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FARM TO FOOD COURT: Port City Farmers Market Kitchen brings healthy, seasonal fare to the mall

Port City Farmers Market Kitchen’s are breaking the norm of “mall food” with fresh, farm-to-table concepts at Independence Mall’s food court.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever ordered quinoa-crusted shrimp tacos at the food court of a mall.

Yeah, I hadn’t either—until last week.

Port City Farmers Market Kitchen (PCFMK) popped up on my list of new eateries to scope out recently. I’ll admit: When I saw it was smack-dab in the middle of Independence Mall, immediately skepticism piqued. Everyone knows after rustling through the clearance aisles in Forever 21 and avoiding eye contact with the lady who wants to straighten your hair, there’s nothing like a greasy slice of pizza or a treat from Orange Julius. It’s part of a mall’s charm—or so we thought. Jules DeBord, founder of Lunchbox Pickles, is trying to change our minds. And so far, she’s off to a damn good start.

TACO SPECIALS: PCFMK offers healthy options in the food court with Tinga Tacos and fresh sides like broccoli (above). Photo by Tom Dorgan.

TACO SPECIALS: PCFMK offers healthy options in the food court with Tinga Tacos and fresh sides like broccoli (above). Photo by Tom Dorgan.

Instantly, I was drawn to the menu at PCFMK, since farm-to-table cuisine is right up my alley. I’m a sucker for a Saturday splurge of a cheese fry—or 17. During the week, I try to keep it healthy. In a sea of fast food and sugary slushies, I was delighted to see some of my favorite words: kale, coconut milk, beets, iced green tea, local this, local that. If this solid foundation of whole foods isn’t enough to impress customers, how about this fun fact? The spread was created by Port City culinary champion Sam Cahoon of Ceviche’s (who’s renowned for having some of the best and boldest Latin flavors in town). Other house specialties at PCFMK include fresh juices, locally fermented kombucha, and expertly crafted homemade ramen on Fridays. (Am I dreaming?)

I dug the colorful, rustic chalkboard menus. Unfortunately, I was the only one at the time. Granted, it was dinnertime mid-week (when most folks are probably on their recliners watching “Jeopardy!”), but I was disheartened to see the line 10 feet over for Chinese was eight people deep. Come on, people! Give the new kid a chance!

I was stoked to sample a big portion of the reasonably priced menu (most options range from $8 to $12). I started off the meal with soup and salad. The sweet potato coconut bisque had my name all over it. The velvety, thick orange-hued concoction (which was labeled a “bisque” after all) was perfumed with exotic coconut milk. The soup had notes of earthiness, yet was a touch on the bland side. When combined with a mouthful of nutty toasted pumpkin seeds and sharp balsamic glaze, it delivered a well-rounded bite. For the greens, I opted for a spinach salad with candied pecans, goat cheese, roasted sweet-potato cubes, and balsamic dressing. The dish was light and satisfying—nothing out of the ordinary for a spinach salad—but the fresh, tangy vinaigrette was housemade, and goat (thankfully) cheese crumbles weren’t scarce.

The smoked tuna wrap caught my eye immediately; I saw photos on the restaurant’s Facebook page of fabulously fresh seared local tuna. Holy smokes, Sam! I don’t know how you packed all that smoky flavor into such small amount of fish. The tuna was flaky and bursting with char. The other fillings in the toasted stuffed wrap included jalapeño aioli, pickled cabbage, roasted corn, and pico de gallo. I could definitely taste the contrast of the vinegary cabbage to the woody fish, but the other ingredients got a little lost. I could have used a dipping side of spicy sauce, but I always err on the side of extra mayo so maybe that’s just a personal preference. Either way, I can’t wait to come back when their smoked tuna hits the specials board again.

Tacos seemed to be a signature item here, so I went with the chicken tinga taco special and the aforementioned quinoa-crusted shrimp tacos. First, let’s talk poultry. As promised, the order came with one green-sauced taco and one red, with a garnish of beans, cabbage, pickled red onions, and chimichurri ranch. Although the dark-meat chicken was well-shredded, it was slightly dry, as if I was getting the end of the batch. It also wasn’t as smothered in sauce as I had hoped. The pickled onions added a sharp, much-needed bite, but I couldn’t taste the ranch. I don’t blame the ingredients. I think this just wasn’t executed as properly as it could have been. The other tacos, however, were the winner, winner, shrimp dinner. Though they had the same lack-of-sauce issue, the quinoa-crusted shrimp were juicy, plump, crisp, and flavorful. Seriously, slam dunk, dude! I was disappointed to miss out on that herby ranch, but now I know next time to order spare condiments.

While we’re discussing quinoa, the tacos all came with quinoa tortilla chips and cups of homemade salsa. I tried the standard pico de gallo and pineapple salsa. The pineapple variation was juicier and far fresher, while the pico was missing a hint of acidity like lime juice. Then again, it could have just been an older batch. Regardless, the choice to use a more interesting, alternative starch was a nice touch, and homemade salsa is always a plus. For my other side, I went with roasted broccoli and was ecstatic to see real pieces of savory roasted garlic and a green vegetable that was actually tender—not overcooked.

As far as Port City Farmers Market Kitchen’s concept goes, it’s a bit bizarre to see such a modern menu in the midst of a location known for being nostalgically unhealthy. My initial feeling was “know your audience,” but I’m leaving with an appreciation for crusaders like Jules DeBord who are breaking the norm. Hopefully, people will pass along the message that fast food can still be nourishing and good for the body. Keep an open mind, Wilmington. I’m looking forward to many more tuna wraps!

Port City Farmers Market Kitchen
Independence Mall
3500 Oleander Dr.
(910) 617-0444
Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.;
Sun., 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.

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