, and San Francisco are exceptional—but nowhere else will you find the quality, variety, and consistency of produce that you see every Wednesday morning on Arizona Avenue. You can buy heirloom tomatoes from June through November. I feel almost guilty rattling off the produce that you can find on a February morning in Santa Monica. Bananas! Dates! Avocados the size of your head! Winter is punctuated not by the arrival of tangerines and grapefruits, but by micro-seasons of mandarins, which come in a dozen varieties that roll out between January and April. There are single farms that grow over two hundred fifty varieties of citrus.

This market is the hub of LA’s spice route, a microcosm of our cultural DNA. Farmers drive through the night bringing mangoes and dates from the Salton Sea and European plums from Silicon Valley. Armenian families trek from Lake Isabella with insanely perfumed Uzbek melons that taste like vanilla ice cream, and fishermen show up in their waders and boots with spot prawns plucked from the Channel Islands just hours before. The longest commute belongs to Jeff Rieger, who hauls his Asian pears and persimmons 462 miles from his orchard in the Sierra foothills. When asked why he would drive seven hours just to sell fruit, he replied, “For the same reason everyone else does. It is the best market in the state, and probably the country, too.”

Chefs and home cooks from across LA assemble here to shop, and then disperse, taking with them Thai basil to garnish an Israeli eggplant salad in Downtown LA, or blood oranges destined for a sorbet course in Little Osaka. On any given week, a basket of Surinam cherries or bundle of Delta asparagus might be set aside for Thomas Keller, who regularly overnights produce from the market for the tasting menu at Per Se.

Barbara Spencer, the matriarch of Windrose Farm, says that the eight to ten hours she spends driving to and from Santa Monica each week is worth it for the immense purchasing power of the market’s clientele. This is the kind of market where customers bring shopping carts instead of totes. Purveyors who supply hotels on the Vegas Strip and restaurants in Singapore wait in the wings of the market with refrigerated trucks that could fit entire New York City apartments. Restaurant groups like the ones behind Gjelina and Jon & Vinny’s have full-time staff members dedicated to shopping the farmers’ markets.

The relationship between farmer and chef appears transactional, but more often it’s an evolving symbiosis. When Jessica Koslow of Sqirl couldn’t find local anise hyssop, she asked Romeo Coleman to grow it for her, and he said yes, not because he needs another herb on the table, but because she has been buying greens from him every Wednesday for the past five years. A conversation with Andy Ricker of Pok Pok led Kong Thao to plant galangal, and he’s currently piloting a row of strawberry spinach at the behest of Jeremy Fox at Rustic Canyon. Neither of these ingredients will ever see the table at the farmers’ market; instead, they’ll be delivered by Kong directly to each kitchen’s back door.

These relationships are both coveted and hard earned, built on years of mutual trust. (I was sworn to secrecy over one restaurant’s arugula source, for fear that widespread knowledge of it would spark riots!) A pastry-chef friend, who regularly brings pies to farmers in exchange for first pick of the best baking apples, described the Wednesday farmers’ market as the closest thing to hierarchy in the LA restaurant world. When allocations are small and demand is high, the chefs who have the closest relationships with farmers are rewarded with access. But even those of us who shop the front of the table are rewarded every week with ridiculously crisp heads of lettuce and strawberries that taste like Jolly Ranchers. All we have to do is show up.

Without this cast of characters, eating in Los Angeles would be much less delicious and way less interesting. The farmers push us to be better in the kitchen, or as Gjelina’s Max Dornbush once told me, “They do all the hard work. As cooks, we just try not to screw it up.”

Mike Cirone, Cirone Farms, See Canyon

Thirty years ago, Mike Cirone heard rumors of an abandoned apricot orchard in See Canyon, a magical gully where deep soil and plentiful rain create ideal conditions for dry-farming fruit trees. He tracked down the owner, a “cool old World War II guy,” and after a few beers, the vet gifted Cirone the orchard of seventy-five-year-old Blenheim apricot trees, an heirloom variety with a short season and renowned apricot-y flavor. Today, most of California’s Blenheim crop is dried (it’s too delicate to ship fresh), but eaten out of hand, juice dripping down your wrist, the fruit is one of June’s great pleasures. In addition to apricots, Cirone tends apples: nearly sixty varieties, like Esopus Spitzenburg, Newtown Pippin, and Mutsu, which make for great dog names and even better pies. Without irrigation, his fruit can be small and oddly shaped, but the flavor sings like Robin S. in a ’90s house song.

