September 21, 2011

Bland Tacos and Tasty Sandwiches: Farmer’s Market Comes to Ho Plaza

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Farmer’s markets always make me smile. Peppers of every color imaginable vie for your attention beside pillows of wavy kale glistening under the morning sun, rows of pink swiss chard standing and heaps of corn. The hearty laugh of a farmer, the occasional piercing scream of a child and the waft of rich aromas all come to mind.

These fantasies, unfortunately, were not realized at the Cornell Farmer’s Market, which felt like a high school street fair whose visitors decided to sleep in and whose vendors seemed to have realized only two hours before that the fair was happening. When I visited the market last Thursday in the midst of Ho Plaza, the six stalls sat sadly underneath white tents whose roofs were hanging precariously low under the weight of rainwater. I wanted to feel energized by the indie performers who were belting out jazzy folksongs on their dulcimers and banjos, but the air was resolutely humdrum and tame.

I still decided to give the market a try. After all, the idea, borne by student organization Farm to Cornell, is a promising one. The farmer’s market not only makes it more convenient for locavores to get their weekly fix of fresh, sustainable produce, but it also allows enterprising businesses to tout their wares right in the heart of campus sans fees. This win-win situation, however, does not always mean win-win food.

The mac and cheese from the Manndible Cafe stall was just plain cold, and even the sharpest New York State cheese couldn’t save it from mediocrity. So much tamari —  salty soybean spread — went into a maple tamari tofu dish from another stall that neither a trace of the maple’s sweetness nor the tofu’s silken goodness survived.  I felt as underwhelmed as a Brad Pitt fan watching the Tree of Life.

The husband-and-wife team behind Tellez Mexican taco stall were the most endearing and hospitable, but also seemed the most rushed and uncertain in their culinary display. They sliced tomatoes on a Styrofoam plate that began to resemble an over-stabbed dart board, and mixed steak and chicken fajitas on a tiny griddle such that it was necessary to pick either by the slice. My taco was stuffed with onions and peppers ranging from raw to caramelized, and with strips of steak that were tough and bland, lacking both the spiciness and vivacity of hearty Mexican fare.

But believe it or not, there is always a Jessica Alba in a sea of plain Janes. This Alba goes by the name of Xeo. Helmed by Sebastian Villa, who is also head chef at Mexeo in Collegetown, Xeo exudes a youthful positivity that is embodied by its inspired Bánh mì — Vietnamese sandwich — offerings. “The Special” is exactly what the name suggests, an absolute pleasure bomb. Sweet Chinese char siew pork has the most ideal tendon-to-meat ratio and soft, luscious homemade Vietnamese sausage is served on crusty ciabatta with a generous spread of fatty pork liver pâté. Pickled carrots and cucumbers appearto be mere condiments until their tangy acidity explodes in your mouth, tantalizing the palate and mellowing the bitter aftertaste left by the love-it-or-hate-it cilantro. It was one of those outstanding street foods that deserved a plate and a glass of off-dry Riesling in a restaurant, not a makeshift tent at a haphazardly organized bazaar.

Before I biked off Ho Plaza, I was craving something sweet and grabbed a peach cobbler from the Manndible Café stall. This was the first time, I must say with shame, that I tasted the dessert with peaches that still had their skins on rather than that canned peach nonsense soaking in syrup. I smiled. It was food that I had been seeking all afternoon — real, minimally processed, and hearty. Farmer’s markets always make me smile. Maybe this is just one that needs some time to rev up its engine. I just hope to see more culinary Jessica Albas around — soon.

Original Author: Brandon Ho