Fresh Eats: The State of S.F.’s Street Food

In May 2009, when I started as SFoodie editor, the first few carts in the Mission's new wave of street vending had just begun selling in places like tiny Linda Street. Later that summer, I described a typical scene at Mission Pool; vendors like Magic Curry Kart, Sexy Soup Lady, and Gobba Gobba Hey would tweet the location as “the place under the mural,” so police and health inspectors scanning Twitter feeds wouldn't know where to swoop down. Except when they did.

The city's food media didn't exactly know how to cover the spring happenings that became a summer phenomenon. Another local food site suggested SFoodie was naïve for devoting SF Weekly's blog space to a handful of nonchefs who'd set up the equivalent of lemonade stands. How could this collection of card tables and rickety carts in any way be the heir to the great street-food cultures of Asia or Mexico?

They weren't, of course. Still, we sensed a movement. We tried to be diligent about reporting on every new cart startup, every laid-off tech worker with plenty of free time and a hunger for connection with a subculture who'd hit the streets with a butane burner and a concept. Many disappeared almost as soon as they launched. Remember That Guy's Fries? How about Mr. Baklava?

But the zeitgeist was catching up. In August, 2009, before that month's game-changing pair of food fests — the SF Street Food Festival and Eat Real, which just wrapped up their 2010 events — I wondered if the new cart scene wasn't, in fact, the heir to Slow Food. After all, the original political and cultural movement had its founding myth in a potluck organized in Rome in 1985: Citizens pissed off about a McDonald's opening on the Spanish Steps protested by bringing food out of their houses, sitting down at group tables, and sharing. It was a bit like the Mission's Friday night cart scenes, with their whiff of rave-era flash gatherings, the sense of danger that came with fear of discovery by the authorities.

A year later, the streets have witnessed an amazing transformation. Thanks to the efforts of Caleb Zigas of La Cocina and Matt Cohen of the San Francisco Cart Project, we have a better understanding of the forces that have prevented San Francisco from developing a viable street-food culture: an inexplicably expensive and convoluted permitting process, plus politically powerful restaurant owners, who view even the humblest bacon-wrapped hot dog as competition. What had happened a decade ago in Oakland's Fruitvale District, where community organizer Emilia Otero advocated for fruit vendors and taqueros to create a protected business zone, and a cooperative that allowed modestly funded frutero startups to share resources — none of that seemed possible in San Francisco.

Until now. Maybe, thanks to a willingness by Supervisor Bevan Dufty to at least re-examine the permitting tangle that can string up aspiring mobile food vendors. And thanks also to just how broke San Francisco's Rec and Park Department is. This year, in a bid to raise cash, it has allowed some vendors contracts to sell in city parks. And it gave Matt Cohen the green light to operate weekly Off the Grid street-food happenings in three parks. Even Whole Foods is making a play for street-food glamour.

And the summer of 2010 has become what Jonathan Kauffman dubbed the Summer of Truck in San Francisco. It seemed like the beginning of the summer saw a new truck launch each week: Hapa SF, Chairman Bao, Southern Sandwich, Senor Sisig, TaKorea, 51st State, SF Crispy Tacos, the Taco Guys, IZ-IT, Ebbet's Good to Go.

What's remarkable, besides the sheer number of new vendors, is how San Francisco street food is carrying the latest wave of fusion cooking. In the '80s and '90s, fusion was essentially French cuisine tricked out with Asian ingredients, something mostly white chefs created. Today, in San Francisco, some of the most vibrant cooking is from young Asian-American chefs — some inspired by Roy Choi's rainbow fleet of Kogi Korean BBQ trucks in L.A. — tweaking the food they grew up with, framing it in tacos, sandwiches, or burritos. It's food, frankly, that brick-and-mortar restaurants aren't serving, a need they're not serving, a movement sprouting like weeds in sidewalk cracks.

Take the city's extraordinary nuevo Filipino food movement we've been documenting at SFoodie. A year ago, Adobo Hobo and Lumpia Cart began feeding a hunger for more accessible Filipino food unhampered by restaurant infrastructure. Now there are MaliNumNum, Mr. Arroz Caldo, and Senor Sisig. Today, Hapa SF's William Pilz is serving food that's among the city's most vibrant. Until a year ago, he was chef of Citizen Cake. He launched a food truck, digging down into his Filipino roots to create a contemporary take on his mom's cooking that takes the farm-to-table ethos for granted. It's the same with Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen, a former Nopa sous chef. He's interpreting ramen in a style that feels distinctly Californian, but that speaks to the desire for authenticity that is electrifying everything from what we raise in our gardens to what we're putting up in jars.

And while the street-food scene of summer 2010 is more and more being driven by chefs — and there's a risk that it could calcify into something precious and too expensive — the new wave of San Francisco street food has created a remarkable moment, serving inevitably from the people who live and eat here.

Is it all delicious? No. Will businesses fail? Of course they will. But much the way the taco trucks of Fruitvale serve up a neighborhood's needs and desires on a disposable plate, the new vendors of San Francisco — unconsciously — are steeped in the populism expressed in that myth of Slow Food's founding potluck in Rome. What does democracy taste like? Can't say I know — except I'm pretty sure it's served up in a taco.

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