The chocolate croissants were gone again. Every Saturday, it’s my goal to get to the Augusta Market at the River early enough to get one of Manuel’s Bread Café’s delectably rich, flaky and meltingly chocolatey croissants. But every Saturday, I don’t seem to quite make it.
But there are other rewards. The Augusta Market at the River has grown into an eclectic and crowded mini-festival on Saturday mornings in downtown Augusta from March to November.
From the entrance on Reynolds Street, you can browse plentiful vegetable and fruit stands, choose fresh-cut flowers and plants for the garden, shop for arts and crafts, and more. Kids will love playing in the fountain or petting the dogs (rescue groups often have a stand), and as you wind your way down to the river, you’re greeted by live music on stage against the backdrop of the Savannah River.
Lunchwise, there are way too many options to try in just a single outing, so my husband, Sean, and I took a couple of Saturdays to sample a few vendors. The market offers a wide variety, from burgers and hot dogs to Asian and even Middle Eastern foods. Vendors can change though: For example, I’d been eyeing a “puppy” stand for a few weeks – corndog-like pastys filled with a variety of ingredients – but they weren’t there on the weekends we decided to have lunch.
I got my fried food fix elsewhere though.
“We make sure our customers are satisfied,” laughed the older man who was serving up fried fish and fried green tomatoes from inside a camper. With its covered seating, the stand is one of the larger ones at the market, and the charm of the couple staffing it was infectious as they chatted away with every customer stepping up to their window.
We chose the fried green tomatoes, as well as a fried grouper sandwich, for a total of $11. Both were fried on order. The tomatoes were only $5, but we got a pile of 12 golden slices, dipped in cornmeal and flour. They were tender and greasy (I used a napkin to sop up some of the grease), floppy but with chewy edges and flecked with black pepper and cayenne. Ranch dressing was available for dipping, but with or without it, the tomatoes were delicious. The tang of the fruit, the spice and flavor of the breading were addictive.
The fried grouper came curled on squishy white bread with a squiggle of tartar sauce – so curled in fact that the fish broke in half as we were trying to figure out how to eat it! The white fish was mild and moist, cooked nicely. My only wish? More tartar sauce for a little more tang and flavor.
A few Saturdays later, we came back hungry for more. Our first stop was a vendor we hadn’t noticed before, offering a wide variety from breakfast and burgers to Asian. They’d smartly posted photos of some of their dishes, and we chose the bulgogi, or Korean BBQ, over rice ($5; it’s also available as a sandwich). “Want cucumber kimchi with that?” asked the purveyor. Of course!
The plate had bright notes of ginger and garlic, but not the spice and grilled flavor you sometimes get with bulgogi. The firm rice stood up well to the sauce, and the meat itself was tender strips, gently cooked. The cucumber kimchi was likewise pretty mild, deep green crisp little rounds that only had a hint of heat.
We shared the relatively small plate, so it was on to the next stop. Hot Foods has a restaurant on upper Broad, but also serve Middle Eastern foods at the market. I ordered a lamb gyro and hummus and pita ($10 total). The owner took such care in layering the lamb and lettuce and tzatziki sauce, then wrapped the whole thing in a pita and grilled it. He handed it to me, along with a tub of hummus and a warm pita.
Grabbing a shady spot by a nearby brick wall, we dug in. We’ve both gotten a bit tired of supermarket hummus, but this was like a firecracker in comparison. Dressed in oil and paprika and studded with whole chickpeas, this hummus was full-flavored, with plenty of tahini (sesame paste) and a lemony tang without the citrus flavor. It was aggressive, and pleasantly so – with a little heat as well. Truly complex, and I liked how rustic it was, and how we had to tear off pieces of the pita to scoop it up. (There was also plenty to take home and eat later!) The gyro was delicious too, warm, stuffed with tender folds of lamb and an herby tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber sauce) inside the thick and soft pita.
Today I made sure to save room for dessert. The homemade ice cream wasn’t quite ready yet (“Give us 10 minutes,” they promised), so we stopped at another new vendor who was offering fresh sweet crepes. We chose the Mama Adella, with vanilla pudding, cinnamon bananas, blackberries and whipped cream ($5.50).
I was fascinated as I watched him spread the batter thin on the griddle, then flip it and fold it, so fascinated that I didn’t notice that the bananas didn’t make it into our crepe. The crepe itself unfortunately didn’t have much flavor, and the fresh blackberries needed more sweet than the squeeze of vanilla pudding and whipped cream provided.
But the homemade ice cream ($3) was worth it. We chose peach, served in a Styrofoam cup. It was still soft, with bits of fresh peach in it, and little globs of fat that attested to its being homemade. It tasted of sweet fresh cream, and after waiting 10 minutes for it, it only took us about a minute to eat it.
There was still so much more to sample (Thai spring rolls! funnel cake! iced coffee!), but it had to wait for another day. And chocolate croissants, I’m giving you fair warning … I’m coming for you.