The modern restaurant didn't just spring into being, fully formed — even something so basic as bringing individual plates to the table in courses, known in the industry as service à la russe, was itself a disruptive dining model when it was introduced to 19th-century Paris. Today we have dozens of food service options, each evolved out of a specific need: food courts and vending machines, cafeterias and concession stands, prix-fixe and takeout. As food trucks and pop-ups have transitioned from a novelty to a trend, the natural next step is their integration into the more defined dining landscape.
Unlike temporary food truck gatherings like Off the Grid or the more permanent pods in Portland and Austin, SOMA StrEat Food Park feels like more than a parking lot for food trucks. It's separated from the street by a chain-link fence and plenty of greenery, and a feel-good soundtrack drowns out any noise from the adjacent freeway. Up to 10 trucks circle the perimeter like chuck wagons, and they change by the meal. Picnic tables are arranged in clusters that feel almost like rooms; most are housed in a red corrugated metal barn, which is heated. There's a bar (currently a pop-up with a catering permit only open on weekends, but a beer and wine permit is in the works), an ATM, bathrooms, two large TV screens, and a laid-back, almost festival-like atmosphere. It's an environment designed to make you want to spend time there.
Lunch is the busiest time; there are plenty of offices within walking distance, and the rotating menu breaks the monotony of the lunch routine. Most of the nine trucks there on that day were known for their heavy food, the kind that can kill your afternoon productivity — Curry Up Now's chicken tikka masala burrito ($6), VooDoo Van's shrimp po'boy ($7), IZ IT Fresh Grill's fried chicken drumsticks ($5). But the banh mi from Little Green Cyclo ($6.50) made for a glorious midday meal, with pork redolent of lemongrass and wood smoke, bread crispy but still soft, and toppings crunchy and bright with cilantro. Best of all, it didn't bring on a food coma.
At brunch on a Saturday, the park was filled with families. Meaty sandwiches from La Pastrami ($9) or kalua pork sliders from the Slider Shack ($4) seemed too intense for breakfast, but the crab cake sandwich from The Fish Tank ($12) would have been at home on most city brunch menus. It was moist, lightly crabby, tangy with Louis dressing, and set on a pillowy bun. But there wasn't any coffee. Not at the bar, not at Golden Waffle, not at Cookie Time, and its absence was keenly felt. A cup of coffee is so universal on restaurant menus that we take it for granted; since each food truck is an independent business, the park needs a better organizational structure to ensure that such needs are provided for.
Even when the park is slow, like it was at dinner the next night, ordering food with a group is a hassle. Everyone scattered to one of the five trucks to forage for dinner, and then had to wait for their orders separately. It was a good 15 minutes before we reconvened and some of the food was cold. The dinner we cobbled together was good, but inconsistent. Mushroom lasagna from Raavling ($9) was more like lasagna custard, but cheesy enough to satisfy even if the accompanying salad greens were under-dressed. Sunrise Deli's falafel ($9 for a plate) — No. 4 on SFoodie's favorite things to eat and drink in the city this year — exceeded high expectations, but the chicken shawarma ($12) was dry. An elk sausage from Missing Link ($9) had an audible snap and nice kick from jalapeños, though its standard-issue hot dog bun split under the weight of the toppings and required a trip back to the trucks for extra napkins.
But no one at the table had eaten elk before, and the potential for new discoveries is part of the fun of food trucks — even if it means sacrificing some of the convenience and consistency of a brick-and-mortar establishment. A centralized menu and ordering system would smooth out the experience, as would a central repository of napkins and utensils. Still, the biggest charm and challenge of the park is that every truck operates independently. Once you start creating regulations and bureaucracy, you lose some of the spontaneity.
The park recently announced that it will stay open until 4 a.m. on weekends, and it's easy to imagine an after-hours crowd gathering for desserts and drunk food under the twinkling café lights. No restaurant can be everything to everyone; for now, SOMA StrEat Food Park is best suited for times like lunch and late-night when our expectations are lower, though founder Carlos Muela has plans for dinner that include movie screenings and theme nights. The park's got the flexibility to become the ultimate restaurant mash-up, and the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of the food truck owners to make it a reality. It's moved beyond the parking lot; we'll have to see how much further it evolves.