“The zucchini is good, fresh this week—maybe not next week” is the conspiratorial sales pitch delivered at Frank’s Quality Produce one sunny Thursday morning. A woman in cutoffs, clutching a lengthy shopping list, looks stricken. She takes two.
When it comes to sales, Pike Place Market specializes in the performative kind. Fishmongers in Day-Glo waders announce they can pack sockeye for the plane, or ship nationwide. “Wild, foraged with love. Trust us. They’re worth it,” a sign proclaims above a case of sea beans at Sosio’s Fruit and Produce. “Do not squeeze—ask for help” pleads another atop a pile of snow angel white peaches from Choice Produce.
I’ve gladly succumbed to the lure of grapefruit-size hom bow and fistfuls of peonies swathed in butcher paper, but not once have my market interactions trod into the realm of produce purchases. Which is a bit shameful given Pike Place’s oft-touted history as one of the oldest continuously operating farmers markets in the country. So one fine weekday, I eschew my usual fluorescent-lit QFC aisles and shop those stalls instead.
My recipe for kare-kare, a Filipino stew with a creamy peanut butter base, requires just six ingredients, but I start with what I suspect will be the trickiest to find: oxtail. At Sosio’s, a gregarious employee named Josh says he doesn’t think anyone sells this particular meat within market grounds. He directs me to Beast and Cleaver in Ballard or Uwajimaya in the Chinatown–International District. It’s the same story at Frank’s—a quick shrug from a masked worker sends me on my way. Finally, I inquire at Oriental Mart, the Filipino lunch counter that has both a James Beard America’s Classic award and an adjacent market. One mention of kare-kare and the young woman behind the cash register directs me to Don and Joe’s Meats, near Rachel the Pig.
There a massive U-shaped counter flaunts meats in the most plural sense of the word, from dry-aged tomahawks to pepperoni sticks. Duck six ways—fresh, frozen, confit, as foie gras, in breasts, or rendered into fat—packs the mini fridge in front, while signs offer wild boar, alligator, and rattlesnake if given a few days’ notice.
To my tentative query, the no-nonsense butcher whips out a whole oxtail, cleaned and skinned. “Or do you want it precut?” he asks, revealing a container packed with perfectly portioned pieces. Within a few minutes, I’m holding a package of oxtail the approximate size and heft of a dictionary.
I’m back at Sosio’s, hunting for the remaining ingredients on my list, when Josh notices me hovering near a crate of heirloom eggplants. He spots my oxtail and responds with an amount of enthusiasm that I’m unaccustomed to receiving from a stranger. Then he plucks a paper bag from a stack, opens it with a flick of his wrist, and asks what he can help me with. As Josh weaves between pyramids of nectarines and plums, dodging shoppers and other workers, I’m struck by his grace and ease. He grabs green beans, snags an onion, scoops up a bunch of spinach, tossing passing comments to customers along the way. Forget performative. It’s truly a performance to behold.