At Smiley's Flea Market in Fletcher, a young girl with black hair, a rose-patterned dress and silver cowboy boots kicks up dust as she runs between stalls piled with fruit, a plastic bag of sugar-dusted churros in her hand.
A truck squeezes through one of the narrow roads that divide the market, filling the air with diesel fumes and more dust. The truck carries paletas — ice pops made with fruit and juice in flavors like melon, strawberry and lime.
The girl with the silver boots darts into a stall, where a man taps coconuts with what appears to be a small machete. Deft with his large hands and larger knife, he slices off the shell piece by piece, then with one final flick scalps the nut, making a hole just large enough to sip the water from inside.
In the stall next to him, Taqueria Fogonocito, another man slices fruit into spears — honeydew, slightly too-young mango. He piles the fruit into a cup with crisp jicama so the tall slices sit upright like flowers. He dusts it liberally with chili powder and squeezes lime juice on top. His gloved hands are stained with paprika when he passes the cup to a man holding a sack of tomatillos.
At the next stall, there’s goat meat, cactus pears and nopales, from which someone's been amateurishly hacking away the spines. Both knife and cactus leaves have been abandoned. It's probably for the best.
This could be anywhere in Mexico — my chef friend who's accompanied me to the market remarks that Smiley's smells like it, feels like it. He's teasing the market women and poking through an astounding array of dried chiles on display, sifting through pungent dried shrimp and tiny, paper-thin fish. Next to the fish, he points out favas selling for $2 a pound and piles of tamarind pods, their brittle husks belying the sticky, sweet-sour pulp inside.
Smiley's is, in many ways, another world. Walking from one end of the market to the other is to glimpse a number of cultures through their food.
What gringo eats tripe?
Don Taco sits in space 702 on the near edge of the walk. Space 702 is fairly bare-bones, but has the added benefit of two spotless (more or less) bathrooms that you reach through a small, dark corridor. A pastel-colored bakery selling Mexican pastries sits at the other end of the dim hallway, like some sort of sugary secret. The sweetness can almost be tasted in the air, which smells like frosting and pink piped roses. It's enough to send me back to the front of Don Taco, which is filled with the aroma of animals in various states of cooked — stewed, barbecued, grilled.
At the counter, a girl with liquid brown eyes runs the register wearing one ear bud in her right ear. She smiles when I try to order the menudo. What gringo eats tripe soup? She steers me toward the birria de chivo (goat soup). It arrives in a chipped bowl, tasting deep and meaty, slightly goat-gamey. The broth is a dark-chili red and pleasantly oily, the goat cooked to melting tenderness. That's it — broth, meat, flavor, aroma. Throw in some chopped onion, squeeze a lime, scatter some cilantro in the pools of red grease and sop up a little with a warm tortilla. It's heaven.
We procure a small taste of menudo, anyway. My friend hates it. Given that it's a renowned Mexican hangover cure, that comes as a mild shock to me. Maybe it's because I'm eating it in the wake of a wine-soaked evening, but the somewhat thin broth, barnyard-y as it is, feels deeply nourishing. The cow stomach bobs in its broth like some weird sea-creature, its texture oddly familiar and somewhat disturbing all at once.
Back out in the bright sunlight, we pass a shop of frothy pink dresses that look like the confections in the pastry shop. Rows of shiny cowboy boots outside the door smell of fresh leather. Just past that, an auto-repair shop is filled with stacks of brand-new tires, their distinctive rubber aroma spilling out of the garage doors. A scraggly, tiny dog makes a brave lunge for my Achilles tendon.
Beyond the car-repair place is the Carnerceria el Toro. It's probably the most jarring of all of the market stalls — and the busiest. The meat and seafood market is a far cry from that of the standard grocery store. No artificially colored ground meat in shrink-wrapped foam trays or hermetically sealed sausages can be found here. Instead, chicken feet and halved crabs, mussels on the half shell and whole fish, innards of assorted types, all lay in plastic tubs. It's all refrigerated, but exposed to the air and looking slightly oxidized. Large slabs of queso Oaxaco and queso doble crema look the most inviting at first, but one would be remiss to overlook the plastic box filled with slabs of chicharron.
We order a thick, fatty strip and carry it outside, sliding around in its own grease in a plastic bag. I've tried several versions of this particular variation of pork belly, and this one completely blows my mind. Sometimes, chicharron is skin-heavy, more pork rind than meat. If pork rinds are the crust of the pig, this chicharron includes plenty of the mantle and core. Crispy skin, pork fat and belly flesh with a squeeze of lime pierced with a plastic fork and a proper dusting of coarse salt is perfectly basic — and maddeningly good. By the end, we're spattered with fat and lime juice and slightly giddy.
Shad and croaker, stinky mud fish
On past a stall filled with roosters, chickens, rabbits and the scent of barnyard is a man from Charleston who arrives at the stall market at 2:30 every Friday morning to set up. On ice sit shad and croaker — fish that mostly fishermen talk about. Two boys, their mouths stained with shaved-ice syrup, are dipping their hands in a cooler filled with head-on shrimp.
The man with the fish is a South Carolina native who drives here on a regular basis. The weekend population of Smiley's is not all Hispanic; Vinnie Mao and his family are from Cambodia. They own the Bamboo Asian Grocery, a stall that sells spices, canned goods, fruits and vegetables popular with local Thai restaurant owners. He points out knobby bitter melon, telling me that I probably don't want it. He pulls herbs out of a refrigerator to feed me, not knowing what many of them are called — just that his Vietnamese customers want these, his Chinese customers those. The herbs that he identifies include shiso, potato leaves and “hot basil,” which tastes like mint. “I don't know why they call it that,” he says, laughing a little.
On the shelf, he points out pickled mud fish. “It's stinky,” says Mao. The mud fish, you may recall, is the weird-looking prehistoric critter from National Geographic films that hauls itself out of the water on its fins and burrows itself in the shore during drought conditions.
Speaking of stinky, Mao carries durian in the freezer. Durian is a fruit with such an acrid scent that it's banned in many public places in Asia.
Once away from Mao's shop, past a redhead selling Black-eyed Susans and ramps, Sandra Lazaro-Obispo's red taco truck can be seen on the eastern edge of Smiley's. Next to her sits a stall with aguas de melon and hibiscus and horchata — rice milk, essentially, sweetened with sugar, flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. Lazaro-Obispo makes gorditas from handmade tortillas, stuffed with grilled fresh jalapeños and queso or asada — or anything else you might want that she has on hand. She makes tacos that are alone worth the drive to Smiley's.
The lengua reminds me of why I no longer touch the mushy version in my once-favorite taqueria in town. Lamb tacos with a squeeze of lime and a wash of hot sauce are even better.
Lazaro-Obispo is from Chicago, but her parents are from a town three-and-a-half hours south of Mexico City. Now, they're just a few hundred yards away, operating a taqueria in a mall-like part of the flea market. Though it's been in operation for seven years, Lazaro-Obispo just calls it the “inside taqueria,” highly recommending the posole.
She ducks back inside her truck to make the chorizo torta a customer has just ordered. We head back across the dusty lot, past sun-glass vendors and black-haired children pushing toys, in search of what is reportedly the best posole in Western North Carolina. It's a brave claim — but after tasting it, it’s easy to believe it might be true.
Smiley’s Flea Market is located at 5360 Handersonville Road. It’s open Friday through Sunday, 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. For more information, visit smileysfleamarkets.com.
— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com