Recently, a friend and I set out to experience the Capital City Public Market in Downtown Boise as a dining destination, eschewing anything to cook or consume later.
Every week, 130 local vendors spread across two blocks north to south and east to west, with 8th Street the epicenter. And our goal was to sample what we could eat and drink immediately.
First things first, that meant coffee. Ironside Roasting Company serves from a stylish wood cart lashed together in dark metal, an intentionality of design that flows over into the coffee itself. At the market, Ironside serves hot or cold pour-over coffee ($3.50) and cold brew ($4). If you buy a bag of whole beans, a pour-over is free with the purchase.
A cup of the Papua New Guinea poured by roaster Colin Seeley was fathomless, rich as chocolate, smooth. It’s a cup of coffee that matters all the way through — it is not just a bracing wash of caffeine and nothing else.
Like a lot of the businesses we visited, Little Kitchen Pastries is family owned and operated, and we watched the father, John Fernandes, peer over spectacles to nudge his son through the steps of our business transaction.
Sheet pans of sweets lined with white parchment were laid wide at the front of the booth. Dad and son each took our order, made a suggestion, and helpfully microwaved the pastries to warm them a bit.
We found a perch on a pot of plants and dug in. The son-recommended cherry Danish ($3.50) was a weighty square of pastry around a pool of stiff, sweet cherry and cream cheese.
The dad-suggested lemon croissant mini-braid ($6) was doubly rich, as big as an iPad, filled with mascarpone cheese and crusted with sliced almonds, a portion that exceeded the appetite of even two of us.
Still on the west end of the market, we moved into lunch mode.
Garcia’s Tex-Mex Grill is a booth of banquet tables covered with colorful cloths, where they serve breakfast burritos, tacos and homemade tamales by the half-dozen, dozen or singles ($8/$15/$2). The process of making all those tamales starts at 1 in the morning. But by 10:30 on the day we visited, the last solo pork tamale went out just before us. The young woman taking our order guided us to the veggie tamales instead, saying they were her favorite.
The tamale was presented in the husk in which it was steamed, the masa inside clinging to a chili relleno — a flavorful little pepper tucked full of cream cheese.
And just a few steps away, we found street tacos at Tacos San Mateo. There were two types this day — asada and pork al pastor — both sizzling in piles, ready to go from the sunlit griddle ($2.50 apiece). These are served on doubled-up corn tortillas, with cilantro, onion and a wedge of lime.
Sometimes tacos al pastor are merely seasoned with pineapple, used to marinate the meat. But this version was peppered with pineapple bits, and robustly seasoned. The asada was straightforward, enlivened by a squeeze of simple salsa.
Geared for larger appetites, the heaping Jumbo Combo ($10) will get you a little of everything at Kicholman Noodles: potstickers, lemon chicken with pineapple, teriyaki beef and yakisoba noodles.
The friendly young lady up front walked us through an assortment of homemade sauces to customize our box — a gingery plum sauce, a teriyaki, sauce for gyoza, and a doctored-up BBQ sauce from Oma and Popie’s, a vendor nearby.
As we sought our next food target, I confessed to my friend that I didn’t think I could keep up the pace. “Really?” he said. “I could do this all day.” We turned the corner to the north.
The pitaya bowl ($6.99) at Fresh Healthy Café was exactly what we needed — a literal sorbet to reset the palate. This was a sweet slush of dragon fruit, almond milk, pineapple and mango, topped with granola, blueberry, sliced banana and shredded coconut. The team in the booth was very accommodating to our request to split the bowl in two containers.
They also offer fresh-squeezed juices. We leaned on a railing in the 8th Street shade and tried the green lemonade ($6.99), a blend of apple, spinach, and lemon bursting with cucumber.
We set out next for savory meat-filled pastries at Amina’s African Sambusas, but the line at that easternmost stall was 20 people deep, which tells you all you need to know. And we learned later that a couple of other regular vendors were absent this week: Darjeeling Momo, which serves noodles and Himalayan steamed dumplings; and Genki Takoyaki, which offers perhaps the most esoteric street food in the city, spheres of octopus-filled batter, griddled in a specially molded pan and turned over one by one with tiny metal prods.
