Nobody would deny that San Francisco, an intimate, walkable city that attracts (and needs) millions of tourists annually, is famed as a gastronomic destination. An estimated 3,000 restaurants dot the streets of its modest seven square miles. In any list of great national or international restaurant cities, San Francisco shows up, often very near the top. Trends start here that sweep the country and the world (California cuisine, anyone? Or local, sustainable, seasonal, and organic?)
But in one area San Francisco falls perplexingly short: It's not a great city for street food. Oh, there are justly famed taco trucks, sidewalk vendors, and stands that are known to savvy food enthusiasts — we highlight ten of our favorites in the upcoming pages. (Too many of them, alas, pop up at once-or-twice-a-week farmers' markets, turning them into destination treats rather than dependable and affordable daily encounters.)
In looking for what San Francisco's street food offers, we tried to find out why there are relatively few vendors out there. It's inconceivable to think of instituting something like New York City's annual Vendy Awards for its top five street vendors. New York City has a quota of 3,000 street-food licenses, perpetually full, with a years-long waiting list.
Senior inspector Rodney G. Ong of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which inspects, licenses, and issues permits to all pushcarts and taco trucks (which also must be issued permits by the police department and permitted and inspected by the fire department), estimated there were only a hundred or so licenses. But a list he provided included 120 active pushcarts, of which 71 are inside AT&T Park, a venue outside our purview because only ticketholders can access them. That leaves 49 out on the streets.
In addition, there are 30 trucks on private property, which gives certain privileges beyond the requirements imposed on those on public property. These rules include leaving 10 unobstructed feet of pedestrian passage, not being within 18 inches of a curb, not stopping on sidewalks with colored curbs, not being within 12 feet of a building's entrance, and not selling food available in restaurants within 600 feet. Entrepreneurs complain that year-round licenses forbid cooking on the carts, so food can't be fresh but must be prepared ahead and reheated, whereas temporary permits issued for street fairs and carnivals allow it.
If there are so many regulations that more street cart or truck locations are ruled out, our public parks may be perfect places for them. But there are few carts in the parks: Golden Gate Park's 1,017 acres, incredibly, harbor only four. Margot Shaub of San Francisco Recreation and Parks said ideas for more are being explored, but, of course, San Francisco has its regulations. "We'd love to have vendors in Dolores Park, for example, but you're not allowed to sell from a cart within 1,500 feet of a school, and Mission High School is located right across the street," she says. "But we're trying to work something out there." She is excited about new vendors, such as the Happy Belly carts in Golden Gate Park, which offer "sustainable, organic, healthy items," and mentions a planned stand at the Crocker Amazon soccer fields in the Excelsior district.
In Los Angeles, local restaurateurs recently banded together to get the police to crack down on unlicensed bacon-wrapped-hot-dog carts and other vendors, but there's no such official restaurant-led movement here. Kevin Westley, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, says his group supports street vendors as long as they're licensed and pass quarterly inspections. He muses that there are so few because there are "so many very small restaurant spaces available in San Francisco, where you can do much better and ambitious food than you can in a cart or a truck." But with rents and expenses increasing, plus the new health insurance requirements, shouldn't carts be a viable option?
Still, some excellent and ambitious food is available from street purveyors in pockets of the city, from the Ferry Building to Fisherman's Wharf and from Crissy Field to Alemany. In the Mission, there are the popular El Tonayense trucks on Harrison; the Goza Goza truck offering grilled Cubano sandwiches at Harrison and 25th Street; the excellent Guatemalan Antojitos San Miguel at the 16th Street BART station (see story on page 17); the peripatetic Tamale Lady, helping to sober up lucky barflies; and roving paletas (ice cream and fruit bar sellers), grilled corn, and, yes, unlicensed bacon-wrapped-hot-dog sellers, who generally show up on weekends between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
At Joseph P. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza in front of City Hall, there's Annie's Hot Dogs. When the parking lot on the north side of Hyde below Van Ness gave notice to Los Compadres Taco Trucks, its patrons complained to the press, and its lease has been extended. Union Square (where you wish tourists could get a glimpse of S.F.'s ethnic diversity) hosts rather standard-issue hot dog carts in front of Macy's on Geary and the Levi's store on Post. Hot dogs made from grass-fed beef are sold at the Let's Be Frank carts outside AT&T Park and at the Warming Hut at Crissy Field. Often left to the tourists, the seven Fisherman's Wharf purveyors on our top ten list turn out affordable, portable fresh seafood snacks.
The Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market boasts three of our top ten favorites as well as baked goods from the Downtown Bakery and Creamery, Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company, and Frog Hollow Farm; sandwiches from Aidells Sausage Company; and Sukhi's Quick-N-Ezee Indian Foods. On Wednesdays, the Heart of the City Market brings A Little Piece of Cake bakery (try the red velvet cupcakes and the sock-it-to-me cake), Waffle Mania, Art of Falafel Catering, All Star Tamales, Cater Time Bakery (with pina colada pastries), and two more that appear on our top ten list.
The uneven record at the Alemany Saturday Farmers' Market and Sunday Antiques and Collectibles Market has been revitalized by newcomers El Huarache Loco, which easily landed on the top ten list, and Estrellita's Snacks, offering Salvadoran pupusas and plantain and yuca chips.
But where are, say, Turkish doner kebabs, practically the official street food of Berlin? Or easily held meat pies from around the world: Russian piroshki, Latin American empanadas, Cornish pasties, British steak-and-kidney pies? Why no Dim Sum Alley, Pan Bagnat Zone, or Crepes Corner?
Beyond a re-examination and possible loosening up of regulations, what San Francisco needs is for more obsessed, determined foodies to take charge, like Sibella Kraus, the founding executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. She enlisted Hayes Street Grill owner Patti Unterman to set up a breakfast stand to entice people to the original Ferry Building farmers' market in 1991, long before the building was transformed into a foodie mecca.
Several street-food enthusiasts can be found on the staff of La Cocina Community Kitchen, a three-year-old small-business incubator that actively seeks women cooking and selling food "informally" (i.e., illegally). La Cocina helps them through the daunting process of becoming self-supporting entrepreneurs, including low-cost use of its 4,400-square-foot commercial kitchen. La Cocina's success stories include El Huarache Loco's Veronica Salazar; Isabel's El Buen Comer, serving homestyle Mexican food at the young Noe Valley Farmers' Market on Saturdays at 24th St. and Sanchez; and La Pupuseria Gemelos, from Luiz and Maribel Ochoa, the space being built at the aforementioned Crocker Amazon soccer fields.
Over the Labor Day weekend, a temporary street-food mecca will bloom across from City Hall. Slow on the Go, the street food component of Slow Food Nation '08, has a tentative lineup that includes local favorites Vik's, Primavera, Blue Bottle, Imperial Tea Court, Let's Be Frank, Fatted Calf, Bi-Rite Ice Cream, and Ici ice cream, alongside outlanders such as Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Edwards Virginia hams, Seattle's famed Salumi Artisan Cured Meats (made by Armandino Batali, Mario's father), and New York's old-school Italian sandwich purveyor Salumeria Biellese. Everything will cost $2 to $8. (For a list of proposed dishes, check our SFoodie blog.) Because this is a special event, all food will be freshly cooked. And visitors and San Franciscans can get a glimpse of what street food could be like here, in the best of all possible worlds.
Read more on SF's street food: