Thursday, November 24, 2011

Hugh Schick's brewtruc Ready to Hit the Road

Hugh Schick pours Pine Street Brewery's Guardian Ale
On Thanksgiving eve a random group of beer crazies lucky enough to find their way to Hugh Schick's "brewtruc" for its friends-and-family launch got to taste the future within its comfortable confines. We came away mentally and physically buzzed, the latter with not a little help from Pine Street Brewery's toothsome 7.5% abv Guardian "dubbel" style ale.

I previously blogged about Schick's plan to go where no food truck operator has ever gone before, namely extending the freewheeling concept to beer, the Staff of Life. To recap, the brewtruc (Hugh eschews capital letters) is a pub on wheels, in which beer mavens can legally enjoy the best "craft" beers, both famous and obscure, even while in transit. The brewtruc achieves this by operating under limousine licensing provisions of the California Public Utilities Commission, in which persons purchasing excursions may legally be served alcoholic refreshments of their or Hugh Schick's choosing -- provided, of course, that they are of legal age.

To create this beer drinkers' Dream Machine, Hugh has taken a vintage yellow school bus and transformed it into a black beauty akin to his past venture, the le truc "bustaurant" but with a cushier interior (we're not talking quick lunch here). There's a bar with six beer taps and a sound system.  Looking ahead, Hugh also had six taps installed on the outside of the bus, in hopes of providing "beer garden" service once institutional obstacles are cleared.

Celebrants at the brewtruc's soft launch
Operating under the PUC's purview confers another, potentially huge advantage on the brewtruc: it allows Hugh to serve products from nascent "nanobrewers" still stuck behind bureaucratic logjams preventing them from showcasing their wares in bricks-and-mortar drinking establishments. This is great news for hardcore craft beer fans, since it will give them a convenient forum to taste and spot the great beers of the future from local (or not) brewers.  You can bet that Schick, with his well-developed beer sensors and generous nature will curate some great beer-tasting rosters for the truck, with a resulting boost for deserving brewers.

One good example of a nanobrewer "rising with a bullet" (well, those newfangled beer kegs do look like bullets) is Jay Holliday's Pine Street Brewery, which provided the beer for last night's systems tests.  It was the first time I have caught up any of their brews, and will  most likely be chasing down others, whether they come from the brewtruc's taps or someone else's.

You can keep up with this pilgrim's progress (and snag a seat for an event while you still can) through the brewtruc's Facebook page.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Burmese Gourmet Truck is a Diamond, er, Jade in the Rough

When Jonathan Kauffman reviewed the Burmese Gourmet truck last week in SF Weekly's SFoodie Blog, checking it out went straight to the top of my to-do list and today that done got did. I'd call it a gem in the rough, not on account of the food (which appears ready to go, though rustically presented) but because it's currently operating from a borrowed truck with makeshift signage, and is restricted to the host truck's permitted parking location in front of 290 Townsend St.  The menu apparently changes daily, and today's featured Prawns Chin Baung, Chicken Biryani Basmati Rice, and Burmese Tea Leaf Salad (presumably a daily offering).  I chose the "Prawns Chin Baung," pictured above. Chin Baung is Burmese Sorrel Leaf (a. k. a. Roselle) and the dish consisted of eight smallish prawns (I'd call them shrimp) sauteed with the sorrel in a mildly spicy sauce on a mountain of very coconutty coconut rice.  It was accompanied by a garnish of peanuts and dried anchovy (ikan bilis) and a spciy slaw.  Overall it was a satisfying meal with an interesting combination of flavors, and a bargain at $5.00.  I'd certainly order it again, though perhaps not before trying out whatever else the truck's chef comes up with.

According to Kauffman's review, Burmese Gourmet's owner was the original owner of Burma Superstar, a couple of ownerships prior to its current wildly successful regime.  Let's hope he sticks with his new venture. Once he gets his own truck vetted and gussied up a bit, it could prove to be a popular attraction at any food truck venue.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

If You're Not Hungry, Don't Tuk With the Phat Thai Truck

My culinary stars were lined up with noodle planets today, and I set out on a mission: swing by McCoppin Hub and check out the debut of the Phat Thai truck and sample something noodly, then head over to UN Plaza where TomKatSF had tweeted he would be doing noodles at an event. A couple of servings of food truck noodles in an afternoon -- should be easy, right?  Well, Phat Thai had other ideas.

I found the Phat Thai truck in full flower at McCoppin Hub, parked on the bike lane side.  Although it's a brand new operation, the warm, soft colors of the truck's wrap gave it a familiar feel, the feel of having been around for a while. So did its marketing presence; it had a teasing slogan, "Wanna Tuk With Us?"  and point-of-sale merchandise (tee shirts and Tuk-tuk logo decals).  But what about the food? Was it ready for prime time? I had, in fact sampled some of Phat Thai's food a few weeks earlier when it was taste-tested by Off the Grid staff and came away with a favorable impression based on a few nibbles. What I was not prepared for was the portion size.

Phat Thai's regular menu (painted on the truck) includes Pad Thai, Phat Wings, Phat Satay Skewers, Som Tum Salad and Tom Kha Gai.  A sandwich board menu also offered sliders, a nod to the Food Truck 2.0 world. Since I was on a noodle tear, I ordered the Pad Thai with chicken ($7.00)  It was also available with a vegetable topping for the same price, or with prawns for $2 more.

After a brief wait, my boxed order came and I was almost taken aback by its heft.  It was one of the biggest servings of food I have ever received from a food truck, certainly the most food I've had put in my hands for as little as $7.00 at an Off the Grid event, and it would easily serve as dinner.  I haven't been around Thai food enough to know what constitutes a good Pad Thai (and my friends who do give me conflicting information anyway) but I found it tasty and satisfying.  The noodles (once I found them under a mountain of diced chicken) were not overly sticky, the one thing I have sometimes disliked in Pad Thai I have been served. There was a generous amount of egg and tofu as well, and the bean sprouts were fresh and crispy.  I ate every bite; noodles from the TomKatSF truck will have to wait.

