The Short & Skinny
ALMA means nourish in latin, and that sums up the mission of the two New York chefs cooking simple, clean, approachable, locally sourced dishes at the La Jolla weekly farmers market.
I’ve long bemoaned the walls I see separating the farmers and the prepared food vendors at our local farmers markets. These walls are both figurative and literal; built from produce boxes and containers and various waste by-product from a slurry of ingredients sourced from big-box stores rather than from the farmers to either side of them.
I get it. I understand the slim profit margins food-based businesses operate with, but I still can’t help but wish for a food vendor at a local market who actually sources ingredients from local farmers. In January, my wish came true with the debut of Alma California at the La Jolla Open Aire Market.
Ross Garcia and Neale Holaday met fresh out of culinary school in 2010 while working at San Francisco’s Baker & Banker. The pair then headed to the East Coast, where Garcia worked a six month season at Shelburne Farms in Vermont before heading to New York. The couple both found themselves at at Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn, with Holaday working as the executive pastry chef and Garcia working as a sous chef. Garcia went on to become a butcher at Marlow & Daughters where he specialized in whole animal breakdown and cookery.
The pair moved to back west to San Diego last year specifically to develop their own concept based on relationships with farmers, cooking with seasonal ingredients, and creating menus around the local bounty. Having cooked in regions with winter climates notoriously harsher than ours, they were elated when they found strawberries here in November.
“Being so new to the area, we are still building relationships with farmers, but every Sunday, before the La Jolla market opens, we go around to see what produce is available and fresh, and try to incorporate it into our menu that day,” Holaday explained. “Our ultimate goal is to open a restaurant based around seasonality where we can use our backgrounds in pastry and whole animal butchery. We wanted to start this business small, grassroots, and build relationships with the community before we opened a brick & mortar.”
The Alma chefs head to Tuna Harbor Dockside Market as early as possible every Saturday morning to select fresh seafood like squid and spot prawns, and work with farmers at Chino Family Farm and Smit Farms of San Joaquin County on weekly produce selection.
A single-wide pop-up tent is set up along the grass on a busy corner of the La Jolla Open Aire Market. Plenty of seating is available nearby. Service is fast-casual and plasticware and paper boats are all biodegradable. (If you have some foresight, plan ahead and bring nonbreakable food containers and reusable utensils with you.)
The menu features from scratch, new-American fare and the tent’s goal is to be the “restaurant” at the market.
Everything served, including the bread, is housemade by Garcia and Holaday.
Other than a few weekly staples, including a breakfast sandwich featuring a farm-fresh fried egg, sharp cheddar, hot sauce, and house-smoked bacon on focaccia, the menu changes with the seasons. Most dishes are prepared over an open flame.
Both owners find that because the menu is so fluid, they get excited and inspired each week to explore new ingredients and experiment with unique local flavors. The results are so good, some customers are disappointed not to find the same dish week after week. “We are trying to get people to try our food, trust us, and try something new next time,” Garcia laughed.
The current menu included a coal-roasted chicken sandwich that’s rustic and hearty, layered with tender bites of grilled chicken, sumac-spiced yogurt, fresh herbs, and an oily drizzle of finely chopped green garlic served open-faced on a seeded flatbread.
Another spring standout was the brightly-flavored tuna crudo made with celery, kumquats, strawberries, and mint.
Alma also offers a small display of housemade take-away sweets and snacks, like their suprsing black pepper and sea salt caramels.
Find Alma California at the La Jolla Open Aire Market on Sundays, 9am-1:30pm
7335 Girard Avenue, La Jolla
Alma also offers private catering.