Market Scene: Alemany Farmers' Market, San Francisco

[Photographs: Alissa Merksamer]

While it's easy to succumb to the charms of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, it's hard to sustain a fruit fetish at $4.50 a pound. That's why often opt for the Alemany Farmers Market instead.

Nicknamed "the people's market," Alemany was the first farmers market in California. It sprouted in 1943 at the corner of Duboce and Market as part of a wartime effort to help farmers sell their surplus crops. In 1947, it migrated to its current location, just south of Bernal Heights.

Every Saturday, many of the Bay Area's Asian locals come to stroke, scrutinize, and sometimes haggle over the surfeit of Southeast Asian vegetables. Most farmers come from Fresno wielding cardboard boxes of just-picked gourds (like sin qua, winter melon and hairy gourd), sweet potato leaves, taro, and young ginger with stalks jutting up.

This lady was a total pro navigating the market, nimbly pushing her cart through the crowd and never so much as brushing a fellow shopper's T-shirt

Prices are low—as in $1 for a huge bunch of bitter melon leaves or $1 for a pound of organic apples—and you'll discover steals from the same vendors who sell at the Ferry Plaza. Bella Viva, a supplier for dried fruit sells, its "seconds" exclusively at Alemany. When sliced and dried, these slightly damaged fruits are nearly indistinguishable from the prime ones and sometimes taste even sweeter. They're $3 per pound versus $8 for the "firsts." If you want in, arrive before noon, because Bella Viva sells out.

And while you browse over 100 stalls of fresh produce that form a horseshoe around a central no-man's-land, don't bother scouting for specialty products. Sure, there's one olive oil guy, one person selling cheese, and two that tout hummus and spreads, but that's it. This is not the type of farmers market where you'll find Santa Rosa plum jam, rosemary sea salt, or grass-fed yogurt. You will, however, enjoy excellent brunch options from El Huarache Loco, Copper Top Ovens, and Estrellita's Snacks, as well as folding tables and chairs when you need to drop your load of groceries.

It seems like nearly every stall sells bright, twisty bitter melon

Parking can be a hassle if you arrive after 10:00 a.m. Be patient while you inch behind the line of cars that snakes around the market and into the free back parking lot. If it's full, drive a block or two uphill to Bernal Heights. Several buses and BART will also deposit you nearby.

The market runs on Saturdays, officially from dawn to dusk, but in reality, from about 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. By 1:30 p.m., many farmers have sold their goods and gone home.

On our latest trip, we discovered some surprises (hint: it involves embryos) and a crop of autumnal produce you won't find anywhere else. Check out the slideshow to see our Alemany Farmers Market picks.