Shu Takikawa, the Garden Of…, Santa Ynez

Shu Takikawa is a lettuce wizard. He started farming at age twenty-six, when he left Hokkaido and arrived in Southern California with two pairs of jeans, two T-shirts, and a clean pair of underwear in his backpack. Pretty soon he figured out how to read plants by watching for subtle shifts in the leaves’ color spectrum, the way a psychic reads an aura. He’ll joke that he taught himself to read English by reading seed catalogs, and he continues to pore over them in search of the best varietals, like curvy Japanese cucumbers in the summer and perfectly knobby carrots in the winter. Every Wednesday he and his wife, Debby, show up in Santa Monica with a mosaic of twenty varieties of greens—some sturdy, plump, and freckled, others yielding, curly, and neon green. The ellipsis at the end of their name is a promise that we’ll never know what Shu will plant next.

Laura Ramirez, JJ’s Lone Daughter Ranch, Redlands

David Karp—America’s foremost fruit authority—will tell you that Laura Ramirez waters her trees with Evian. Taste one of her Tarocco blood oranges or a Reed avocado and you’ll be inclined to believe him. She grows specialty citrus, persimmons, and more than twenty types of avocados in San Bernardino County, including oddballs like the Sir Prize, an oversized variety that doesn’t oxidize when cut. Spend a few minutes with her and she’ll follow you on Instagram and send you home with a cocktail recipe. When she tells you to freeze Hachiya persimmons and pour rum over them for a boozy slushy, do what she says, and while you’re at it, follow her back.

Andy Mariani, Andy’s Orchard, Morgan Hill

Andy Mariani’s fruit is the kind that deserves fine china, real silver, and the soft hum of chamber music. Andy’s Orchard is in Morgan Hill, twenty minutes south of San Jose in what was once called the Valley of Heart’s Delight, but is now more commonly referred to as Silicon Valley. In the shadow of urban sprawl, Andy and his business partner, David Karp, grow more than two hundred fifty varieties of stone fruit, all of which are the best in their class. Their eight-month season starts in June with cherries—Bings, Vans, and Black Republicans, a chocolate-colored specimen named by an Oregon abolitionist who wanted to provoke his Confederate neighbors. Then come peaches like Andy’s signature Baby Crawford, which he rescued from the rejection pile at UC Davis’s breeding facility, and, later, apricots, including Bonny Royal, which heretics claim rivals the Blenheim. But the pièce de résistance is the greengage plum, a finicky French varietal that fruit nerds insist, without hyperbole, is the best piece of fruit in the world.

Barbara Spencer, Windrose Farm, Paso Robles

Barbara Spencer is the farmer of your urban dreams. A former studio cellist who left the LA grind in search of a “farmette,” she ended up falling in love with a rancher and buying fifty acres of untouched land just east of Paso Robles. It was a blank canvas, and Barbara says she spent the past two decades not farming, but building a farm. She and her husband, Bill, looked to France and northern Italy for heirloom seedlings of chicories and winter squash. Santa Monica is the only farmers’ market where they peddle their harvest, so customers await her Pink Pearl apples and Cherokee Purple tomatoes like it’s the first drop of the season at Supreme.

Peter Schaner, Schaner Farms, Valley Center

When you’re searching for your chef friends at the Wednesday market, there’s a good chance you’ll find them behind Peter Schaner’s truck. Under the guise of picking up crates of avocados, citrus, onions, and herbs, they’re really there to kick it with Peter, who, in his plaid shirt and denim apron, exudes a chillness that can only come from years of riding a tractor in solitude. His table always looks primed for a photo shoot, with bouquets of lavender, opal basil, and flowering thyme wedged between baskets of purple and white eggplant artfully spilling into a pool of summer squash. His eggs are the best in town and come in every shape and size, from petite speckled quail to the softball-sized emu: an odd seasonal specialty, the volumetric equivalent of ten chicken eggs, with an emerald-green shell.

