World-Famous Chino Farms—Just a Mini Road Trip Away

Last week I made the easy trek to Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe. If the traffic gods are smiling, it’s just an hour-plus from O.C. to the unprepossessing north San Diego County farm stand, where, upon arriving, if you didn’t know in advance you would never guess that anyone outside the immediate neighborhood has any idea the place exists. But, oh, do they ever. Thanks to patrons like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Chino Farms’ The Vegetable Shop is the most famous farm stand in the United States.

Jason Quinn of Playground in downtown Santa Ana makes the trip several times a month, and not only for designated Chino Farms BattleDish dinners in the 2.0 space next door to his restaurant, though they are a consideration. “If I could,” Quinn said, “I’d use only Chino produce.” For the special dinners, which occur a couple or three times a month (check the 2.0 calendar here), Quinn and his sous chefs each prepare four courses, and a winner is judged by attendees. The food on BattleDish nights is completely vegetarian. When I talked to Quinn, he’d just returned with the Chino haul for that night’s event. His selection included baby Cherokee tomatoes, eggplant, and concord grapes—the latter to appear in a PB&J crepe cake, in a concord grape jam he’d just finished making. Quinn cited Chino Farms haricots verts as a favorite, and indeed when I visited the stand I noted their tiny, uniform perfection. If you’ve ever, as I have, grown the weensy green beans, combing daily through the plants for a handful of just-right specimens, you’ll appreciate the Chinos doing it for you. It was the Chino’s haricots verts that first impressed Alice Waters, too, I believe.

Perhaps corn and strawberries, including the tiny, fragrant frais de bois, are the Chino’s most famous crops, but the range of what the family grows is vast—take a look at what you might find in the current season. I bought a jar of their own peach jam, with only peaches and cane sugar, and, (the reason I gave it a try) “no added pectin” proudly indicated on the label. The stand is closed on Monday, and hours change seasonally though opening time is usually dependably 10 a.m. Plan to get there not too long after that, especially on a day when the Playground guys are shopping. Jason Quinn says that when they go, the fully stocked stand at 10 a.m. is considerably thinned out by 10:45. Like almost any produce shopping, the early bird gets the worm—but in this case, the worm is world-class.

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