If there is a limit on the variety of items you can purchase at Sunny Flea Market on Gulf Bank, in northeast Houston, I have not encountered it yet.
Here, you can buy giant plastic mugs from the 2000 Wurstfest in New Braunfels at one booth and Pedigree dog food at the next. You can order glamorous quince dresses next door to a make-shift hair salon. You can buy a DVD of Frozen—still in theaters, mind you—and soft-soled Toms in nearly every color and size from a man who sells them for less than half what you'd pay in a store with a real roof and real walls and real floors. I don't feel bad about this because, as the New York Times recently pointed out, the Toms model of donating a pair of shoes for every pair you buy doesn't really do much in the way of alleviating poverty. The pretentious idea of charitable consumption has no foothold here at Sunny, the embodiment of capitalism in its purest form.
And as with the other great markets around the world, the nerve centers of trade that bring goods and services and smells and flavors and ideas from far-away reaches, you never know what you'll find at Sunny Flea Market. This past Sunday, it was churros. But not your typical churros—the ones most Texans are familiar with, skinny batons of dough fried until crispy and coated with generous blizzards of cinnamon sugar.
"These are Guadalajara-style churros," my friend Joshua Martinez, himself a Mexico City native, explained as I watched little blobs of dough float their way through a cauldron of boiling grease before transforming into long, puffy clouds. "They're not put through an extruder."
The resulting dessert is still called a churro, but has none of the signature crunch or chewiness of the more common churro. Instead, you find yourself with something more resembling a beignet sans the powdered sugar. The puffy pastry is slit down the middle and filled with your choice of chocolate sauce, strawberry syrup, or cajeta. Even the cajeta was different at this churro stand, though—smoother, silkier, and milder than usual. We thought it seemed to be cut with sweetened condensed milk.
The cajeta spilled out of the churro as we tore it apart with our fingers—the preferred method of consumption, though not the neatest. I tried to sop it back up with the soft dough, but the gentle dusting of cinnamon-sugar on the outside kept interfering. It was tough to complain, however, when the hot, flaky dough melted into itself with each sugary bite.
Over the next four hours, I watched, alert, for signs of any other Guadalajaran churro stands, but it was the only one I found. Roasted corn on the cob dusted with cheese and chili powder; pupusas oozing cheese from inside scorched pockets; spring-green batches of fresh garbanzos; opaque sheets of chicharrones as thick as a ream of paper, and twice as long; fiery red trompos shedding their pineapple-topped pork onto angry, hot griddles—these were everywhere. But not the soft, puffy churros.
The Guadalajara-style churros seemed to be, like Sunny Flea Market itself, a singularity. An experience that, as with Sunny, is able to make you feel transported—if only for a day. To show you that your assumed intimacy and familiarity with a food or with a city is just a construct. You don't know everything about churros; you can't possibly see or taste or even purchase everything at Sunny Flea Market.
But those churros and those endless aisles of abogado services and spare headlights and knockoff Legos and cantinas serving micheladas to the jovial, bouncing beat of narcocorrido music that hides a spare, stark message of brutality—they keep you coming back, looking to discover that next great treasure amidst the mad, sweaty, crowded, tumble of life. Today it's just a churro; who knows what it will be next time.