How an open air market in Louisiana became a destination for international cuisine
NEW ORLEANS - Hidden behind a busy expressway about nine miles away from downtown, there is a red and blue open-air flea market that comes to life on the weekends.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the parking lot at 1048 Scottsdale Drive in Harvey is still empty except for a handful of vendors pulling out cardboard boxes loaded with food and supplies for a long day of cooking.
Ana Sylvia Enriquez has opened the gate to “Fruteria Dany,” a fruit stand named after her nephew. It's nestled inside a storage unit reserved for vendors at the market. In front of the unit, two plastic tables are piled high with plantains, papayas and red lychees.
Enriquez is barely visible, her tiny stature hidden behind a tower of crates, filled with plump red and green mangoes that she is methodically selecting, slicing and peeling.
Her focus is briefly broken when her first customer of the day walks up and orders a cup filled with freshly sliced mango. She waves her hand over a tray with bottles filled with condiments to sprinkle on the fruit: cumin, lime juice, kosher salt, and a Mexican condiment called chamoy.
“Con todo! (With everything),” he tells her nodding his head in approval.
“It’s just like we would do in a market in Mexico City,” Enriquez said in Spanish.
This is the N’Awlins Food Market, sometimes called West Bank Flea Market or La Pulga 2, depending on whether you're a native Spanish speaker. As morning turns to noon, it kicks into life. Stove tops are lit and the smell of sautéed onions and garlic seep into the air. Celia Cruz, a queen of salsa, sings about life being a carnival. Her melodic voice echoes from one speaker, blending effortlessly with a love ballad by Julio Iglesias, bellowing from another.
Close your eyes and fall into your senses. This could very well be a market anywhere in Central America. A passing party bus, eerily silent this early in the day, is the lone reminder that this is still New Orleans.
While New Orleans is known for its rich multicultural heritage, the surrounding suburbs of Jefferson Parish has seen its Hispanic population nearly double over the last two decades, according to the Data Center. The West Bank Flea Market offers a weekly window into the significant demographic shift that has taken place in Jefferson Parish over the last 18 years.
By the year 2000, New Orleans already had a well-established Central American population dating back to when the city was the headquarters for the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International), a company that had a presence throughout Central America, the Caribbean and parts of South America.
The population continued to grow after Hurricane Katrina, when a wave of Hispanic workers moved into the metro area to help rebuild the city. Eventually, many settled in Jefferson Parish. The Hispanic population jumped from just over 34,000 in 2005 to nearly 65,000 in 2018, according to the Data Center.
Honduran immigrants now make up about 38 percent of those residents, followed by a significant Mexican population, accounting for 20 percent of Hispanic residents in Jefferson Parish.
This weekly market, however, reveals even more layers of how diverse the New Orleans' metro area has become.
Arepas sizzle on a flat top grill at the Colombian food stand. A woman places an order at a Dominican cantina for a mofongo, a traditional dish made from plantains. Churros made fresh are served at one of two Mexican food stands.
“We are a culinary center,” said Tri Cung, who has managed the property since it opened in May 2017.
The market was originally meant to be an open-air arts market, with space for vendors to store their goods during the week.
But it evolved as home-grown cooks from around New Orleans discovered they could rent space at the market and set-up small kitchens.
Two years into its new identity, plans are underway to incorporate Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian cuisines. Cung, whose family emigrated to the United States from Vietnam, thought about how often stories and recipes are passed down through generations only to remain in the confines of the family home.
“We see this as a platform to share voices and recipes that wouldn’t easily be tasted except for by our friends and families,” he said.
It's noon at the Pupuseria La Milpa, where the entire Palencia family pitches in on the weekends. Ana Isabel Palencia, 67, in keeping with her style, has at least two pupusas cooking on the grill top at a time, each filled with some combination of cheese, beans and chicharron (crispy pork). She works at Pupuseria La Milpa with her son, Ricardo Palencia and his wife, Ethel Palencia.
