Sunday, March 25, 2012

Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center Returns Bigger and Badder

Off the Grid Season 3 debut in the early going, 
The return of Off the Grid's flagship event at Fort Mason Center after its winter hiatus drove home to me the importance of the non-motorized (i.e. tented booth and cart) vendors to the character of street food in San Francisco. I had found my interest in attending the lesser, truck-only OTG events waning soon after Thanksgiving and the Fort Mason event's furlough , but Friday night's debut of Fort Mason Season 3 was miraculously restorative. Don't get me wrong – I have my favorite trucks (see this post) – but by and large the OTG satellite events tend to be dominated by hipster hobbyist trucks pitching to the Bacon-wrapped Pork Belly and Demented Donuts demographic. In retrospect, it occurs to me my go-to vendors in previous seasons at Fort Mason were always the tented ones; if I couldn't find something new there to tempt me, it was still worth the trip to the chilly veldt of the Fort Mason Center parking lot to grab something from El Huarache Loco, Azalina's Malaysian or Chaac Mool. What vendors like these may have lacked in variety, they made up in authenticity and value. You can't invent a new traditional street food every other week, after all.

Off the Grid: Fort Mason Center, 2012 version is bigger, better, and simply more amazing than previous editions. It's bigger both in physical size and number of vendors.  It's organized as before with tents along one side and trucks along the other, with a middle row of more trucks. However, the perimeter has been expanded outward in all directions, allowing for better circulation and more amenities, and the tent alley and outer truck alley have been flip-flopped. Matt Cohen swears this expansion has been accomplished without sacrificing any additional parking spaces. To break down the space allocation, there are scheduled slots for 16 trucks, 14 tented booths and and four carts. That adds up to 34 vendors at a time, according to my sterling math skills. There's also a bi-weekly rotation for five of the truck slots and three of the tent slots, allowing for an additional eight vendors, swelling the total to 42, not counting some likely turnover over the course of the 8-month seaason. As before, there's live music and a full bar, but a second beer bar has been added (tip: the line at this "back" bar was much shorter than the other one on opening night). There's also more seating overall and even some picnic tables within the event's perimeter, so you can enjoy your beer with your food in sit-down comfort if you're lucky enough to snag a table space.

Beef heart anticucho from Lima Peruvian
As for the vendors, 16 on the roster are new to Fort Mason (and most of these are new to OTG altogether), including nine new tented vendors, four new trucks and three new carts. Some of my favorites are missing from the schedule, most noticeably Veronica Salazar's El Huarache Loco (which has moved on to bigger things) but enough new ones are of interest to me to remove the sting. Friday night saw debuts for tented vendors Lima Peruvian (anticuchos and tacu tacus), Wing Wings, Don Bugito (pre-Hispanic insect-based snacks), Bombzies BBQ (chicken kabobs), Kirimachi Ramen, and Belly Burgers (pork belly burgers). There was also one new truck, Eric Rudd's Fogcutter (formerly The Brunch Box) and three new carts: AK Double Up (Trinidadian Hot Doubles), Fat Face (New Age popsicles) and Alicia's Tamales. The rotation for next Friday promises traditional fish tacos from Cholita Linda, a new musubi vendor (Gohan)  and a truck named Eat on Monday, which is said to vend New American and Asian Fusion creations.

Jamaican "Double" from AK Double Up
After casing the joint Friday night I made a beeline for the Lima Peruvian stall for an Anticucho de Corazon (beef heart skewer) and a side of Papas Wankas (a.k.a. Papas a la Huancaina). The beef heart was garnished with chimichurri and pleasant, if mild in flavor. It was very chewy (more chew and less snap than chicken heart skewers, by comparison) and may or may not be more work than you want your jaw to do. The cheese sauce on the papas was also a bit on the mild side, but maybe if enough people ask for it to be spicy.... Lima Peruvian also has other varieties of anticuchos, which I'll check out after trying a tacu tacu plate.

My second course was a surprising “Double” from the AK Double Up Cart. A “Double” or “Hot Double,” as I found out, is a popular street food in Trinidad. It's a taco-like hand food with a puffy, cumin and turmeric-infused flatbread “shell” and a filling of curried garbanzo beans garnished with chutney and a pepper sauce. A harmonious chorus of flavor, it's vegan, but the kind of vegan food that would keep life worth living for me were I to become a vegan.

Pork belly burger from Belly Burger
My third and final sampling on opening night was from the oh-what-the-heck department, a belly burger from (you guessed it) the Belly Burger tent. It's made with pork belly, but it's not Yet Another Momofuku Pork Bun. Instead, the pork belly is ground (burger-like, heh), grilled, and served on a traditional soft burger bun. The variations on the menu are in the toppings, and I chose the “Classic” (fried chili pepper aioli, tomatillo pickles and Cotija) and a side of Almond Cumin Slaw. The pork belly patty was flavorful and not overly greasy, the dressing added some meaningful notes and the thing didn't gross me out at all. I mean that as a compliment, and as for the slaw, I don't think I'll ever spend a better $2 at an Off the Grid event.

Lastly, in case you are wondering, I did NOT wimp out on the Don Bugito cart. I enjoyed their wax moth larva tacos last summer at the San Francisco Street Food Festival, and they are not yet back in rotation on my bucket list.

See you on Friday.

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