Check our the Phat Thai truck.  Just be advised that ordering the Pad Thai is not grazing.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ten Bay Area Food Trucks I Would Invite to My Next Wedding

William Pilz of HapaSF and Julia Yoon of Seoul on Wheels with Off the Grid bouncer Kevlar
For the record, this is a hypothetical exercise.  I’m happily married for the third time, and I agree with Ju Ju (I’m also her third) that to get divorced a third time would mean, well, “no face.”  So the above title is just a hook, unless someone out there has an offer I can’t refuse.

This post was inspired by news that a credit card company has sponsored a competition called the “Eater’s Choice Awards” and has named their 10 finalists, selected through an on-line voting process which provided plenty of opportunity for ballot stuffing.  Miraculously, Seoul on Wheels, Little Green Cyclo, and Senor Sisig, who fully deserve the honor, made the cut, but overall the results were dominated by American comfort food providers, sort of a Drunk Food Hall of Fame, if you ask me. I’m not a fan of “best” lists (it’s all good to me, except when it’s not) but the Eater’s Choice competition list of finalists set me to pondering what ten trucks I would be most likely to invite to a party.  Here are my choices for today (some are so close I might change my mind tomorrow).  They are based on cooking skills, variety, service and general good vibes emanating from the operations.  Other than placing Julia of Seoul on Wheels on the throne, nothing is to be read into the order in which I have listed them.

Seoul on Wheels – This one is a no-brainer.  Seoul on Wheel’s Julia Yoon is no less than the doyenne of the Food Truck 2.0 movement in the Bay Area, and perhaps for all of California.  She didn’t invent the Korean taco, but was sticking bulgogi into sandwiches and other places as far back as mid-2007, well more than a year before the vaunted Kogi Truck hit the road in Los Angeles.  Tacos, “Korritos” or sandwiches, however you like ‘em, Julia’s got ‘em.

Hapa SF – I’ve blogged before about the role of food trucks in bringing under-appreciated Filipino cuisine to a wider audience in San Francisco, and we are lucky to have no less than three Filipino food trucks appearing on a regular basis on out streets.  My nod goes to William Pilz’ Hapa SF for his deft, trained chef’s touch (try his sisig rice plate) and for the lumpia his mother taught him to make, but both Senor Sisig and The Wow Silog trucks would be worthy backups.

Sanguchon – We have the Inca gods (and Chef Carlos Altamirano) to thank for dropping this Peruvian sandwich truck in our midst.  It’s something I haven’t even seen in New York, with its much deeper reservoir of Peruvians and Peruvian cuisine.  Try a barbacoa, chicharron or lomo saltado “sanguche” or whatever else they happen to on offer from the truck.  They’re all as hearty as they are tasty and some come with built-in fries a la the Primanti brothers.  Rumor has it that they soon will be serving ceviche as well.

Brass*Knuckle Gotta get a “New American” option in the mix, and Brass*Knuckle is my choice by a coin flip.  Shellie Kitchen’s creations are as inventive as their names.  Try the M. C. Hammer, a pulled pork sandwich with a scoop of mac ‘n’ cheese (the “M. C.” part) as a topping, or the Notorious P. I. G., Brass*Knuckle’s take on a Cubano sandwich, but with a waffle as a bun.  My backup in the “New American” category would be Todd Middleton’s Fins on the Hoof, which might be dealing anything from an Oyster B. L. T. to a Wild Boar Sausage Sandwich.

Iz It Fresh Grill – It wouldn’t be my wedding without Chinese food, and Kamyn Kong’s handsome truck brings both tradition and innovation to the party. Go for iconic Kwon Shing fried chicken (a Richmond District legend she and her husband revived, or for a Hawaii tinged taco or a jumbo musubi like “The Spammer.”  It might not be on the menu, but if you like spice heat, ask for “The Uncle Spammer.”

Little Green Cyclo -- Chef Quynh Nguyen, Monica Wong and Susie Pham would be there to tempt you with Vietnamese street food using choice ingredients.   How about a vermicelli with lemon grass pork bento, or (when available) some Vietnamese spring rolls, washed down with a Vietnamese iced coffee.  LGC also serves up the best (and most reasonably priced) banh mi you’ll find from a food truck in the Bay Area.  I recommend the sandwich with house-made pate in combination with lemongrass pork.

El Norteno – El Norteno is not a Food Truck 2.0 truck, it’s a “traditional” taco truck and perhaps the best one on the West side of the Bay. They’ve been dealing burritos, tacos, tortas, nachos -- you name it, they’ve got it – South of Market for years to a happy clientele.  Anything with goat or lamb is highly recommended.

KoJa Kitchen – The KoJa Kitchen truck (a. k. a. The New Kids on the block) hit the streets a mere month ago, but is already waking up taste buds around the bay.  Its “KoJas” are burgers of sorts with Korean-inspired fillings and toasted rice patty buns which combine to a pleasing mélange of textures to go with the bold flavors.  Add an order of Kamikaze fries, which might be described as Asian nachos with waffle fries as a base.

Liba Falafel – “Hey, where’s your vegetarian option?”  Nearly all of the trucks have vegetarian options, Sparky, but since you asked, look no further than the Liba Falafel truck.  Gail Lillian, former chef and pastry cook, serves up freshly made falafel in pita bread or in a bowl of greens, with a co-starring condiment bar with more than a dozen freshly-made toppings.  There’s no more fun way to get your veggie on! 

Curry Up Now – Curry Up Now is another food truck that’s become a local institution (nay, a mini-empire with three trucks and a bricks-and-mortar venue all serving up Indian food).  They were one of the first to prove to the doubters that there was more to Food Truck 2.0 food than pricey nibbles, with a Chicken Tikka Masala Burrito that rivals a Mission Burrito for heft, (and if you ask for it spicy it will be spicy).

Mentioned: @seoulonwheels, @HapaSF, @Sanguchon_SF, @Brassknucklesf, @IZITfreshgrill, @lilgreencyclo, @ElNortenoTruck, @KoJaKitchen, @LIBAfalafel, @CurryUpNow

Banh Mi from Little Green Cyclo

Friday, September 30, 2011

Chairman Bao Creator Movin' On Uptown

Original Baohaus Location on Rivington Street
Well, not too far uptown.  New York restaurateur, gonzo blogger and Four Loko aficionado Eddie Huang revealed today that he would be closing his original Baohaus location at 137 Rivington Street and moving operations about a mile uptown to 238 East 14th Street where a second Baohaus location has just undergone a successful shakedown period.  The original Baohaus grabbed New York by the, er, buns in late 2009 when Eddie un-David-Chang-ed the post-modern pork bun and turned it towards its Taiwanese gua bao roots.  He created the “Chairman Bao” with Berkshire pork belly braised in soy sauce and cherry cola and served with crushed peanuts, cilantro, Taiwanese red sugar and house relish.  His creations earned him the “Best Bun” accolade in the New York Magazine’s Best of New York issue.