"It has always been a family effort," said Ethel, 49, who has spent a lifetime making the cornmeal flatbread in her home.
The Palencia family settled in New Orleans more than a decade ago, after Ricardo Palencia was able to find consistent work in construction. Meanwhile, Ethel began working at a wedding venue in downtown New Orleans. After 10 years, she felt the urge to open her own business, just as her own mother and grandmother had done in El Salvador when she was growing up.
She remembers the pupuseria and sorbeteria (ice cream shop) her grandmother, Mama Tonita, helped her mother Irma set up. Irma was a single mother of four and had to find a way to support her daughters.
They opened Pupuseria y Sorbeteria La Palma, a restaurant with six mis-matched tables in the dining room of their home.
“The iron table that could fit as many as eight ... an orange picnic table, and my favorite a red table with black chairs,” she said.
She remembers the sting of the chili peppers when she was asked to make the curtido, the cabbage slaw that is served with the pupusa.
With a smile, she recalled the relief when she finally graduated at 15 to making pupusas alongside her mother, just as her daughter Valeria does now.
This Saturday, Valeria is helping her dad Ricardo take orders, while his mother Ana Isabel handles the grill in the food stand set up to look like a traditional colonial house in their home country.
The fence behind the grill top is covered by bamboo curtain, blocking off the street and ranch style homes on the other side that could remind their customers they aren’t actually in El Salvador.
Ricardo, takes a break from his construction job to serve tables at La Milpa on the weekend. Hot off the grill, he places a pupusa on a plate and hands it to a customer. Ricardo knows the man is also from El Salvador, so he hands him the dish without silverware.
“In El Salvador, we eat these like sandwiches or tacos, there’s no need for a fork,” he said. “It’s a little reminder of home.”
Two stalls down from La Milpa, Gilberto Flores, 38 and his partner Ivan Castillo, 38, grill green and red tomatoes on a stove top and make tortillas by hand using a wooden press. They attend to customers and prepare for what they hope will be a busy weekend.
Their business, Garibaldi Antojitos Mexicanos, is the result of nostalgia.
Flores remembers when he first came to New Orleans 10 years ago and searched the city for traditional Mexican food. In particular, a soup made out of tripe called Menudo.
“When I did find it, it wasn’t the same. The flavors were different,” he said.
Flores had learned to cook, helping his mother and aunt at their restaurant back home. The experience pushed him to confront the possibility that if he could not find the exact flavors he wanted, he would have to do it himself.
Three years ago, Flores and Castillo started thinking about opening a taqueria. It would be a place that pays homage to the traditional Mexican cuisine they wanted to find.
“There were plenty of Mexican restaurants in 2008 when I came here,” Flores said. “But it was all Tex-Mex, it wasn’t the same.”
Castillo, who worked as an interior decorator in banquet halls and restaurants in his home state of Veracruz, wanted the business to feel like a small restaurant from home. The table cloths are sarapes (Mexican blankets) and colorful papel picado decorate the front of the booth.
Each market day, Castillo scoops fresh tomatoes off the grill and into a blender to make a special blend of salsa.
“It takes a little longer,” he said. "But we wanted to make everything fresh and by hand.”
The couple's hope for Garibaldi is that they are able to retain some of the history and traditions of Mexican cooking and also celebrate the unique corners of the country.
“Our Menudo in the state of Mexico is different than what you would taste in Veracruz," Flores said. So they blend what they've learned.
The customers gathered at the market that day are as unique as the food businesses. Some are trying dishes for the first time, others know exactly what they want and make a beeline to their favorite place.
Castillo takes a break from making salsa, as a handful of customers walk up and start eyeing the menu they have posted on their wall.
“Before you go! You should try our horchata (a drink made of rice and flavored with cinnamon and sugar). It’s the perfect recipe based on Geraldo’s and mine. You won’t taste anything like it anywhere else,” he said.