Many flavors to savor at Vancouver Farmers Market

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photoFish tacos at Tequila Mexican Grill.

Why: Nothing says summertime quite like a jaunt to the Vancouver Farmers Market. From fresh-off-of-the-vine tomatoes to just-picked flowers, sparkly jewelry to live music, the place is a feast for the senses. It’s also a roving feast, with food booths offering fare that ranges from corn dogs to tamales and everything in between. I logged a weekend sampling some of that food.

Atmosphere: The Vancouver Farmers Market, located adjacent to Esther Short Park at Sixth and Esther streets, offers an opportunity to shop, browse, enjoy the outdoors, and maybe grab a bite to eat. Vendors hoist canopies and cobble together their shops for the day. Many of the market’s food vendors prepare their offerings in a commercial kitchen ahead of time; others prepare it on site. Either way, the wafting scents and sizzling grills tantalize the taste buds.

For me, music and food pair like red wine and chocolate. So settling in under a canopy to listen to live music was a must. Other marketgoers share the tables, creating a family-style dining experience with conversation to go along with the music and eclectic flavors. But be warned: Come armed with a few extra napkins to tidy up a table before eating. Bonus points for self-styled tidying up after a meal.

Another dining option: Relax under one of the park’s towering trees, either on a bench or on the grass. The park usually offers a quiet escape from the market, with time for people watching and listening to birds chatter in treetops.

What I tried: I hit four food vendors over a weekend: Mini Doughnut Shoppe, Foody Blues BBQ, Tequila Mexican Grill and Omi’s German Deli.

Mini Doughnut Shoppe, only at the market on Sundays, serves tiny donuts, fried in a tabletop machine that looks like a mini conveyor belt. Once the cake donuts are cooked, they’re either drenched in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar or powdered sugar, or topped with an icing mix.

I tried six of these donuts: Two cinnamon and sugar, a powdered, a maple and coconut, plain maple and chocolate with a towering cherry on top.

About the size of the mini donuts you might find in the grocery store, these cake donuts were still warm, which, in the world of donuts, is about as close to nirvana and you can get. The texture was light, and who can resist a cherry on top of chocolate? For me, it was a hit. Half a dozen donuts went down way too easily.

When I asked Judy McManman, who owns the stand with Richard Heredia, about calorie count, she laughed. “I’d rather not comment on that,” McManman said.

But I must not be the only one who skips a calorie count every so often. McManman said they sell between 1,100 and 1,700 of those donuts each Sunday.

Foody Blues BBQ is a regular at many Vancouver events. At the suggestion of the server, I ordered up a chicken bowl and drizzled it with barbecue sauce.

The chicken was cut into strips and heaped over a bed of cabbage in a paper bowl. The strip cuts made it easy to eat with a fork. The chicken was tender inside and lightly charred on the outside, with just a tinge of spice. Good, solid barbecue. The only thing that could make it better: Some creamy potato salad to accompany the dish.

Hector Hinojosa of Vancouver, who owns Foody Blues, said his food is prepared in a commercial kitchen ahead of time and kept warm on site. The chicken is rubbed with spices and cooked on a wood-pellet grill for an hour to give it a smoke flavor. Hinojosa estimates he sells 150 to 200 meals a day at the market.

At Tequila Mexican Grill, a young girl takes orders while her parents cook. Menu samples are on display, and I opted for the fish tacos.

The tilapia was grilled while I watched. Just before it was served, the corn tortillas hit the grill, too. Then it was plated and served with a helping of salsa. I requested guacamole from the salsa bar and the little girl heaped it on.

The tacos were spicy, brimming with chunks of freshly grilled tilapia and shredded cabbage. But even with the zip of the spices, the tacos felt light and refreshing, perfect for summer.

Luz Guitron of Portland owns and runs the little booth with her husband and children. Guitron, who was raised in Mexico, said she grew up with the fish taco recipe, which includes garlic, butter, orange juice, pineapple juice and spices. “My mom used to make that for me when we were in Mexico,” Guitron said.

It was a dish I’ll certainly try again.

I’m a Reuben sandwich fan, so when I stopped at Omi German Deli, I had to try one, along with a side of hot German potato salad.

This sandwich required on-site cooking, so I waited a few minutes while the two-person crew cooked the pastrami and then melted the Swiss cheese and sandwich together.

The Reuben was piping hot, a messy blend of marbled rye bread, Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut, pastrami and Swiss. (Grab extra napkins for this order). It hit the sweet spot — warm and messy with just the right amount of sour zing in the sauerkraut. The hot German potato salad was warm and tangy, a surprise to taste buds accustomed to creamy potato salads. But after a few bites, the tang grew on me.

Karin Fry of Vancouver owns Omi’s German Deli. The zip from the sauerkraut comes from her addition to it, she said. She starts with canned sauerkraut and then cooks it with bay leaves, cream sherry, peppercorn and cooked bacon. Bacon finds its way into the German potato salad, too.

“German food is all about bacon,” Fry said.

Highlights beyond what I tried: With so much to choose from, it’s hard to narrow down next-time selections. But I’ve heard good things about Zabor Mexican Grill’s tamales, which are $4 each for the chicken or pork. Also, Ululani’s Hawaiian Shaved Ice drew long lines and looks like it would be fun to try, especially on a hot day.

Other observations: You’ll find lots of deep-fried, fair-style food at the market, in addition to other samplings. Many vendors cook their food ahead of time in a commercial kitchen to comply with food-handling laws, so while there is some on-site cooking, much of the food at the market is held in a warmer until it’s served.

Cost: A half-dozen donuts will run between $3 and $3.50. Most meals fall into the $6 to $12 range.

Hours: The Saturday market runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Sunday market is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Mini Doughnut Shoppe is at the market only on Sundays. Other vendors in this review are there both Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Adjacent to Esther Short Park at Sixth and Esther streets in downtown Vancouver.

Information: 360-737-8298 or vancouverfarmersmarket.com.

Health score: Mini Doughnut Shoppe received a five on its most recent health inspection, on July 13, 2010. Foody Blues BBQ received a score of zero on its health inspection on Aug. 30, 2010. Tequila Mexican Grill received a score of 10 on its health inspection on April 30, 2011. And Omi’s German Deli received a zero on its health inspection on June 9, 2011. Zero is a perfect score. Clark County Public Health closes restaurants that score 100 or higher. For information, call 360-397-8428.