The Chairman Bao
Eddie’s “Chairman Bao” also became the subject of a yet-to-be-resolved bicoastal tiff when a group of chain restaurant veterans on the West coast decided, a few months later, to get into the food truck business and seized on the name “Chairman Bao” for one of their trucks as a clever hook to hang some hype on.  Eddie Huang’s howls of outrage could be heard all the way to the Pacific, and another Bay Area food truck subsequently offered to host a “bao-off” between the Chairman Bao creator and the Chairman Bao truck operators.  This never occurred because, according to my sources, the truck peple would have none of it.

Eddie Huang and Gary Soup, May 2010
Baohaus' original subterranean digs, seen at the top of this post, were welcoming and cozy, but ultimately too small for Eddie Huang’s personality and his army of admirers.  For a time, he tried to simultaneously run a more ambitious eatery, Xiao Ye, but eventually threw in the towel when both Sam Sifton and his own mother pointedly suggested that he might not be as long on attention span as he is on talent.  His newest incarnation of Baohaus appears to be more ambitious than Baohaus 1.0 but still oriented toward xiao chi, or small eats. (You can read that as “drunk food” if you like but I suspect it will be s few notches above that.)  Closing the original location will allow Eddie and brother Evan to devote full time to Baohaus 2.0. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to checking it out on my next trip to NY around Thanksgiving.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Who loves ya, baby? The KoJaKitchen Truck Does.

OK, so it’s the KoJa Kitchen, not the Kojak Kitchen, with KoJa standing for Korean-Japanese fusion. But to me, the truck’s name conjures up images of a crusty on the outside, soft on the inside fictional NYPD detective of the 1970s and 1980s.   And KoJa Kitchen loves ya, baby; the proof is in the food it gives you to eat.

I caught up with the KoJa Kitchen truck on its Off the Grid debut at 5th and Minna on Wednesday.  The new, elegantly wrapped truck has some nice high-tech bells and whistles suitable to a Food Truck 2.0, such as the LCD monitors displaying a real time updatable menu and images of the food.   KoJa Kitchen serves three varieties its signature “KoJas” along with “Kamikaze Fries’ and  a dessert called “Mochimisu,” Tiramisu layered with house-made chocolate mochi.

On this occasion, I got to try a Korean BBQ Beef KoJa accompanied by an order of Kamikaze Fries.  A “KoJa” is essentially an Asian-pedigreed burger or large slider, hefty enough to be a good value at its $5.00 price.  The genius of the KoJa is the bun, which is made of two hand-shaped patties of cooked rice which have been “toasted” to a crunchy brown on the outside, while soft on the inside.  The filling in my Koja was a basic bulgogi with “sautéed onions, sesame vinaigrette slaw drizzled with our signature sauce.” The beef was cooked to a tenderness, not overly cooked as bulgogi sometimes is, and spicing was sharp and clean. (The heat can be kicked up on request).  Biting into it created a sensational mélange of textures to go with the bold flavors; be warned that a few bites in, the bun begins to disintegrate into the filling, hastening the mélange.  It’s a somewhat messy sandwich, but messy in that fun “don’t bother me I’m eating” kind of way.  (Grab a fork with your order in any case, and maybe even request a paper "boat" to catch the spillage if you are as clumsy as me.)

The Kamikaze fries turned out to be waffle fries (also carefully cooked) topped with more bulgogi, “sautéed onions, kimchi, green onions and drizzled with our signature sauce and Japanese mayo.”  It’s a sizable order, really a main as much as a side (and in fact costs a dollar more than does the sandwich) but so tasty that I had no difficulty finishing mine up even though I’m not generally a huge French fry fan.

Other “KoJas” on KoJa Kitchen’s current menu include Korean BBQ Chicken with Pineapple, and Teriyaki Vegetarian Chicken with Pineapple.

With refreshing originality and sure execution, Koja Kitchen looks like a food truck winner.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Life of a Shanghai Street Popcorn Vendor

Here's a nice little slice of street food anthropology from CNNgo.  The first person narrative is also a good example of the soft Jiangsu accent.  The popcorn method he describes is the traditional "cannon" method which startles children and delights the oldsters. Oh, to be in Shanghai now that September's there!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Secret Waterfront Wonton Truck

A rare sighting of the Wonton Truck on a Chinatown shopping stop

You scuttle along the Embarcadero until you are in front of the gaping maw of a bulkhead building.  Glancing over your shoulder to see if you are being followed, you duck into the building and peer into the gloomy interior of the long, barnlike structure.  In the distance you can barely make out the outline of a van, silhouetted against a huge incongruous Union Jack. You trudge along a railroad track, a vestige of busier times at the port, for nearly 300 yards, along the way breathing in the heady aroma of fresh-caught fish emanating from a fish wholesaler at the pier.   Eventually you find yourself standing in front of a mobile canteen.

You know what you want, and hand $7.00 to the cheerful woman.  In a few minutes, she delivers to you a large, steaming hot container of savory soup chock full of plump, meaty pork and beef wontons, and sauteed fresh vegetables and mushrooms.  It's a tasty, filling potion guaranteed to cure any flu.  As you turn to leave with your bounty, you glance up at the lengthy bill of fare posted on a signboard.  Along with an extensive list of Hunan-style Chinese food  it includes quesadillas and other Mexican specialties, perhaps a tribute to the truck's former use. You vow to return to try the Mongolian menudo.

Pulp fiction?  An outtake from Les Bas Fonds de Frisco? No, it's all true, even the Mongolian menudo on the menu.  The truck is The Wonton Stand, a.k.a. Eva's Catering, and the pier is Pier 33, hard by the Cruise ship terminal.  It's no underground operation, but a fully permitted, fully equipped food truck of the classic taco truck mold.  Eva is real, and her partner is reportedly a former cook for  Brandy Ho's Hunan restaurant (I'm still wondering about that Mongolian menudo.) So check it out.

