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?