Flea market rich in Latin fare, flair

At the Sweet Union Flea Market, on U.S. 74 just west of Monroe, you don't have to speak Spanish to eat your way through the many food choices at the all-Mexican market. Efrain Banderas watches the progress of churros frying in hot oil. The sticks of fried dough are served topped with caramel, chocolate or brown sugar.
At the Sweet Union Flea Market, on U.S. 74 just west of Monroe, you don't have to speak Spanish to eat your way through the many food choices at the all-Mexican market. Efrain Banderas watches the progress of churros frying in hot oil. The sticks of fried dough are served topped with caramel, chocolate or brown sugar.

UNION COUNTY, N.C. -- Flea markets are usually the places you go to hunt for treasures, trophies and junk with a little funk.

The Sweet Union Flea Market on U.S. 74 near Monroe used to be like that. But times and demographics change.

These days, Sweet Union is a slice of Latin American life, an open-air market with a selection of street food that's pure Mexico. Any Sunday visit becomes a taste of village style.

Arturo Dias came to Charlotte from Mexico 20 years ago, he says. But Sweet Union on a Sunday feels like home.

"This is what I remember from my country," he says, gesturing at the scene:

Hundreds of tents and open tables loaded with everything from embroidered jeans to lacy brassieres. Thousands of people, almost all Latin American, strolling through aisles lined with tooled boots, soccer shirts and jewelry. Produce stands piled with cactus paddles, limes and tomatillos.

Scattered through it all, there's the food. At least a half-dozen trucks are set up as rolling restaurants with umbrella-shaded tables out front. Most have names, from Taqueria Fiesta Jaracha by the entrance to a big one in the center called El Taquito de Oro -- "the little golden taco."

There are tacos with fillings from lengua (beef tongue) to pollo (chicken) and barbacoa (beef barbecue). Platters of carne asada (thin grilled steak) and frijoles are piled with soft tortillas. Roasted ears of corn are slathered with mayonnaise and showered with crumbled white cheese and red chile powder.

None of these foods are unusual -- they're substantial snacks eaten all over Mexico. What makes it fun is having them all in one place, handy for grazing.

Families take breaks from shopping to munch on tortas and spicy soups of goat or tripe. Kids race around, begging for freshly fried churros and aguas frescas, the fresh fruit drinks in flavors from sandia (watermelon) to melon (cantaloupe).

And Mexican music plays from portable stereos everywhere.

"I've been to Mexico a couple of times with my wife," says Robert McCathern, the manager of the market. "And that's how they shop, in open markets."

Sweet Union began to change about four years ago, says McCathern. With spaces for 230 vendors outside and another 300 or so inside two buildings and under a covered walkway, sellers have to get in line for spaces.

The Mexican vendors started showing up earlier than everyone else, at 2 or 3 a.m.

"The Hispanics wanted it more," says McCathern. "Non-Hispanics weren't willing to do that."

Saturday mornings bring a steady crowd, but Sundays are when the market really comes to life, with a stream of cars pouring into the axle-squeaking dirt parking lots for a day of shopping and eating.

Union County health authorities make sure the food stands follow safety regulations.

"They (health inspectors) routinely check," McCathern says. "All our units (have permits)." If he sees a food stand that isn't operating properly, he works with the seller to correct the problem.

One popular stand is a small wooden wagon painted with pink, white and yellow stripes and a name: "Elote."

Elote is corn on the cob, and that's one thing this stand sells. Cooked corn is rolled on a grill until it's flecked with brown, then rammed onto a stick. It's painted with mayonnaise, coated in dry white cheese and sprinkled with chile powder.

You can't eat it without getting a mustache and goatee of white cheese.

But the stand's most popular dish seems to be esquite, canned corn cooked with the herb epazote. It's served in a cup, topped with mayonnaise, white cheese and a lime wedge. It's so much better than it sounds -- hot, creamy and corny.

"Everybody knows esquite," says Yelitza Castro, a native of Venezuela who cooks at the stand. It's a popular snack all over Mexico.

Most of the food trucks are set up as restaurants, with tables out front under tarp roofs or umbrellas. Some even have table service, with waitresses scribbling down orders. But usually, you give your order at the window, wait for the food to be handed out, then pay the man who stands outside. The cooks don't handle food and money.

Not knowing how to speak Spanish doesn't present many difficulties. With a few basic food words, you can point your way through most menus. But sometimes, there's confusion even within cultures.

Arturo Dias works at the stand next to the elote hut, selling fruit cups loaded with chunks of watermelon, mango, pineapple and papaya. Inside, his wife and a helper make another popular snack: They squirt mayonnaise on a crispy square of fried pork rind, then top it with shredded lettuce, avocado chunks and hot sauce and scatter it with clear, gelatinous bits of pickled pork skin.

Dias calls it chicharrones con cueritos. Other people call it other things, he says. In Veracruz, it's "a la caya." Near the Texas border, it's chilindrina.

Doesn't matter, you eat it the same way: Break it into chunks and scoop up bites of the filling.

Eat it while you walk and shop. Then stop to eat something else, and walk some more.

"A lot of people call the flea market 'little Tijuana,'" says McCathern. "Or they say they want to go to Mexico that weekend, but they're not getting on a plane.

"But, hey, we're a business. And they're good customers."

• What: Sweet Union Flea Market.

• When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

• Where: 4420 U.S. 74 West in Union County, N.C.

• Tickets: Admission is free

You don't have to speak Spanish to eat well at the Sweet Union Flea Market on U.S. 74 near Monroe. Most vendors speak at least a little English, and many are fluent. But it's handy to know these terms for ordering and reading menus. Prices for most things range from $1 to $5 for a full platter.

Words for ordering:

Con: "With." ("Con todo" means "with everything.")

Sin: "Without."

Picante: Spicy hot. ("Caliente" is hot, as in temperature.)

Common food terms:

Asado or azado: Steak

Al pastor: Pork. (Sometimes it's on menus just as "pastor.")

Cabeza: Head, usually goat.

Churros: Long strips of ridged, fried dough. Usually tossed in cinnamon sugar, or served in a paper boat drizzled with toppings such as chocolate syrup or cajeta (goat's milk caramel).

Elote: Corn on the cob.

Esquite: A cup of cooked corn topped with mayonnaise and cheese.

Lengua: Tongue, usually cow. Although it sometimes can be chewy, the lengua taco we tried at El Taquito del Oro was particularly tender.

Menudo: A hearty, spicy stew, usually made with tripe (the honeycombed lining of a cow's stomach). It's known as a hangover cure.

Pollo: Chicken (pronounced po-yo)

Pupusa: These are traditional in El Salvador, but variations also show up in other countries, especially Guatemala and Honduras. Usually, it is a cornmeal dough cooked around a filling of meat and soft cheese.

Torta: A sandwich. This usually is a baguette with fillings, although there are many variations.

Taco: The tortilla is always soft and made of corn. The toppings come on it and you add things like hot sauce and salsa, then fold it around the fillings to pick it up.

Tamale: A corn-based dough wrapped around fillings, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. Either unwrap the husk and discard it, or open one end and push out the filling. Kathleen Purvis