One more thing, though, it's best (as it always is) to have a Plan B.  I went looking for it recently, at high noon on hump day, and it was nowhere to be seen.  Had Eva retired, or moved to Oxnard?  Apparently not.  "They come and they go," said the testy warehouseman I interrogated. "Sometimes they are here in the morning, and sometimes they are here in the afternoon.  Sometimes I see them, and sometimes I don't."

Maybe that's what the word "inscrutable" means.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Was a Red Stool Pigeon at a Vietnamese Street Food Pop-up

I've been intrigued for a while with the elegantly named "Rice Paper Scissors" collective (well, duo) but never caught up with them until last night. What's grabbed me about the team of Valerie Luu (@littleknock on Twitter) and Katie Kwan (@kitchensidecar) is their obsession with Vietnamese street food, and especially with their desire to keep it real, and not run it through the Hipstamatic. Valerie and Katie run what may be described as a guerilla" popup because its location varies (now that's a popup). You have to follow their "corporate" Twitter account (@ricepapersf), not the individuals, to find out the location the day of the event, as I discovered way late.

Last night's event was at (and in front of) an industrial space on 20th Street near Shotwell in the Mission. Service began at 6:30 and I was there at 6:30 sharp. Being a Senior Citizen, I go for the Early Bird Specials; "special" in this case means no long lines or long waits. My early arrival also enabled me to snag one ot the hallmark little red plastic stools (a bow to street food verisimilitude) and an overturned plastic "milk crate" serving as a table.

RPS thoughtfully provides the menu in advance by email, so you can do your research (and your fantasizing about delicious street eats) ahead of time. I went armed with my selection of two small plates -- Butter Braised Sweet Corn and Dried Shrimp and Wild Rock Shrimp Chips -- and one main, Crab and Shrimp Rice Noodle Soup.  There was a featured, order-in-advance dish on the menu, Pan Seared Turmeric Fish, but I demurred because of Guilao Fear of Fish Bones (GFFB) Syndrome and too many close encounters with yellowfish soup at home and abroad.

The corn and shrimp dish (bap xao) was one of the most delicious thing I have tasted in a long time and little short of transcendental. Katie Kwan, according to her blog, is obsessed with it and I immediately saw why. If I ever get to Hanoi I can imagine searching for the best dish of bap xao the same way I am always searching for the perfect bowl of xian doujiang on the streets of Shanghai.  Described on the menu as "Barbegelata Farms corn sauteed with Thai chili and scallion oil," it is simplicity itself in concept, but combines sweetness (from the corn), saltiness (dried shrimp) and chili spiciness in a wondrous trifecta of flavors that's probably difficult to hit on the nose. Rice Paper Scissors did it.

I can also say the shrimp chips (which wise Google tells me are called bánh phồng tôm) were the best I've ever had. This is not surprising since they were the first I've ever had that were made from scratch, not from opening a bag or throwing some disks out of a box into hot oil. They were described as housemade, using wild caught wild shrimp, and had just the right crunch, saltiness and oiliness. 

My main course, the crab and shrimp rice soup, was somewhat less rewarding. It was a complex and obviously labor intensive affair, with the pulverized crab and shrimp in a melange of tomatoes, dried tofu, herbs and rice noodles, but perhaps too subtle for my untrained palate. I probably would have insulted it by squirting sriracha into it if there had been  a bottle of hot cock handy. To me it mostly tasted of tomato; perhaps the designer label heirloom tomatoes were too intensely tomatoey, or it could be that the dish was just too reminiscent of the numerous bowls of tomato and egg soup that I've been fed whenever my wife was short on cooking time.

Tomato soup aside, I'll eagerly return for RPS's next "ghost" event, as they call it, and try anything they put on their menu, particularly along street food lines. And if they run out of new-to-me items, there's always their banh mi awaiting.

On a side note, I left the popup an hour or two before Mister Anthony Bourdain made a "surprise" appearance (which had been hinted at by  a local food blogger and anticipated by a clutch of people armed with cameras and an air of expectation). I regret missing the great man's presence, but I can gloat about once again beating him in discovering a street food venue. By a nose.

Mentioned: @ricepapersf, @littleknock, @kitchensidecar

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shanghai Street Food to Take a Bureaucratic Hit

I spend a month in Shanghai every year or two, and one big reason is street food.  Wandering far-flung neighborhoods (made ever easier by Shanghai's rapidly growing Metro system) in search of a great bowl of noodles, serving of deep fried "stinky" tofu or skewer of spicy grilled lamb kabobs fills many of my days. The "ad hoc" nature of street food clusters -- chased from one neighborhood by development, only to re-emerge elsewhere -- makes the hunt all the more fun.  I was distressed, therefore, to read this article recently in Shanghai Daily:

 GRABBING a street-food breakfast on the way to work could soon become a thing of the past for Shanghai residents, as the unlicensed vendors will be banned starting September 1, when the Shanghai Food Safety Regulation takes effect. All food sellers will be required to have a license, and while current street vendors can apply for licenses, they must operate their businesses only at designated spots and during certain times.

"We've already set aside designated areas and periods for street vendors, outside of which street food selling are prohibited," said Yan Zuqiang, director of the Shanghai Food Safety Committee.

All vendors must register at their local government or neighborhood committee and apply for a license. Urban management officers will watch for illegal vendors, who will face fines of 500 yuan (US$77.5) if in violation, Yan said.

 I'm really not that put out by the licensing part -- just a matter of paying somebody some fees, says my wife; it's the "designated areas and periods" that bothers me.  Historically, Shanghai's street food venues have been highly decentralized, woven into the fabric of neighborhoods.  Ghettoizing them into "hawker centers" or other predictable locations will take the fun out of discovery.

Here are some random pictures of street foods and vendors taken over the past five years.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nom Nom, Bacon Bacon Trucks Stammer Their Way to OTG Debuts

Two much-anticipated food trucks with doppelganger names made their Off the Grid debuts at the Upper Haight event tonight.  The Nom Nom Truck (which should perhaps be called Nom Nom North)  was making its San Francisco debut as well, and the Bacon Bacon Truck, whose San Francisco Debut occurred a week ago, was finally ready for prime time.

