"Buffalo" Sean Carroll, he of the highly regarded Melange Creperie, wasn't always a crepe-maker. Fans of his ever-rotating menu of crepes stuffed with seasonal fruits and vegetables know that Carroll was inspired to abandon his life as an art critic and take up crepe-making after a honeymoon trip to Paris. But they may not know that the New York native credits a little local inspiration, too: Canino Produce Co.
Carroll stumbled across Canino after moving into a home just down the street from the Sunset Heights market that sprawls across 20,000 square feet—and that's not counting the open-air produce stalls and wholesale vendors that line the massive parking lot behind the formal market, which stocks everything from sweet 1015 onions from East Texas and softball-sized grapefruits from the Valley to decidedly non-native quinoa and chia seed.
In the grand discussions of farmers markets in Houston, Canino is often overlooked in favor of more bobo-friendly markets like Urban Harvest; this is wrong, and not just because Canino is over a half-century old and deserves a little respect considering its longevity. The market, which first opened in June 1958, has long sold local produce direct from farms like Froberg and Atkinson—the same farms that supply other farmers markets in the area—and unlike other farmers markets, it's open seven days a week, nearly 365 days a year, it takes credit and debit cards, and it sells non-seasonal produce in addition to the local stuff, making Canino a convenient one-stop shop that's a lot cheaper than the grocery store.
Nearly six years after starting his roving crepe stand—which is currently raising funds through Kickstarter for a brick-and-mortar location of its own—Carroll has now become a fixture at Canino, where he greets vendors each morning as he picks up staples for the day. In the Egg House next to the main market, he hefts a brown cardboard crate marked "Kieke Egg Farm, Burton, TX" across the counter as he grabs a cup of coffee and shoots the breeze with the Egg House owners.
"Did you hear the latest about those ISIS guys?" one of the owners, an older man, begins. "They said one of them has an American accent." Later, dropping the crate off at his car, Carroll fist bumps a man he calls Peanut, and apologizes: "I don't have any smokes for you today, man!" And in the warren of open-air produce stalls behind the market, he searches for his favorite vendor to no avail. "The abuelita isn't here today," he says sadly. "If you can't find something here, she'll help you."
But Carroll doesn't need the abuelita to be his guide anymore after all these years. He has Canino and its mess of stalls down to a fine science. He knows who to visit for the best prices on mangos ("You have to wait for them to come in from Mexico," he says, waving off the higher-priced Peruvian variety) and avocados ("We're not going over there today," he says, pointing to a warehouse across the parking lot where forklifts stacked with pallets of produce are spinning crazily around each other). He knows which produce is local—typically the seasonal stuff—and who to ask to make sure.
"There's a group of crotchety old guys in the corner," he says, nodding towards the men who supervise Canino near the front cash register area. "Ask them. But you have to ask twice," he emphasizes. "They won't tell you the first time."
If you're heading to Canino for the first time—which you should do sooner rather than later, as the crisp weather makes shopping in the open-air market downright divine—here are Carroll's handy tips for making the most out of your visit:
- Bring cash. Though Canino Produce Co. itself takes plastic (with a minimum purchase of $5), the produce stands behind it do not, nor do the taco trucks ringing the parking lot you'll want to visit for a quick bite.
- Start from the back. Though it's tempting to hit Canino itself first, check the produce stands for what are typically cheaper prices—as well as free tastes of any fruits or vegetables you may not be familiar with.
- Hit the dollar section. Just outside the rear entrance of Canino proper is the $1 bin, where they're unloading just-about-to-turn produce, including—this morning—giant tubs of carrots and superbly fragrant strawberries. Not great if you're going to keep it around in your fridge for a few days, but terrific if you're using the stuff that day.
- Shop seasonal. There's a better chance that the fruits and vegetables you're buying came from a Texas farmer if you're buying them in season.
- Look at the packaging. Ignore the signage, says Carroll, which is often wrong, and look at how the vegetables are bundled together. If they're tied up with brown string, they came from Atkinson Farms. If they're wrapped in rubber bands, they came from Gundermann Acres. If they're bundled with plastic ties—as in the carrots tied up with tags that read "turnip greens" we spotted today—they're from somewhere else entirely (but they're still good).
- Ask, ask, ask. Ask the vendors where their produce comes from and they'll tell you. It's as easy as that. Talking to people is half the fun of shopping here, and how you will come to discover that the eggs that abuelita is offering came from her own yard at home or the mole that the guy who runs the spice stand is selling was made by his family at home.
- Pick up some pecan shells. This is just a bonus. Canino will let you haul away as many shells from its pecan-hulling machine as you want; they make great mulch, Carroll says, and keep bad bugs out of your home garden.
My own advice would be the same as Carroll's, with only a few additions: leave time for a few tacos de mollejas at Taqueria Tacambaro in the southeast corner of the lot and time to dart across Airline Dr. for fresh tortillas, bread, and pastries at El Bolillo. This trifecta is a Houston tradition, and one that you should take part in at least once—whether you're interested in shopping local or not.
Canino Produce Co., 2520 Airline Dr., 713-862-4027, caninoproduce.com