At 331 Cortland, the small culinary market at the top of Bernal Heights, the five burgeoning businesses in the narrow space are all in it together. Salmon-and-cream-cheese piroshki from Anda Piroshki use house-cured lox from Paulie's Pickling. Paulie's gets many of the pickling spices from the Spice Hound stall, which has a dozen-odd test tubes of flavorings set up for customers to smell and taste. And sharpening everyone's knives is Bernal Cutlery, with its handsome wooden counter that looks like something out of a 19th-century general store. The communal spirit of the place is enough to warm your heart, but the market also offers a delicious array of exotic foods and the opportunity to connect with the people who make them. It's almost too adorable to bear.
The market was opened two and a half years ago by building owner Debra Resnick, who was having trouble finding a tenant for the 1,000-square-foot space during the height of the recession. After a stint volunteering at La Cocina, Resnick realized that she could open the space as an incubator for food entrepreneurs who had some business experience and a local following, whether from pop-ups, farmers' markets, or catering, by giving them a storefront where they could dip their toe in retail and develop their businesses without investing a huge amount of start-up capital in their own brick-and-mortar. Over the past 30 months, Resnick has seen about a dozen vendors come and go — some failed, some found wholesale preferable to retail, and a few graduated to their own spaces, like El Porteño Empanadas and Ichi Sushi, which just announced it's expanding to a second location in the Mission.
The market's latest addition is Eji's Ethiopian, which offers fabulous vegan renditions of Ethiopian classics. Owner Eji Atlaw has been running Eji's as a catering business through La Cocina for a few years, serving dishes based on recipes from her native Ethiopia. The short menu offers a few of Atlaw's favorites, like misir wot, a red lentil dish made with caramelized onions, cardamom, cumin, ginger, garlic, and berbere, a fiery blend of more than 20 spices, primarily chili powder, that comes from Atlaw's mother's kitchen. You can order misir wot or the milder ater kik alicha, yellow lentils brightened with turmeric, as a plate with a side of sautéed greens or turmeric cabbage, or rolled up in a "wrap" with tangy fermented injera bread for an easy grab-and-go lunch. Atlaw plans to experiment with other dishes in her shop — a new pumpkin and squash curry, heavy on the berbere, is a tasty autumnal dish that packs some heat.
Across the aisle from Eji's is Paulie's Pickling, one of the original stalls in the market and a California take on a traditional East Coast deli. The colorful butcher-paper menu lists more than a dozen sandwiches, and one of the best is the albacore tuna: prepared in-house and not from a can, refreshingly light on the mayo, with bits of pickles, on sour bread. It's the ultimate grownup tuna fish sandwich. Brisket and corned beef are on the heavier end of the sandwich spectrum, but the meat in both melts on your tongue, and the tangy Russian dressing complements the beef's fattiness. House-made sauerkraut flirts with being too sour, but ultimately finds a nice balance.
Paulie's is the most fully realized of all the food stalls by also offering breakfast bagels (don't miss the house-cured lox, which reaches the hard-to-achieve balance of smoke to fishy flavor), and a soda counter with egg creams and curious items like habañero-peach soda. Along with several varieties of pickles (try the signature zesty original, with a hint of jalapeño), there are pickled green tomatoes, cauliflower, spicy green beans, and okra — basically the best Bloody Mary bar in the world, and many bartenders around town, who use Paulie's pickles in their brunch drinks, agree.
Anda Piroshki has a daily rotating selection of about a half-dozen "Russian hot pockets," as it says on the sign. Proprietress Anna Tvelova has been at 331 Cortland since May 2011, and makes about half her piroshki from her mother's recipe, the other half from her own invention. All are encased in a fluffy, slightly sweet dough reminiscent of Chinese baked pork buns. The beef-and-cheddar, one of Tvelova's own creations, is a simple combo of ground beef and cheddar cheese that's as satisfying as a reverse-engineered hamburger; the Bunny's Delight is a veggie combo in a light tomato sauce, and tastes almost like ratatouille in a bun. Vegetarian borscht, available hot and cold, is a complexly spiced blend of 10 different vegetables garnished with a dollop of sour cream.
The biggest downside to the market, and the narrow space it occupies, is that there's nowhere to sit and eat — it's strictly a takeout operation. Resnick has a market license, but not a café license. There are benches outside and many take their food to nearby Holly Park or Bernal Hill, but right now much of the clientele is local. Resnick and all the business owners praised the tight-knit community of Bernal Heights, but it's time the rest of the city got in on the fun.