The Nom Nom Truck is a spin-off of a Los Angeles truck of the same name and features banh mi. It comes to us with a certain amount of TV celebrity, some polished marketing, an apparent fan club and T-shirts. The Bacon Bacon Truck, which I encountered previously, features bacon and, well, more bacon. It taps an amorphous but huge bacon fan club and, yes, has T-shirts.

Foot long banh mi
Nom Nom's menu features banh mi in four flavors: Grilled Pork, Lemon Grass Chicken, Vegetarian Tofu and a "Deli Special" (which I forgot to inquire into).  If you don't know what a banh mi is, I'm surprised you are reading this blog, but the Nom Nom folks have thoughtfully posted a tutorial on their truck. The sandwiches are a foot long and $7.00.  If you are looking for smaller bites, they serve taco versions of all the fillings except the Deli Special, for $2.50.

Line at Bacon Bacon Truck at 5:15
I decided to go for a banh mi, and they had me at pork. My sandwich had a generous quantity of the pork, nicely grilled, and the vegetable matter was fresh and thinly sliced.  If I could find fault with anything, it would be that the saucing and spicing could have been more sprightly.  The star of the banh mi was, if anything, the long, thin baguette, so nicely crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Nom Nom's banh mi probably won't make you forget the sharper flavors (or the lower pricing) of Saigon Sandwich, but hey, you are at Off the Grid.

Nom Nom.  Bacon Bacon. Bottom line: which to choose from?  It's really apples and oranges, but if I absolutely had to choose, it would be Nom Nom for the sandwich, but Bacon Bacon for the T-shirt.

Mentioned: @NomNomTruckSF, @baconbaconsf

Monday, July 25, 2011

Food Trucks Land on New Public and Private Spaces: St. Mary's Square and 450 Mission

Today marked the launch of not one, but two new San Francisco landing areas for the Bay Area's restless and growing fleet of food triucks: Off the Grid's newest venue at St. Mary's Square, and the privately sponsored Truck Stop at 450 Mission St.

St. Mary's Square has been referred to by Off the Grid as its Financial District outpost; it could equally be called its Chinatown event, situated as it is in between the two.  However you look at it, I found it easily OTG's most pleasant setting, and it's a pity that it can only accommodate four or five trucks. It's relatively wind free, and the truck staging area has a profusion of foliage, park benches and meandering walkways which make it exceptionally cozy. Beniamino Bufano's monumental statue of Sun Yat-Sen provides a benign presence as well. Today's fare was provided by Señor Sisig, Fins on the Hoof, Toasty Melts and Curbside Eats.  The "soft" launch testified to the energy of Off the Grid's buzz machine; with promotion mostly by Twitter and OTG's Facebook page, the turnout supported healthy lines for each vendor.  Next week's event will feature a new platoon of four vendors, and possibly a fifth; there appears to be both the space and the market to support five trucks.  Due to Off the Grid: St. Mary's proximity to Chinatown, its terms of agreement preclude vendors of Asian food; interestingly, given the presence of Señor Sisig today and of HapaSF next week, Filipino fare has apparently been give a working definition as "not Asian."

The private-side food truck venue that launched today is known as the Truck Stop and was described in detail in SF Weekly's SFoodie blog.  It is located in the loading area for 450 Mission Street, its sponsor.  The lane is capable of holding three trucks in a single line. Today it resembled a smaller, somewhat grimmer version of Off the Grid's linear Minna St. layout. The "grimmer" is, fortunately, a temporary condition: the truck lane is surrounded by scaffolding, even overhead, due to some construction work.  The good news is that the lane leads to the pleasant, sun-swept plaza area for 50 Fremont St. (which today, incidently, hosted a Farmers' Market).  The event is to take place every weekday lunchtime, with a rotation of trucks, many already familiar to Off the Grid veterans.  Today's lineup consisted of Curry Up Now, Brass*Knuckle and Kara's Cupcakes. At 1:15 when I arrived lines were very light; though there may well have been a substantial Noon peak. It's also likely that word of this event is just beginning to get out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SF's First Bacon Truck Launches; Blindsided by Pent-up Bacon Lust

Considering the bacon-everything madness of the past couple of years, it's hard to believe that until today we were more than a year into Food Trucks 2.0 without a single bacon-interest truck on the street in San Francisco. That all ended with the official Launch of the Bacon Bacon Truck (@baconbaconsf) at 63 Bluxome St., where it'll be found Tuesday through Thursday, at least this week. 

Sign at Union Square Greenmarket
I decided to check out this historic day in the annals of bacon on my way to Costco.  The truck's location in an arty alley (a winery, a silk screen print shop and a couple of galleries are among its neighbors) a short block from Caltrain and the #30/45 bus stop made this easy.  I intended to just be a Looky Lou and take a couple of pictures and be on my way.  I do like bacon, though, common sense and cardiology aside, and fell prey to the phenomenon known as Bacon Hypnosis which is triggered by the fumes of cooking bacon.  I was hooked. Perusing the menu, which consisted of various appropriate uses of bacon, I selected a sandwich with the the very San Francisco name of the LGBT* as likely to cause the least damage to my arteries.  

"It'll be about 20 minutes," said the Bacon Pusher in an apologetic tone.
"No problem," I said "I'm retired.  I've got all day."

The words were almost prophetic. My 20 minutes turned into 30, then 40 and eventually to more than an hour's wait for my sandwich.  I wasn't alone;  there were a couple of dozen other people in the same waiting mode. The Bacon Bacon staff were repeatedly apologetic, and continually supplied samples of fries, bacon jam and root beer. There was only so much room for a griddle on the truck, they explained, and only so many strips of bacon could fit on it at once. The demand had simply outraced the supply.  Maybe it was the pleasant, sunny 70° weather or the hypnotic effect of the bacon fumes, but the waiting crowd was remarkably patient and cheerful, and each new order off the grill was given a celebratory greeting. 

For  the record, my sandwich was beautifully prepared, and the slices of thick bacon perfectly cooked, crisp but not burnt, and very, well, bacony.  It was a good sandwich, and worth $7.00, considering the market.  But was it worth more than an hour's wait?

From the Bacon Bacon Truck operators' point of view, I'm sure the problem of dealing with too much demand, rather than too little, is one they'll gladly take back to the drawing board.

