Funky little Bishop Arts District unabashedly struts its reputation as the preferred bedroom community for urban pioneers of hipster inclination, and why not? With its engaging diversity of (mostly) locally-owned shops, restaurants and community businesses housed in picturesque period buildings carefully restored, Bishop Arts convincingly plays Soho to Dallas’s otherwise tepid portrayal of Manhattan.
Yet beneath the swagger, an unnerving disgruntlement festers; the self-satisfaction masks a tumultuous inner conflict too bedeviling to confront in the light. Locals can sometimes be heard to grumble quietly amongst themselves about their simmering discontentment, although their mutterings quickly fade into awkward, conspiratorial silence when outsiders are known to be in earshot. But sometimes, amongst loved ones in the still of night, when secrets cry out to be revealed, they occasionally unburden themselves of their deepest, darkest shame: We have to drive north of the Design District to shop at Whole Foods!
Enter Bolsa Mercado, scion of the Bolsa restaurant and bar whose 2008 opening, with its revolutionary advances in making locally-sourced, seasonal cuisine accessible to earthbound budgets, lent so much firepower to the Bishop Arts cachet. Bringing the Bolsa ethos to a neighborhood market concept heavy on grab-&-go prepared foods provisioning, Bolsa Mercado aspires to relieve locals of their long-distance reliance on John Mackey’s increasingly corporate mega-market, and what’s more, to ascend to such new heights of food store awesomeness that the benighted bourgeoisie of our city’s northern quadrants may even venture down into the tropics in search of virtuous vittles, sustainable sustenance, and ethical edibles.
Not that Bolsa Mercado counts as a grocery store, conventionally conceived. Its modest proportions – you’ve been in larger 7-11s – preclude that possibility. Instead, the Mercado offers one-stop access to an astonishingly diverse inventory of local and organic foodstuffs, of such variety that the majority of one’s grocery shopping could indeed be accomplished there, with only occasional forays into more traditional retail outlets as a supplementary venture. And inventory decisions, at times, reveal a refreshing penchant for pragmatism, space permitting; amidst the craft brews and familiar Texas beers, one also finds three major corporate beers whose names I dare not type (although I’ll teasingly mention that the two words I least like to see on my beer are Coors and Light). Why? Because the neighborhood demands it!
Product selections tend to offer little in the way of brand diversity; more often than not, one option must suffice, even among the dry grocery shelves. Between featured Texas brands and the luxury items which augment them, however, shoppers can meet virtually all of their nutritional and culinary needs; coffees, teas and soft drinks, chips, crackers, and other snack foods, oils, vinegars, dressings, dips and salsas, seasonings and spices, grains and pastas. Canned goods, however, are limited to tomatoes and a few other items; processed foods like frozen and bag meals are scarcer still; household items such as cleaning supplies are virtually non-existent.
The dairy case is stocked with daily essentials, plus upscale alternatives like the delicious (and pricy) Vermont Cultured Butter. Carnivores will enjoy the selection of meats and poultry from local farms such as Windy Meadows and Eden Farms, as well as house-made smoked meats and sausages, and cured meats from Olympic Provisions. The produce section is limited by our Texas soil and climate; while the offerings are fresh, local, organic, and of visibly high quality, the entire inventory could be hauled off in a pickup truck of modest dimensions. Seafood aficionados will find time to visit other merchants.
Wines are featured in numerous locations around the store, encompassing some 130 varieties. Sous Chef Matt Balke, who helps with wine buying, says the emphasis is on affordability and uncovering good values; selections range from well known brands, such as the Francis Ford Coppola label, to more exclusive vintages, such as a Merriman Oregon Pinot Noir and a Spanish Prioras. As with most items in the store, local brands are prominent, as well as the increasingly popular Oak Cliff Cellars, California-based but founded and operated by Dallasite J.R. Richardson.
Copious quantities and varieties of prepared foods emerge from a sparkly new 1200 sq. ft. kitchen that has Chef Balke beaming like a kid on Christmas. His new toys include a dehydrator for making jerky, Sous Vide Immersion Circulators for optimum slow-cooking results, and a combination oven that cooks using dry heat, steam, and a wide range of carefully calibrated combination settings. Hence the wide range of housemade to-go products sold at Mercado – sandwiches, salads, baked goods appropriate to every time of day, fresh pastas, a daily menu of dinner offerings, fresh-made dips and sauces – even ham and veal stock. Additionally, the Mercado kitchen will prepare much of what is eventually sold at Bolsa, relieving the parent business of the difficulties of food production in a tiny, minimally-equipped kitchen smaller than the Mercado walk-in cooler.
A certain irony resides in this development; the original vision of Bolsa pere included selling much of the merchandise now on display at the Mercado. In the competition for floor space between restaurant seating and retail shelving, however, seating won out, and the market concept had to be, well, shelved. Today it is revived, and not only reasserts its role in the Bolsa family but adds significant culinary firepower to the restaurant which couldn’t accommodate it. Perhaps this potent synergy will allow the reincarnation of Bolsa as local market to endure.