We headed south, seizing a lull in the line at The Creperie Mobile (distinct from a similarly named enterprise at the Edwards Cineplex). In full sun, all four pans were in constant rotation, a cook in a tie-dyed T-shirt and sunglasses at each station ladling batter, spinning it out to the edges of the 14-inch pans with a T-shaped spreader, and flipping the cakes with long spatulas. Pantone menu tiles describe an array of sweet and savory options. We did what you should do: we chose both, a “sunrise” crepe ($7) with egg, bacon, ham, spinach, cheddar and pesto; and a strawberry-Nutella crepe with almonds ($5).
This, I thought, is the perfect Saturday market food. It’s not the kind of thing you will order every day in a restaurant or are likely to make at home, and the whole act of its quick creation is a show.
Our crepes arrived rolled into a triangular cardboard sleeve, the shape of a giant Toblerone. We liked both more when we opened up the boxes, letting the steam out to cool a little.
When it comes to sheer ogling of food, for me, nothing matches the spectacle of a spinning spool of meat. And at Meraki Greek Street Food, they serve gyros filled with meat seasoned and prepared in the traditional Cretan fashion, not the ubiquitous, commercial-grade lamb/beef meatloaf you will find at most places. These spindles are stacked with slices of pork and chicken, pressed, seared crisp on the vertical broiler, and shaved to order by owner Ali Kalatzakis with a buzzing, circular electric knife — a spectacle unto itself.
We tried both a pork and a chicken gyro, with tomatoes, red onion and creamy tzatziki in a grilled pita ($7; note that the chicken is usually served with honey-mustard). Also as I’d seen on Crete, the gyros were topped with “a few French fries,” also nicely seasoned, not an afterthought. My friend preferred the ratio of sauce in the chicken version, but I thought the pork one was the best gyro I’d had in a decade.
While we’d been waiting, the sun finally doing its work over 8th Street, my friend stepped over to Leialoha’s Lemonade, where he had his favorite experience of the day. There he found a bunch of fun, bright kids energetically making lemonade. They whacked knives into lemons, halving and notching them to split in the juicer, then shook the lemonade in Nalgene bottles, switching off tasks, laughing in the sunlight. Best of all, the lemonade itself ($3 for 16 ounces) was delicious, tart, refreshing and not too sugary.
We found one last bench to finish eating. One thing notably absent was the availability of a place to sit down and dine — everyone eating was either jockeying for a bench or standing. At one point, we sneaked on to the patio of a restaurant before it opened. The market's executive director, Mona Warchol, told me a solution was in the works — a potential partnership with one of the businesses on Idaho Street. I suggested maybe a beer garden in the center, to truly make it a dining destination. As of now, the vendors of alcohol are licensed only to give samples, not serve pints.
We were right behind Lime and a Coconut, which sells made-to-order Thai food, but we were too full to push forward. Next Saturday.
All vendors are asked that their product is designed, grown or produced entirely themselves, must be made in Idaho, and brings something unique to the market. The owners in the booths literally stand behind their products. There are five vegetable stands selling produce from refugee farms, the most direct way Boiseans can truly support refugees, according to Warchol.
The market has grown to the point where you need to come back to experience the whole thing. My friend concluded, “I love this city.” And the market is a gem at its center.
Also of note: You will find arts and crafts, and plenty of food and drink to buy and take home: oil and vinegars, honey and jam, beef jerky, jalapeno wine and growlers, and seasoning blends.
Capital City Public Market, 8th Street and Idaho
Saturdays 9:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., April 14th – December 15th
Alex Kiesig is the food service director for Thomas Cuisine Management at Micron and the former chef at Redfish Lake Lodge in Stanley. He has written for Food Network Magazine and is a contributor to the Statesman.