*Described on the menu as "Little gem lettuces, goat cheese, bacon, tomato"

Mentioned: @baconbaconsf

Monday, July 18, 2011

Street Food Saint to Appear at SF Festival?

Maria Piedad Cano, "The Sainted Arepa Lady" (foreground) at her cart

If there’s such a thing as a living legend in street food, it’s Maria Piedad Cano, “The Sainted Arepa Lady.”  Keep your fingers crossed, she may be making an appearance in San Francisco, maybe at La Cocina's 3rd Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival on August 20.  The possibility was raised by the @Arepalady herself on Twitter when she recently tweeted “Not out tonight, sorry! Oh soon to sell arepas in San Francisco, CA for a day?”  When I speculated aloud (well, a-screen) on Twitter that this might have something to do with the Street Food Festival, I got a sort of confirmation from @streetfoodsf (spokestweeter for the Festival) with the terse response “Might have some truth.”  Hmmm.

It was none other than Jim Leff, the enigmatic founder of, who beatified a Jackson Heights, NY street vendor and brought her to the attention of  netizens and eventually of the mainstream media.  In a piece called "The Sainted Arepa Lady" in the early 1990’s, Leff said:

I don't know her name; such knowledge would detract from my appreciation of her as an archetype. While I speak pretty decent Spanish, I've never been able to fully follow her conversation, but it doesn't matter. I go when I'm feeling blue, stand under her umbrella, and feel a healing calm wash over me as she brushes the sizzling corn cakes with butter. Zen master-like in her complete absorption in the task, she grills the things with infinite patience and loving care.

We now know not only her name, but some details of her life.  She was formerly a lawyer and a judge in her native Colombia, but gave that up when it became too risky a profession.  She’s in New York only in the warmer months, wintering in Colombia: she vends her wares only on Friday and Saturday nights, from 10:00 or 11:00 PM to dawn.  Unlike other vendors who favor subway station locations, she sets up at 79th and Roosevelt, in proximity to a string of night clubs.

Despite her hours and location, what the Arepa Lady deals is anything but “drunk food.”  She’s the queen of arepas in arepa-rich Queens, home to around 80,000 Colombians.  Two types of exquisite arepas come off her griddle: arepas de queso, the more familiar thick circular cheese-stuffed corn cakes, and the sweeter arepas de choclo, which are made from ground fresh corn in a crepe-like batter and are folded in two after topping with farmer’s cheese.

I was lucky to find Maria Piedad Cano at her cart at around 11:00 in the evening on May 29, 2010 (thanks, EXIF data!).  I had earlier stuffed my gut at the Golden Mall in Flushing, a few stops down the 7 line, and only had room for one arepa; I chose the more exotic (to me) arepa de choclo and downed it while it was still hot off the griddle.  I have been craving another one ever since, as well as one of her arepas de queso.  If the Sainted Arepa Lady does indeed show up at the Street Food Festival this year, some other vendors are going to be moved down my dance card.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Two Spin-off Food Truck Debuts: Kasa Indian Truck and Pacific Puffs Truck

Tonight's Off the Grid:Upper Haight featured the debut of a new Indian food truck, the Kasa Indian Truck.  The Kasa Truck is a spin-off from Kasa Indian Restaurant in the Castro, and features kati rolls. Kati (sometimes spelled kathi) rolls are somewhat like burritos, only with a roti wrapper.  Tonight's menu included two kati roll options, chicken tikka masala and gobi aloo, $4.50 each.  The same two fillings were available as rice plates (thalis) for $7.00, as well as a saag paneer rice plate. An additional offering was a veggie samosa with a potato and sweet pea filling.  House-made mango lassi and house-made chai and several bottled drinks were the thirst-quenchers.

I went for the CTM (chicken tikka masala) kati roll.  In a way, it's like a smaller version of Curry Up Now's CTM burrito, but with the flakier roti wrapper. It was served as a to-go item, foil-wrapped and brown bagged, which caused some damage to be done to the fragile, buttery wrapper, as can  be seen from the picture.  Despite some cosmetic damage, my CTM roll was able to be eaten hand held, though I would suggest that they serve them in a paper boat with a fork unless specifically requested as a to-go item. Although I requested mine spicy when asked, it came to me far less spicy than Curry Up Now's CTM burrito. Despite, or perhaps on account of, the lack of heat, the flavors came through clean and sharp. It also came with enough heft to serve as a light meal on its own, and was a good value.

Earlier in the week I caught up with the Pacific Puffs truck in its debut.  The Pacific Puffs truck is another spin-off venture, with a bricks-and-mortar parent in the Marina.  It was originally to have debuted at Monday's Off the Grid:San Mateo soft launch, but hadn't cleared the approval process in time.  Its coming out party, therefore,  was the following day at a meetup event at The Lunch Box (246 Ritch St.) promoting the Foodspotting web app. Pacific Puff's offerings for the event were cream puffs with a choice of four different filling flavors:  vanilla, chocolate, fruit whip and peanut butter at $3.25 each.  They also offered a choice of powdered sugar or chocolate toppings for the puff. I don't have a sweet tooth, and seldom go for anything resembling a dessert, so I'll recuse myself from judging the product.  I did try a peanut butter flavored puff, and found it a little too, well, sweet, and the peanut butter flavor too subtle.  I would have been happier if it had been filled entirely with Maranatha Peanut Butter, but that is just me.  Sweets lovers will finally have an alernative to cupcakes and creme brulee.

Monday, July 11, 2011

At San Mateo Caltrain Station, Off the Grid Explores a New Market

It’s not often I go beyond the City limits of San Francisco, but when Matt Cohen cajoled me to check out the launch of his new Off the Grid venue at the San Mateo Caltrain Station, I managed only a token demurral.  Not because of the two new vendors he promised, but because there was a wrinkle in his latest venture that intrigued me.  But more on that later.

The new Monday night Off the Grid venue, 5-9 PM at the San Mateo Caltrain “kiss-and-ride” lot, was created at the request of City of San Mateo planners. It is slated to serve up two platoons of eight different trucks each on alternate weeks.  At tonight’s soft launch only six trucks were present (including only one of the two promised new kids on the block) due to last-minute permitting snags. (It is expected to be at full strength next week.)  In addition to five trucks already familiar to Off the Grid fans, Whisk on Wheels, a truck serving Argentine Tapas and sandwiches, made its Off the Grid debut.

