Three years ago the gift of a five-gallon pot of basil from a Moroccan friend piqued our interest in shopping north of the county line. We asked where he had found such a robust plant. “Redbarn,” he muttered, as if that were a password to the Casbah.
We’d heard about the Red Barn, of course, but thought it to be merely a flea market. We learned otherwise. Having figured out the counter-intuitive turns from Rt. 301 and the dog-leg at Mel’s Diner, we’ve been visiting the Red Barn at least once a week ever since.
Ten miles north of downtown Sarasota, just past the Tropicana plant in Bradenton, the Red Barn is primarily an indoor flea market: acres of parking surround a sprawling single-storey red frame “barn” flanked to the north and east by approximately one hundred yards of bustling stalls selling mounds of fresh local and exotic produce.
Since most of the vendors are Mexican, the spirit, scents, and scene are a long way from the shrink-wrapped produce aisle of your local supermarket. It’s a quick tropical escape, a Diego Riviera painting. Step into the tableau, preferably wearing mud-shoes. English is fine, but junior-year Spanish is welcomed with a smile. Bring a market bag and small bills (cash is the only currency). Ten bucks buys a week’s worth of produce and fruit for a family of four.
On our latest visit, we find hundreds of boxes of Ruskin tomatoes and myriad varieties of peppers —a visual Scoville index—aglow beneath the vendors’ tents. We see ten-ounce green bell peppers for stuffing, chartreuse cubanelles, emerald serranos, red jalapeños and orange Scotch bonnets. And then there are the dried peppers—chipotles, guajiras, and a dozen more.
Other Florida offerings include huge smooth-skinned avocados, mild white onions, a range of citrus—from kumquats and Key limes to red navels and pomelos. For those whose cooking runs south of the border, there are tomatillos, cilantro, epazote, cactus paddles, dried corn husks, and even verdolaga (purslane, a succulent salad green in the portulaca family).
Bewildered by malanga, yucca, jicama, and kalalu? Stick with the crimson beets, red potatoes, lavender Asian eggplants, white daikon, and pyramids of radishes whose greens are as delicious as their bulbs. Generous bunches of dill, mint, thyme and parsley please the Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Slavic shoppers who come for the conviviality and great prices.
The open-air market also includes carnival-style hucksters selling dubious items like Cajun jerky and miracle carrot peelers. Inside, there is sausage vendor whose dour stall replicates Cold War Hungary. But these are stories for another time.
Almost 10 a.m., we’re hungry and head inside to Maria’s (open every day but Monday). The decals on the window say Tacos, Gorditas, Sopes, Menudo.
The place is spotless, the staff busy, the line outside the window long. The clientele—in Sunday-best cowboy boots, frilly dresses, or perhaps a Bucaneer baseball cap—knows this the THE place for carnitas, tripe tacos and the most savory salsa de aguacate in Manatee County.
From May to October, the full market is open 8 AM to 4 PM Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.