Wednesday, August 22, 2012

La Cocina Brings Ya Ka Mein to the Streets of San Francisco -- For a Day

[ Cross-posted from my Full Noodle Frontity blog] 

Thanks to La Cocina's San Francisco Street Food Festival, I recently got to sample ya ka mein, a New Orleans street favorite from its most celebrated purveyor, Miss Linda Green, who was imported from NOLA for just that purpose. Though the distant origins of this dish are obscure, we know from restaurant menu archaeologists that it emanated from Chinese-American restaurants and still exists in such restaurants on the eastern seaboard (particularly in Baltimore) as "yat gaw mein."

Perhaps the best resource for understanding ya ka mein's travels and signifcance is an article by noted food writer-folklorist John T. Edge, "Seventh Ward Ramen" in David Chang's Lucky Peach, Issue 1 - Ramen.  According to Edge's description, ya ka mein
usually arrives in a white foam cup, brimming with limp spaghetti noodles, soy-and-ketchup-colored and -flavored broth, chunks of roasted pork or beef, boiled egg halves and a thatch of ragged-cut green-onion rounds....slurped from a bowl while standing on a street corner, [ya ka mein] is also known as Old Sober.
 Linda Green, proprietor of Miss Linda Green's Catering, sells ya ka mein from a booth at the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival and from the tailgate of a pickup truck at other events in New Orleans.  Miss Linda is no mere ramen hacker, however. Though she has no formal training, she has the cooking chops to have kicked serious butt on the Food Network's Chopped: Pride of New Orleans episode, coming away with the big prize.

As for my ya ka mein experience?  I found the salty, peppery, bouillon-y cup of noodles comforting, if not  exactly life-changing; to be fair, it must be noted I was cold sober when I downed them.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tracking Down the Indies: The Vietnamese Sandwiches Stand at Main & Market Streets

Though it suffers from being premade, it's still a solid FiDi bargain

While San Francisco street food purveyors in institutional settings (e.g. Off the Grid or SoMa StrEatFood Park venues) have vied to keep my attention, I've been overlooking independent enterprises that streamlined San Francisco permitting procedures have encouraged. To be sure, some of the food trucks that appear at OtG and SSFP also have their own spots on City streets, but what about those vendors, particularly non-motorized, that choose to fly solo?

Thanks to a thread and some Yelp reviews, I was alerted to the presence of the Vietnamese Sandwiches Stand, which operates on the west side of Main Street, just south of Market St. in downtown San Francisco, and set out yesterday to check it out.  The stand features both Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) and spring rolls (ban cuon) but by 1:00 when I arrived had sold out of the latter, so I contented myself with a BBQ Pork Sandwich from the menu. My sandwich was generously filled and nicely balanced though somewhat lacking sharpness in flavor. (I would have liked the option of throwing in some jalapeno slices, but this option was not available.) The sandwiches are pre-made and kept warm and, as Chowhounds and Yelpers have pointed out, thereby suffer from muddled flavors and textures.  Mine was no exception, especially given the lateness of my arrival, and toasting the sandwich for me did little to help. Overall, though, it was a solid and tasty sandwich experience and at $3.50 a true bargain for the Financial District. (Any comparison with the haute $8.00 food truck banh mis at Off the Grid would be out of line!) I plan to return to vet the spring rolls, perhaps a comparative tasting again on a Thursday when the Soup Junkie down the street on Market Street offers the same item. 

Incidentally, although the sign captured in my photograph specifies Tuesday and Wednesday, the stand is reportedly there every work day.  According to the thread, the operator has a second stand two days a week at California and Sansome Streets, and it's likely the stall (or just the sign) was pressed into service on Main Street on the Thursday I was there. Also according to one of the Chowhound posters, an Indian wraps cart may soon be joining the banh mi stand on Main Street. It's certainly heartening to see the streets of downtown San Francisco populated by street vendors offering other than cellophane-wrapped white bread sandwiches or overpriced hipster junk food. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

300 Block of Kearny Street: The Most Culinarily Diverse Block in San Francisco?

The re-opening of Lee's brought Chinese food back to the 300 block of Kearny St.
When Onigilly brings its rice balls to its new brick-and-mortar location at 343 Kearny St., it won't exactly stick out like a sore thumb.  It'll be the new kid on what may be the most culinarily diverse block in San Francisco.

If you include the restaurant tenants in the partially re-opened International Food Court (which officially  has a Bush Street address but a has co-equal entrance at 316 Kearny Street), there are currently 20 operating eateries you can stroll into at lunchtime in the short 300 Block of Kearny St. These can be grouped into at least 12 national cuisines, and if you parse them into sub-categories, perhaps 15 or 16 distinct cuisines to choose from.

For starters, Onigilly will have company from four other purveyors of Japanese food including a ramen-ya, a Japanese curry house and not one but two sushi-cum-bento outlets.  Your other choices in that block include Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Cuban, Hawaiian, Mexican, Greek/Mediterranean, Italian, and what I'll call "New American/Continental" (gringo food).

Here's the full lineup for the 300 block of Kearny St. :

International Food Court (316 Kearny St).- separate Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese (sushi/bento)  and Filipino vendors. (Previous Burmese and Mexican tenants may or may not return.)

Ayola (327 Kearny St.) - Greek/Mediterranean
Baladie (337 Kearny St.) - Greek/Mediterranean
Banana House (321 Kearny St.) - Thai
Bangkok Best (301 Kearny St.) - Thai
Darn Good Food (322 Kearny St.) - New American/Continental
Ebisu (336 Kearny St.) - Japanese sushi and bento
El Faro (346 Kearny St.) - Mexican taqueria
Fleur de Sel (308 Kearny St.) - New American/Continental
Harrow (357 Kearny St.) - New American/Continental
Have a Rice Day (356 Kearny St.) - Korean and Japanese Rice Bowls
L & L Hawaiian Barbecue (312 Kearny St.) - Hawaiian plate lunches
Muracci's Japanese Curry (307 Kearny St.) - Japanese curry
Pachino Trattoria and Pizzeria (318 Kearny St.) - Italian
Paladar Cafe Cubano (329 Kearny St.) - Cuban
Pasilla Mexican Grill (359 Kearny St.) - Mexican Grill
Underground Ramen (355 Kearny St.) - Japanese ramen

The 300 block of Kearny Street is prone to turnover, though the crop of restaurants listed above (except for the New American venues) have shown some staying power. An Indian/Pakistani restaurant recently failed, as did another New American restaurant, leaving vacancies that have yet to be filled.  And Onigilly's spot? It will replace a recently closed Indonesian restaurant.