Ever eager to vet the new entrant to the field, I selected the “large tapas” option from Whisk on Wheels’ menu: a beef empanada accompanied by a side salad of baby greens with strawberries and reggianito.  The empanada was plump with savory beef and had a nice flaky crust, as good an empanada as I’ve had in a long time, and the salad was an exquisite mélange of flavors and textures. The combination of the two provided good value at $5.50.  I was pleased to learn that Whisk on Wheels will enter the rotation of San Francisco Off the Grid events, and look forward to trying their other offerings.

Now for the chalk talk. Why do I find this event of particular interest?  Forgive me if I get overly analytic, here (an occupational hazard of my previous life as an urban and transportation planner).

I like to think that there are two basic operating models for food tucks, or “street” food vendors generally.   The first model, which I would call the “catering” model, brings food to where the demand is.  The second model, which I think of as a night market, or “hawker center” model, creates a destination for people to gather, sample a variety of affordable food and socialize in their leisure time.  Off the Grid’s first venture, Fort Mason Center, is squarely in the mold of a hawker center, with people coming from far and wide in groups to enjoy a shared dining and drinking experience.  OTG’s other evening and weekend ventures to date (Upper Haight, Berkeley, and McCoppin Hub) also generally fall into this category. By contrast, Off the Grid venues at Civic Center, U.N. Plaza and Minna Street fit the catering model category, primarily serving as a lunch time option for people working in the immediate vicinity.

The Monday evening San Mateo event represents a new turn in the Off the Grid path.  By placing a collection of curated food trucks at a suburban transit station, they’ve expanded  into the realm of catering to workers at the home end of their commute.  This is a model which works very well (albeit on an ad hoc basis) in New York, for example, where some of the best collections of food truck and food cart vendors cluster around busy outlying MTA subway stations like 74th-Broadway in Jackson Heights and Junction Boulevard in Corona.  It’s also a stratagem I’ve seen increasingly applied in Shanghai as its metro system has developed. It will be interesting to see how it plays out at San Mateo Caltrain over time; observations tonight were of a significant number of a debarking Caltrain passengers joining the curiosity seekers and food truck fans already gathered at the event. The stratagem appears to provide  considerable expansion potential for the curated food truck field, given the dozens of outlying Caltrain and BART stations. This “commuter” catering model is also one that can be turned inside out, as it has in New York and Shanghai, with grab-and-go breakfast fare served in the morning at outlying metro stations, though there is no reason to believe that OTG staff have that in mind.

Mentioned: @SFwhisk

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Announcing: the Baked Pork Bun Project

叉烧餐包, cha shao can bao or char siu tsan bao in Cantonese
I've been eating baked pork buns for nearly 50 years, since the early 1960s when the 10¢ buns at Woey Loy Goey were a major source of sustenance.  My tastes in Chinese food have grown more sophisticated in the ensuing years, yet I still can't resist the allure  of a comely specimen now and then.  The other day I passed The House of Dim Sum on Jackson Street in Chinatown and spotted a tray of baked pork buns that appeared even bigger than my usual Chinatown favorites from You's Dim Sum on Broadway.  On impulse, I went in and picked up a pair, one for eating on the spot and one to take home to weigh and photographically document. That planted the seed for a project: sample and rate every baked pork bun in town I can get my hands on.  .

No, I'm not going to write a blog post every time I try a new baked pork bun specimen. That would leave me with even fewer readers than i have.  I'll keep a Flickr photo set of my explorations, and report back from time to time here. I'll develop a rating system as my sample size grows, since I'm not fully abreast of the current range of prices and heft, for example.

That is all.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Filipino Food is Hapa-ning in San Francisco

Filipino food don't get no respect.  Consider this: there are 324,000 Filipinos in the Bay Area and about 6,000 Thais.  Now ask yourself how many Filipino restaurants you know, and how many Thai restaurants. Filipino cuisine is tasty and varied.  Why should it only be available to Filipinos in the privacy of their own kitchens?

Thankfully, things are changing in San Francisco.  Non-Filipinos are starting to know sisig from Shinola. They now know silog is neither dog nor half-hatched chicken egg; it's as simple and comforting as a ham-and-egg plate, only with a choice of more or less familiar savory meats and deliciously garlicky rice instead of hash browns.

Much of the credit for "outing" Filipino food and bringing it to the larger Bay Area population goes to the contemporary food truck movement.  I once joked to the organizers of Off the Grid that they had set a World Record for the number of Filipino food trucks in one place with THREE: HapaSF, Señor Sisig, and the WOW Silog truck. The Adobo Hobo and the Lumpia Cart, among others, may also grace OTG and other street food gatherings with their presence.

HapaSF's Sisig
Leading the charge to respectability for Filipino - dare I say it - cuisine is none other than the HapaSF truck featured in the Eat Street video above.  Maybe it helps that William Pilz, owner-chef, is only half-Filipino (hence the Hapa); that his reputation for cooking skills and presentation preceded him from a noted non-ethnic restaurant; or that he favors designer ingredients. Make no mistake, though, what he pushes is Filipino food -- it's not Korean tacos or North Indian burritos, tasty as those fusions are.  His sisig over rice is one of the top bites of any street food gathering in Northern California. and his "Shanghai" lumpia are as wickedly good as any I've had - greasy in just the right way.

Not to be overlooked are the Señor Sisig Truck and the WOW Silog truck.  While HapaSF won a critics' award in a recent local food truck rating, Señor Sisig won a readers' choice award, and the lines at SS truck for its more down-to-earth offerings testify to its appeal to Filipino food newbies as well as veterans.  And if you are too hungry for grazing and looking for a full meal from a single food truck, you can't go wrong with a longsilog, tapsilog or a spamsilog from the WOW truck.


Longsilog from the WOW Silog Truck

Mentions: @HapaSF, @senorsisig, @theWOWtruck

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mikey Likes (IZ) IT!

I've got to get on the good side of the IZ IT Fresh Grill truck, since it's slated to be a regular at my local farmers' market (such as it is), the North Beach Farmers Market. The NBFM is so close to home that I'll almost be able to roll out of bed and down the hill for a Spammer fix on Sunday morning. Therefore, I'm passing along  a stroke for IZ IT from yesterday's SF Gate's Inside Scoop Blog.

