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Why Victoria's Public Market Is a Find for Foodies

Olimpia Cisneros is one of those entrepreneurs who you root for -- and she makes it easy to do so because her product is exceptionally good. Cisneros is the chef and owner of La Cocina de Mama Oli, a small, modest eatery inside the year-old Victoria Public Market. She serves Mexican food that you won't find anywhere else in Canada (I know, I've searched for years).

"I wanted to show what real Mexican food is. This is the food that I learned to make from my mother," Cisneros says as she serves me an enchilada whose recipe origins are from Guadalajara, the second-largest city in Mexico. The enchilada is a homemade corn tortilla filled with chicken, cheese and salsa. Rather than deep-fried, it's pan cooked and has the texture of a crepe.

One bite and the revelation hits you: Cisneros is an artisan who has bravely chosen to serve authentic cuisine from her homeland even though it eschews the Canadian and American notion of Mexican food. One bite and you know you will put La Cocina de Mama Oli on your recommended list whenever someone asks you where to eat in Victoria.

"I'm very proud of the cuisine from my home and I wanted to bring those recipes here. It's not always easy because some people have this idea of what they think Mexican food is and what I do here in my kitchen can be different than what they're used to," says Cisneros, who you immediately sense is a warm-hearted woman chasing her culinary dream.

Fast-food restaurants and middle-of-the-road chains have made many consumers believe Mexican food is fast, greasy, unhealthy fare. When done right, though, it's among the most complex cuisines in the world, with flavours that are at once sweet, spicy, salty and satisfying.

Cisneros does it right and she does it amid kindred spirits. La Cocina de Mama Oli is one of about 10 small, distinct eateries inside the Victoria Public Market.

Among the roster is Sutra, one of the Vij's empire of restaurants. It's the pet project of Mike Bernardo, the award-winning sommelier and front-of-house manager at Vij's in Vancouver. Sutra sells Vij's packaged food products as well as delicious plates prepared in its kitchen. If you are unable to make it to one of Vikram Vij's more well-known restaurants on the mainland, Sutra will more than suffice. Among the dishes you can only have at Sutra are poutine with lamb curry and cassava fries ($10.50) and a thick and messy Sloppy Joe ($9). Sutra is the only restaurant in the public market with a liquor licence -- a status that Bernardo says took many months of dealing with city officials to attain -- and it serves wine and Vancouver Island beer.

"We had been looking at opening a Vij's restaurant in Victoria for a while and this was the right space, and what they've done with the market is a really good match for what we wanted to do," Bernardo notes.

The market is in a designated heritage building that was built in 1914 and had been a Hudson's Bay Company department store for generations. The Bay closed in the late 1990s and the building remained mostly vacant up until the market project was initiated.

It celebrated its first anniversary in September with a big bash and was also a host venue for the Rifflandia Music Festival. The market's aim is to promote local produce. Several days a week there are vendors who occupy the main concourse, selling hand-crafted edible items, along with fruits and vegetables.

"The mandate of the market is to create opportunities for farmers to vend their products all year round, so for that reason it is very much a food-focused market," says Drew Coleman, program manager for the facility.

For tourists, though, the draw is the food selection that is always on offer.

One spot you will want to save room for is the Victoria Pie Co. It creates savoury and dessert pies, including hand pies -- flat pastries shaped to be cradled in your palm. A couple of doors down is Cowichan Bay Seafood, which sells fresh-caught fish as well as prepared dishes like seafood chowder ($5.75-$10) and cajun fish tacos ($10.99).

Meanwhile, Silk Road is a beloved 22-year-old tea merchant with a primary location in Victoria's Chinatown. At the public market, it is the first retailer you will encounter when you walk in from the main entrance on Douglas Street. Silk Road stands out because its global selection is from sustainably harvested tea leaves and it also includes a variety called Berry Victoria, the first commercially produced tea on Vancouver Island.

Another merchant with long-standing roots in the area is Salt Spring Island Cheese, which has been selling its unique flavours of goat cheese since 1996. The store in Victoria features a sampling station that has helped win over visitors.

"People didn't realize they liked goat cheese then they tried ours and they were hooked," says Carrie Sullivan, a sales associate for the cheese shop. She notes that people who are lactose intolerant are particularly happy to discover Salt Spring Island Cheese because "there is a similar enzyme in goat milk that is like human milk, so people who can't digest cow's milk can eat goat cheese. For people with allergies, it is like being in Disneyland. They get to eat cheese and ice cream and all that good stuff that they can't usually have."

Among the products are eight varieties of chèvre, three kinds of camembert, two feta cheeses and delicious goat's-milk ice cream. The cheese is made on Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and one that is accessible by ferry or float plane.

Perhaps the most intriguing vendor at the market is Island Spice Trade, founded by Andrew Shepherd of the Vancouver Island Salt Co. Shepherd won the national Globe and Mail Small Business Challenge, providing him with $100,000 to expand his business.

A funny, irreverent guy, Shepherd is also deeply passionate about his craft. He creates some of the most unique salts you'll ever taste and you will find yourself purchasing a couple of varieties once you have a sample. The flavours include roasted garlic, bay sea salt that's ideal when paired with chocolate, and a wildly imaginative blue-cheese salt.

"Somebody told me I couldn't make my own salt on the island and I tried it. So, I won a bet for beer," says Shepherd, before informing that the process is a lot more involved and cerebral than he lets on.

It took him two years before he got the flavour he wanted and in so doing he gained an appreciation for both salt-making and the properties of Vancouver Island.

"I stumbled into making salt and making it in a place that doesn't have a history of doing it, but what Vancouver Island has is some of the cleanest, most beautiful water in the world and a lot more minerals than most people realize," he says. "For that reason what we're able to create is world-class stuff."

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