The food of Honduras, Colombia and the Dominican Republic hold down different corners of the Latin American culinary map.
But at Nawlins Market, people dig into dishes from each tradition side by side, along with meal-sized Mexican soups, mountains of Puerto Rican mofongo and fresh bouquets of sliced melon, served in cups and garnished like salty-sweet tropical fruit sundaes.
Nawlins Market is ostensibly a flea market, but it functions much more as a destination for meals and laid-back socializing than for shopping trips.
Found down a backstreet in Harvey, behind a budget motel and near the industrial docks of the Harvey Canal, the marketplace itself is comprised of a pair of open-sided pavilions and a few self-storage units converted into mini malls, with individual shops or stands behind their roll-down doors.
On this framework, the market has quickly grown into a food hub with about two dozen vendors, most of them Latin American, all run by local families.
Taken together, they're telling food stories of many different places, including this one, as the Latino community in New Orleans has grown both larger and more diverse.
“When we started out, this wasn’t the concept we had in mind. We thought we would be more of a flea market,” said Tri Cung, manager of Nawlins Market. “But we learned quickly that this is what people wanted. The food vendors kept coming to us. It grew from them."
What to expect
Vendors build out their own stands, and these range from folding tables to miniature diners, lined with bar stools and counters looking into the kitchens. Most have their own seating areas in the pavilions, with a mix of picnic tables and food court-style benches.
Most offer table service and little touches add up, like tablecloths and flower vases. Music plays from sound systems at various stands, blending together like the aromas off different grills. Sometimes there’s karaoke, sometimes there are games for kids.
There’s no alcohol at Nawlins Market. With its hours (weekends only, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), the market is geared to late breakfast, long lunches and early supper. It’s common to see families filling long tables, eating together and dispatching the kids to run around.
Whenever I visit, I window shop first, walking a loop around the two-dozen booths, scanning menu boards and sizing up what other people are eating. The lineup of vendors changes frequently as some move on and others step up.
Peruvian, Guatemalan, Argentina, Guatemalan — flags mounted on their booths indicate a pan-Latin range of regional specialties.
One strategy for unpacking the market’s food riches is to pick a dish you haven’t tried before, which, given the variety here, should be an easy prospect.
That’s how I encountered my first sincronizada ($6) from a cheerful yellow taco trailer called Las Panchas. This Mexican dish has beef, ham and beans and a lava flow of cheese sandwiched between corn tortillas. It resembles a heavyweight quesadilla.
The “try-what’s-new-to-you” strategy is also how I settled on yaroa ($12), and how I met the Dominican family who prepared it at a trailer dubbed Plátano Power.
Yaroa is like a cross between Caribbean cheese fries and island-style lasagna, with a heap of fries under shredded chicken, melted mozzarella and a sweet-creamy swirl of ketchup and mayo.
Josefina and Jose Delacruz started Plátano Power in February (the name is a motto of ethnic pride adopted by Dominican pro baseball players). The trailer is phase two for a side gig that Josefina Delacruz started by selling home-cooked food at Dominican-run beauty parlors and barber shops. Encouraged by the response, the Gretna couple saw a chance to grow the business at the market.
“There’s a lot of harmony here,” said Jose Delacruz, 66, who recently left his longtime job at a local refinery. “People come to find the food they grew up with and to try other people’s food, and it’s all right next to each other.”
The 'new flea market'
Nawlins Market opened in 2017 and slowly began drawing a following. It got a boost last year around this time when it hosted Pho Festival, with local families and community groups serving Vietnamese dishes beside the regular vendors for a weekend (a date for Pho Festival this year has not yet been set, though Cung said it may return sometime in July).
Pho Festival was not large, but it drew a wide-ranging crowd of people eager to try something new.
Sometimes called the Westbank Flea Market, Nawlins Market is also often referred to as the “other flea market” or the “new flea market.”
That’s because a much older market sits a few miles down the road in Algiers, a dusty, labyrinthine jumble of shacks and stands selling an array of used and new goods. The vendors and clientele, once predominantly black, began shifting to more Latin American in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
This Algiers spot is composed of a few different markets that more or less merge together through alleys and gates. The one called Dix Jazz Market has the most food, and most of it is Mexican or Honduran. This is a goldmine for pupusas, tacos and caldos.
There’s no question, though, that of the two West Bank flea markets now in play, Nawlins Market is the stronger food draw.
At Nawlins Market, you can get a haircut, fix your smartphone screen, find a used circular saw and some pretty sharp cowboy boots around the storage unit shops. But with food vendors outnumbering all other tenants by about two to one, Nawlins Market is mostly a place to eat.
Platters and parties
Some of it is street food, served up quick. But other vendors at Nawlins Market prepare the kind of dishes you’d find at full-fledged restaurants, or perhaps a family home when it’s time to celebrate.
Bleidys Lobelo Gomez named her Golden Gate Bistro after the nickname of her hometown, the Colombian port city of Barranquilla. She hopes to open her own stand-alone restaurant eventually, and she runs her booth at Nawlins Market like it is one, with a carefully designed menu, Colombian decor around the stand and a sense of hospitality in the service.
When I ordered the patacon Gloria ($10), I got a one-plate banquet of a dish, a cutting board tray holding a broad plank of fried plantain, topped with chicken, beef and pork and crisscrossed with creamy sauces.
Just next door at the stand El Recoqueo DR, Venecia Gonzales prepares her own take on Dominican food. Here, that includes some impressive seafood dishes, like split langostinos glistening with salsa verde or combo platters of octopus, shrimp and conch around crispy tostones.
For the showstopper, look to the whole fried red snapper ($32). Within a few minutes of ordering, I got a dish that would be a calling card at any upscale seafood house. The fish, scored and cooked perfectly, was perched dramatically over a clutch of shrimp in a garlicky, rusty red sauce, braced by crispy tostones. The fish flaked off easily under the fork to mix with the sauce and the fresh green salad beside it.
I washed it down with a drink called revive muerto, a sweetened vegetable juice punch made with beets and carrots served by the quart for $5.
Across the market, Juan Lopez and his crew at the Island stand serve dishes and blender drinks with finesse and flair, and with miniature Puerto Rican flags stuck in some of them.
Mofongo ($15-$22), the mashed plantain dish, comes out of the busy kitchen laced with herbs and surrounded by thick curls of chicharon, hunks of carne frita (fried beef) or bowls of octopus salad, chopped with peppers and onions.
I washed down one such mofongo with a (virgin) pina colada, poured into a tall hurricane glass and gussied up with sprinkles, a cocktail umbrella and a blond Oreo surfing over its whipped cream top. The beach never felt closer in Harvey.
This market is full of people bringing a world of Latin flavor, cooking side by side in our own backyard.
1048 Scotsdale Drive, Harvey
Sat. and Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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