It turns out that Michael Bauer, the Grand Poobah of Bay Area restaurant critics, likes to get down with street food just like the common man, at least if the food is parked right behind his office. In his post, Cross-cultural fries from Japan, China and India he mentions visiting the Wednesday Off the Grid affair on Minna Street, and singles out the IZ IT Fresh Grill truck (pictured above at McCoppin Hub) for his praise:

Every Wednesday Off the Grid comes to The Chronicle, setting up on Mina [sic] Street in a covered area between the two buildings. On Wednesday, there were  seven trucks but my favorite taste was the Chinese chicken drumsticks from IZ IT truck. The batter is thin and delicate but with shattering crust that seasons the juicy meat underneath.

[I'll leave it to the reader to decide if the "Mina Street" spelling for Minna Street was a simple typo or a Freudian slip on Michael Bauer's part.] 

I'm fond of IZ IT's Kickers and, especially, its Spammers (see below) but have yet to try the truck's fried chicken.  Mikey likes it. Maybe I will too.

Spammer from the IZ IT Fresh Grill Truck

Mentioned: @IZITfreshgrill, @michaelbauer1 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Whither Mission Chinese Food?

This is not a review of anything. I have yet to eat at Mission Chinese Food, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant conceived and executed by Danny Bowien and Anthony Myint, and make no judgments as to the merits of its food. I’ve followed the buzz and do know it is loved by Alan Richman, The New York Times, and caucasian hipsters generally, less so by my Asian acquaintances (perhaps for philosophical reasons more than anything else).  It was named Best New Restaurant and Best Chinese Restaurant by SF Weekly.  I’m also of the opinion that whatever the lads are doing to Chinese food is not “dumbing it down,” since they are reportedly liberal with both the ma and the la of it when a dish warrants.

What I’m doing in this post is wondering aloud (and wondering if they are wondering) about where they go from here.  With obvious large talents and widening recognition of their efforts in a limiting, though intriguing venue, Bowien and Myint are ripe for busting out of their radical chic popstand at Lung Shan.  But in what direction will they take flight?

On their recent sojourn in China, Bowien and Myint paused to do a popup in a restaurant in Shenzhen, China, just across the border from Hong Kong.  It was an invitation-only affair, primarily targeting Hong Kong food bloggers.  Included among these was a long-term (in Internet time) twitter friend, @e_ting (Janice Leung), who also writes on food for the South China Morning Post.  It was she who first let me know about the event, and tweeted links to bloggers’ reviews as they came out.

This one-off event took place at the Capistrano Restaurant in Shenzhen on June 12, 2011.
According to the invitation sent by Anthony Myint to one blogger,  the event was conceived to cook “our style of Chinese food.”  Attendees were requested to not publicize the event in advance (but were free to blog about it afterward), and were not notified of the venue until the morning of the event.

Reactions to the meal (and many photos) can be found in the blogs of three of the participants, e*ting the worldFood of Hong Kong and Macau, and joie de vivre. Taste Hong Kong and Chopstixfix that I know of were also invited, but have yet to report on the dinner.

The menu consisted of seven courses:

  • Geoduck sashimi with razor clams, in clear tomato broth with herbal oil, and melon marinated in ginger sauce.
  • Chawan mushi of steamed egg,  scallop,  apple and chrysanthemum
  • Salt-baked prawns, accompanied by a side dish of 3 types of mushrooms in broth with pinenuts. 
  • Duck 3 ways -  duck breast,  shredded leg confit in ‘crepe purse’, and fried duck tongue
  • Steamed fish roulade with chicken liver & meat,  in broth of ginseng and barley
  • Sauterne with mangosteen and chrysanthemum
  • Cornmeal bread and cream with cognac, chrysanthemum syrup and Asian pear
When I first heard about the MCF's Shenzhen popup, I assumed it was to staged to seek validation from sophisticated real Chinese-in-China foodies for what Bowien and Myint had already been doing on Mission Street, San Francisco.  The menu and the descriptions and photos which came out of Shenzhen disabused me of that notion.  What they presented was more Bo Innovation than Yu Bo, and a far cry from the meat-centric, ma la happy proletarian fare one would expect at Mission Chinese Food. Why were they running this menu by a gathering of influential Hong Kong Bloggers? Another thing I noticed from the accounts coming out of Shenzhen (and you can make what you will of it) was the unequal prominence of the two  partners.  It was Myint who apparently sent out the invites and Myint whose cooking was photographically featured by two of the bloggers.  One blogger even referred to Myint and his wife as "our hosts,"  while Danny Bowien seemed to be staying in the background.  Who is the Great Helmsman at Mission Chinese food, and where will he take it?

As Col. Hall might say, What are they up to?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Jonathan Gold is My New Best Friend

Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A.-based food writer is my new best friend, and no, it's not because he once used my photo of San Francisco's finest xiao long bao to illustrate his near-viral piece On the Great San Gabriel Dumpling Assault. It's because of a more recent piece, written for Sunset Magazine, on the 10 Worst Food Trends.

As nearly anyone who's been within earshot of me for the last few years knows, I flat-out loathe the product of the Great Hipstafarian Cultural Revolution (GHCR) known as "Third-wave coffee." I've been drinking coffee for nearly 60 years, and developed my palate for coffee in the real hearth of west coast coffee culture, North Beach. North Beach is where coffee really tastes like coffee, where coffee roasters like Graffeo, Trieste and Roma really know how to roast coffee, and espresso drinks are really made by people fresh off the boat from a place where "barista" is a real word. You will never get the thin, sour otter water humorously called coffee in the latest trendy SOMA or Park Slope joint.

The GHCR's cultural suasion is pervasive and front-runners are many in contemporary San Francisco, and I had started to feel like my protestations against the state of coffee culture were cries in the wilderness. Then, some divine hand pointed to these words in the aforementioned Sunset article by the wise Mr. Gold:

9. Third-wave coffee: Do we applaud fair-trade, sustainable farmed, shade-grown joe? Sure. Why not? But when we sit down to a cup of coffee in the morning, we are not particularly interested in the blueberry, caramel, or tomato soup nuances a dedicated roaster can coax out of a bean, nor in the intricate ballet of the four-minute pour-over or the Eva Solo flagon. We want coffee that tastes like coffee, and we want it now. 

Right on, bro!