San Francisco's Street Eats Scene

by Sarah Henry on October 30, 2009 · 10 comments

in comfort food,food events,frugal gourmet,street food

magic.curry.kartOkay, so I’m a little obsessed with street food right now. First it was Oakland. Then Sydney. Last night it was time to check out the sidewalk scene in my old stomping ground San Francisco.

It was the call of the Creme Brulee Cart that beckoned me across the Bay on a night when there was no crossable bridge. (Anyway, it’s probably more authentic to show up for cart food via public transit vs. driving into town, don’t you think?)

But the venue for the street eats forum struck me as incongruous at first. I mean, The Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco is hardly a renegade, fly-by-night kinda operation, is it? Turns out a division of the club, Inforum, is designed to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings and spark “provocative dialogue and debate.”

Who knew? While the crowd skewed older and the discussion was thoughtful if relatively tame, it revealed some intriguing details about pavement cuisine.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Charles Phan looked into opening a street cart in Oakland, got put off by all the bureaucracy, and opened a Vietnamese restaurant on Valencia Street in San Francisco instead. Good news for devotees of Slanted Door, Out the Door, and newcomer Heaven’s Dog.
  • News accounts have focused largely on the assumption that the street food trend is booming because the economy is not and so folks are in search of cheap eats. That’s only part of the story. The street cart scene is also growing because lots of talented cooks — some professionals, some not — are un- or underemployed.  Steven Gdula, the freelance food writer behind Gobba Gobba Hey, turned to making baked goods (gobs are portable round cakes filled with cream originally from Phili and a little like a whoopie pie) because the bottom fell out of the media biz.  The man behind the Magic Curry Kart, Brian Kimball, announced he’s being laid off today from his job as a psychotherapist.
  • There’s a mighty fine sense of community among many street cart folk. They often band together to share their goodies on the go and generate some buzz and bucks at one location and readily promote each other’s offerings. The Gobba Gobba guy started flogging a fellow cart pusher’s pickled beans in a story shared last night. (At this point in the conversation, a jar of beans emerged from the audience and was immediately passed around for a taste test.)
  • In perhaps the ultimate display of street solidarity, at the post-discussion sample fest down at 111 Minna Gallery, street vendors sported t-shirts and signs that read: Free Murat: Street Food is Not Terrorism, in support of their fallen comrade, Murat Celebi-Ariner, the vendor known on the street as Amuse Bouche, by all accounts a charming French guy who sold muffins at 24th Street BART in the morning.  Murat Celebi-Ariner, was picked up by Homeland Security’s ICE agency on a visa violation and his deportation is imminent, according to a visibly distraught Gdula, who counts Celebi-Ariner as an early supporter of his sweet street treats.
  • While not every food hawker is a master chef, some gastronomy professionals like Mission Street Food‘s Anthony Myint, clearly pride themselves on showcasing their  techniques and talents in nomadic restaurant settings. We’re talking fancy food way beyond what the typical taco truck dishes up.
  • For some gourmands on the go, it’s important to give back to the community they serve. Mission Street Food contributes all profits to programs feeding the hungry. Kimball plans on reaching out to low-income communities and disadvantaged kids.
  • It’s tough out on the street, dodging health inspectors and police (who mostly want to make sure that sidewalks aren’t blocked and who, true to stereotype, appreciate the baked goodies), dealing with permits, insurance, and health & safety concerns.
  • Without Twitter, Facebook, and food blogs, this beloved food movement probably wouldn’t have taken off so fast or grown so large. Every cart vendor on the panel was helped along, early on, by social media. The Creme Brulee guy has 8,575 Twitter followers and counting as I type.
  • This bricks-and-mortar-less business looks like it’s not going away any time soon: Each week a new cart starts making the rounds In San Francisco, says panel moderator Tamara Palmer, a contributor to SF Weekly‘s street cart coverage.
  • Sampling street eats in a crowded bar/gallery with other cart-crazed folks is a lot of fun. Loved the caramel ice-cream from relative newbie Smitten Ice Cream. The delicacy of the Brussels sprouts canape from Mission Street Food was divine. Curry and creme brulee brothers didn’t disappoint. And the Soul Cocina concoction, that a couple standing in line willingly shared with me (thanks you two fellow food lovers), sung with so many different flavors it made me happy. Exactly what was in those little paper holders? Dried lentils, puffed rice, tamarind, pickled veggies, maybe? Can anyone fill in the missing ingredients for me?

And the final take-away message for the night, words to live by: Follow your passion. Do what you’re good at. Do it well. Good things will follow.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Romney Steele October 30, 2009 at 8:01 am

Awesome post my friend-but WHY didn’t you take me?? YUM! Impressed with your solo journeys and love the “take-away” message. I read about that French guy making muffins months ago-ugh! What a total drag; I thought his story was so cool, so “American” as my French stepmother would say (she used to think we should go in reverse-to France-and make and sell chocolate chip cookies on the sidewalk.)

There’s a street cart on Piedmont Ave most Fridays in the past month or so-way at the end towards the cemetery across from the new wine bar on the corner of 51st. Want to do a meet and greet?

Nani

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Sarah Henry December 3, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Yes Ms. Nani,

When you’re back from your book tour lets go grab some cart chow together.

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Anna November 1, 2009 at 7:59 pm

How fun! What a fun story. I never knew there were so many street carts. 8,000 twitters sounds like quite a following! I’m so wrapped up in the farmers’ markets, I have never figured out the twitter thing. Someday, I’ll buy a meal from a cart vendor and think of this story.

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Kia November 4, 2009 at 10:31 am

Very cool!

Can you do one on the East Bay street food scene? I hear there are some good folks who roll up to Pixar daily…

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Sarah Henry December 3, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for the suggestion, Kia & check out my November post on the E Bay street food scene. Enjoy!

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