Nouveau Street Food

Maybe a down economy makes it more attractive and maybe social media makes it easier and even edgier, but one thing is certain — street food is booming in America. And, it’s not just booming, it’s gone upscale and trendy. San Francisco has dozens of mobile vendors who serve food from trucks or carts or tents. These are not your father’s taco trucks where you grabbed a quick burrito or sandwich for lunch. Collectively, these vendors serve a huge variety of great food at reasonable prices.

01) OTG-Fort Mason (Z28-12-727)

On Friday evenings, the Fort Mason parking lot is a street food bonanza; it’s the largest street food gathering in San Francisco. We went last night for the first time, and it was pretty amazing. There were 14 food trucks, 13 food tents or carts, plus a bar (run by Magnolia Brewery). The trucks and carts were arranged in a circle, creating a perimeter wall with a monitored entrance. This is a requirement for serving alcohol, but it reminded me of those old western movies where the pioneers circled their wagons to fend off an attack by Indians? Well, circling the wagons has a whole new meaning now.

There were hundreds of people at the Fort Mason gathering and more were streaming in by the minute. The crowd, the sights, the aroma and taste of the food, the 3-piece band playing vibrant South American music — it was sensory overload. The clever names of some of the vendors added to the lighthearted vibe. 

02) Curry Up Now (Z28-12-707)

Among those we saw last night were Curry Up Now, Seoul on Wheels, Señor Sisig, Chaac Mool, the Crème Brulee Man, Kung Fu Tacos, and Chairman Bao. The latter two are hugely popular and had really long lines.


03) El Porteño Empanada (Z28-12-713)04) Kung Fu Tacos (Z28-12-716)

The place was packed with a mostly young crowd including lots of families with children. After a bit, we managed to get three empty chairs and sat down. We got a couple of excellent empanadas (carne and pollo) from El Porteño and our nephew, Brian, got a fish taco from Kung Fu Tacos. We washed it all down with beer, and topped it off with a bag of popcorn from Peter's Kettle Corn.


«««« Pollo empanada from El Porteño

«««« Fish taco from Kung Fu Tacos

The Friday evening gatherings at Fort Mason don’t just magically happen; they are organized and promoted by Off the Grid, an organization run by Matthew Cohen. Off the Grid advances the art of street food by organizing events, helping with logistics and the permit process, and assisting with social media. Their website advertises the events and provides a street food finder to locate specific vendors.

The nouveau street food phenomenon probably couldn’t happen without the help of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and websites like Off the Grid all play a role in letting people know what’s available and when and where they can find it. Here are the street food websites for San Francisco: 

 - Off the Grid - details about weekly and special events, and current location of individual vendors (Facebook).

 - Roaming Hunger - lists vendors and the kinds of food they serve and current location information.

 - Mobimunch - details about specific food trucks and carts; provides them with an online community

 - SF Cart Project - street food news and information for vendors. (also run by Off the Grid’s owner, Matthew Cohen)

06) Sam's Chowder-GGP (Z28-12-730)07) Taco Truck Lunch (Z28-12-499)

The quality of street food has moved way beyond the days when we lovingly called food trucks “ptomaine wagons.” The food is every bit as good as restaurant food, and, in fact, some of the trucks are operated by top chefs and restaurants. The French restaurant, Chez Spencer, operates a mobile bistro called Spencer to Go, and the Argentine restaurant, El Porteño, serves wonderful handmade empanadas from its cart.

Yelp and Gayot (guy-OH) even have ratings for street food. Gayot has a list of the top 10 food trucks in San Francisco and a list of the top 5 food trucks in the US. Not surprisingly, Spencer to Go is on the top 5 list.

The street food phenomenon is just really getting started in San Francisco. Other cities, like Seattle, Portland, and LA are ahead of us. This is partly because San Francisco has a pretty rigid and expensive permit process. You can’t just get a truck or cart and start selling food on the streets, and that’s both good news and bad news. The permit process (run by the Department of Public Works) limits our access to street food, but it also helps keep the food safe and keeps our restaurants from being unfairly overrun by low overhead competition.

Street food isn’t just for quick, cheap lunches anymore. It’s gone trendy and upscale; mobile food gatherings — complete with food, drinks and entertainment — are now destinations themselves. Evening gatherings are becoming more and more common. In San Francisco, Off the Grid organizes evening gatherings in the Upper Haight (Thursdays), Fort Mason (Fridays), and McCoppin (Saturdays). There are also smaller gatherings and individual vendors scattered around the city.



Giving credit where credit is due:

Coming to Terms With a Street Food Boom - By Tara Duggan, February 25, 2010

San Francisco food truck empire expanding - By Andrew S. Ross, February 18, 2011

Off the Grid trucks offer haute street food - By Janny Hu, April 13, 2011

© Virginia E. Vail 2012