Alex Weiser, Weiser Family Farms, Tehachapi 

Alex Weiser is the potato king of Los Angeles, and the eternal prom king of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, with his straw fedora glued to his head like a crown. In 1981, when he was seventeen, a knock on the Weiser family’s double-wide in Tehachapi informed them of a new farmers’ market in Santa Monica. A few months later, Alex drove to Santa Monica and set up a table with apples, pears, and peaches, the proceeds from which would eventually pay for his college education. The family turned to potatoes when a freeze wiped out their orchard; at first they focused on old-school varieties like White Rose and russet to start, but chefs Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel encouraged them to grow the lumpy rainbow of spuds that would ultimately make them famous. At fifty-two years old, Alex is impossible to keep up with, both physically and in terms of new crops and projects, which range from collaborating with local brewers on a mulberry saison, to partnering with Glenn Roberts (of Anson Mills) to revive a forgotten Southern California grain economy.

Kong Thao, Thao Farms, Fresno *Saturday only*

Every cook in Los Angeles is obsessed with Kong Thao. He’s the guy you call when you need bitter-melon tendrils or fresh galangal, but he also has a reputation for supplying his chef friends with hard-to-find goods like cilantro root and fresh Sichuan peppercorns. During the Vietnam War, his family fled Laos and lived for three years in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he was born. When he was three years old, they landed in Fresno, where his parents started planting the greens they favored in Southeast Asia—okra and yam leaves, Malabar spinach and Moringa (the latest green to be dehydrated, put in a capsule, and touted as a superfood). Along with his nine siblings, he’s been coming to the Saturday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market for twenty years, driving the four hours from Fresno to spend the weekend selling bok choy and Chinese broccoli before heading back to high school or, later, his job as an automobile technician. Now, at thirty-one, he is slowly taking the reins of the operation so his parents can trade in their fifteen-hour workdays for retirement—a lifestyle change that, at least so far, they refuse to accept.

Steve Murray, Murray Family Farms, Bakersfield

There is a bit of MacGyver in Steve Murray. One week he’s inventing a new trellis system and the next he’s jury-rigging sunshades to save his cherry orchards from the drought—which might well have decimated his farm had he not been so clever. The number of crops that emerge from his three-hundred-acre property is astounding. He cranks out dozens of varieties of table grapes, cherries, and pears while also pushing more obscure items like elderflowers and date plums, a gumball-sized snack that some contend is the fruit of the lotus tree described in The Odyssey. Shop at his stand a few times and you’ll meet Steven Jr., who lays claim to the largest collection of rare-fruiting plant species on the West Coast: 408 species and two thousand varieties, including miracle berries that make sour things taste sweet, and something called “peanut butter fruit.” When he’s not selling you blackberries the size of your thumb, the younger Murray can be found hunting new fig varieties in Puglia or lecturing at durian festivals in Malaysia.

Robin Koda, Koda Farms, South Dos Palos

Robin Koda is the most stylish farmer at the market. She’s only there once a month, but you can’t miss her chic overalls, messy ponytail, and electric-blue eyeliner. She’s part of the third generation of Koda Farms, the oldest family-owned rice farm and mill in California. Her grandfather, Keisaburo Koda, emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, and after starting a tuna cannery south of Los Angeles, he decided to grow rice in the San Joaquin Valley. He developed his own varietal called Kokuho Rose, garnered the nickname “Rice King,” and almost lost it all when the family was interned in Colorado during World War II. If you’ve ever had Brooks Headley’s Superiority Wrap or the Sorrel Pesto Rice Bowl at Sqirl, both of which use Kokuho Rose, then you know this isn’t your average bag of brown rice.    

Bill and Romeo Coleman, Coleman Family Farm, Carpinteria

Half of the long table at Coleman’s farm stand is devoted to herbs—four varieties of oregano and countless varieties of mint, alongside bundles of fresh chamomile, and so on. The other side is heavy with crates of lettuce and seasonal specialties like purple sugar snap peas and ridiculously cute mouse melons—miniature gherkins that could double as Barbie’s watermelons. The patriarch of this farm is Bill, a passionate horticulturalist who started farming in Santa Barbara in the 1960s before he wooed his soon-to-be wife, Delia, with transpacific love letters, convincing her that she should move to Carpinteria from the Philippines. Together they raised one daughter and five boys, including tall, dark, and handsome Romeo, who has largely taken over the family business. Glimpses of their Filipino heritage trickle into Santa Monica—a basket of Surinam cherries here, a few calamansi there—but the most coveted item might well be Delia’s breakfast burrito, a secret off-table item gifted only to a chosen few.