Way up in North Houston, if you continue on Interstate 45 past Canino Produce, another 15 minutes or so, and crawl up Airline drive, you'll find a large, dusty parking lot backed up to a nearly brand-new red and gold Asian theme park—at least that's what we first saw. Then we saw the sign for what we were actually looking for next door: Sunny Flea Market.
Sunny Flea Market is reportedly one of the largest open-air markets in the country. It sits on a 35-acre property that hosts more than 50,000 visitors a week, according to its website. At least one Yelp review notes that this sprawling flea market gets crowded after noon, though based on the deserted state of the long aisles offering everything from cheap jewelry and shoes to rejiggered electronics, plants, birds and make up on a Saturday around 11 a.m., it looked as though the market's heyday may be a thing of the past.
Still, the eating doesn't get any better or cheaper once you stumble across the food vendors sprinkled throughout the market (make sure to bring cash!).
Foot-long tacos are rumored to exist somewhere in the depths of the market alongside menudo, tepache, flautas, quesadillas and paletas. One of the first vendors we encountered sold elotes, offering a choice of yellow or white corn from two simmering roasting pans (yellow was recommended as sweeter). For $3, you'll receive a styrofoam cup filled with warm corn freshly mixed with a dollop of sour cream and dusted with a cap of Mexican cheese. You can doctor it up with a bright dash of chili powder or hot sauce afterwards.
You'll find many taco stands (ours had a lonely looking roasting spit in one corner of the window) where you can buy $1 tacos. Think chicken, chorizo, trompo or cecina, marinated and thinly sliced beef or pork, which come out hot and fresh with tons of fresh cilantro, onion, salsa, lime, and meat nestled in two thick corn tortillas.
We stood, entranced, in front of the pupusa stall (which also sold hot dogs, burgers and fries) as a woman took our order (two bean and cheese pupusas) and promptly pulled a handful of masa from a huge pile and began forming the pupusas in front of us. A spoonful of refried beans and cheese later, she skillfully patted the dough into a nearly perfect round and fried it on the waiting griddle until each face was blistered, oozing cheese forming caramelized crusts around the edges. Each pupusa was served on its own styrofoam tray with a little cup of electric orange salsa and a side of curtido, a chili-spiked cabbage slaw that was a refreshing and acidic contrast to the rich and doughy pupusas. I haven't had pupusas that fresh since my family came across a roadside stand on a road trip to LA and at just $2 each, these felt like an absolute steal.
Elsewhere, you'll find tons of stalls stacked tall with both fresh and packaged snacks (takis, those spicy mini rolled tortilla chips, are everywhere), but our favorite were the agua fresca vendors with a line of vats heavy with melon, limonada, tamarind and more. The limonada is essentially the freshest version of lemonade you can imagine, the canteloupe-based melon juice was lightly, delightfully pulpy, and the horchata was smooth, gently-spiced and just sweet enough. For $3, you'll get a styrofoam cup sized to rival Sonic's Route 44 option.
The stacks of plastic-wrapped paletas, or Mexican popsicles in an abundance of flavors or the pineapple chamoy drinks served in pineapples are also utterly tempting, but we were stuffed by the time we rolled out of the market.
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The market is only open on weekends from 8 a.m to 6 p.m.; if you feel like making a day out of a trek to the Northside, make sure to pay a visit to Lucky Land, the Asian theme park next door. Parking is available in both the Lucky Land parking lot or the Sunny Flea Market lot for $2. And if you're using a GPS, make sure to enter the actual address (8705 Airline Drive). When we typed in "Sunny Flea Market," our GPS guided us to the middle of a nearby neighborhood. Wherever you're coming from, it's worth the trek for this glimpse into Mexican culture and some of the cheapest and most delicious eats in Houston.
Sunny Flea Market, 8705 Airline Drive
Hours: Weekends, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.