From a block away, the fragrance of frying onions and peppers told me I was late. At noon every Wednesday and Friday and on Thursday nights, Basque Market chef Jake Arredondo serves paella directly from the pan to guests lined up on the patio. To see the process of big-batch paella cooking in the open air, get there early. By 10:45 a.m., the vegetables were already at a low sizzle.
Arredondo brought me up to speed: the chef had slicked the surface of the hot paellera—a shallow, handled disc three feet across and evocative of a gong—with a blend of canola and olive oils. Then, into the paellera went two pounds each diced white onion and green bell pepper, which Arredondo turned in the oil with a flat-nose wooden spoon. This batch would yield enough for 40 people; the Basque Market has pans that will feed as many as 100 and 200 eaters, as well.
In the shade of a not-too-hot morning, Arredondo predicted he'd sell out.
The Basque Market prepares seafood and vegetarian versions of the traditional Spanish rice dish at events and at different times on the patio. The most popular is the one I saw made, paella mixta, which pulls in chicken, chorizo, shrimp, clams and mussels.
The next hour was full, which meant the ingredients must be prepped ahead, portioned and pre-cooked where necessary.
Vegetables shining in the heat, two pounds of chorizo—sliced in half moons—went into the pan. Arredondo identified this as chorizo riojano, a smoky pork sausage imported from Spain, but said the market also uses local chorizo from Gem Meat Packing. After a few minutes, the sausage released its color into the pan, an unctuous orange like nothing else.
Arredondo scattered kosher salt and scooped out two cups of minced garlic. This drew in passersby like dark magic—the smell of garlic in such heaps makes people stop and smile. Next came a quarter-cup of smoked paprika and, over the next 20 minutes, everything absorbed a deep brick red.
Arredondo kept moving. He poured in two bags totalling four pounds of short-grain Valencia rice, pretty as pearls, then stirred to incorporate. An assistant arrived from the kitchen with a pot of broth—about two gallons of chicken stock to which he'd added 10 ounces of white wine, 25 threads of saffron and a pinch of turmeric. Arredondo flooded the rice with a giant ladle, just enough liquid to cover, then cranked up the flame. He dragged lines through the pan with his spoon, then patted the rice back down to submerge it.
As it cooked, the surface bubbled and split into pools; whorls of red oil and liquid the color of marmalade. Slowly, the grains of rice fattened and lifted to the surface. Steam blew off the pan toward me, and I was in its spell, too.
The assistant appeared again with a bowl of shellfish and, at the 50-minute mark, Arredondo began tucking raw shrimp into the rice. He set out to get seafood in every portion of the paella served and he was right—I counted exactly 40. Next he arranged two pounds each clams and mussels, the upright black shells like a nest of open bird beaks. Then he divided roasted chicken across the rice. Over this, another few ladles of stock. Arredondo and his assistant tested around the edges of the pan to see whether the paella was done.
A few garnishes finished the dish, filling it with color: a pound of roasted red peppers; two-and-a-half pounds of trimmed green beans (in place of peas, which Basque Market owners Tony and Tara Eiguren actively dislike); and a few dozen wedges of lemon. A final blast of heat lightly toasted the rice on the bottom of the pan.
"We're there," Arredondo said, and people were lining up, plates in hand.
As he dished me up a generous portion, I thanked him for the food and for sharing his process. Perhaps it was anticipation properly built, but it was the best paella I'd had from the market. And the show is always free.