After many requests from readers, I finally dove into the food truck phenomenon in San Francisco. As a long time street food eater, particularly in Asia and India, where specialization is the rule, and stalls and carts are right on the pavement and completely open to view, the rolling kitchens in San Francisco feel removed and a bit soulless.
In Asia there is always a place to sit–at low stools and tables on the sidewalk; or folding chairs and tables in a covered alley way; ordedicated hawker areas set up with numbered tables where purveyors actually bring food and drink to you as it is prepared. Street food in Asia–and Mexico– is part of daily life, fresh, cheap, tasty, quick, convenient, easy to find, and dependable. The food truck experience in San Francisco can be cold, uncomfortable and elusive. But, there are treats to be mined.
The best place to find them is in the Ft. Mason parking lot on Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m. where thirty of San Francisco’s food trucks and street food tents congregate.
Two trucks, Chairman Bao and Curry Up Now, are the two brightest stars in the food truck constellation, both highly designed, branded and efficient. Each has a couple of items worth waiting in line for.
At Chairman Bao I like the steamed buns–not the big baked buns– particularly those filled with grilled, marinated tofu and sharp, al dente kale in copious miso dressing ($3.25), a startling and original combination. A steamed bun stuffed with slices of grilled pork belly and pickled daikon ($3.75) also achieves lift off (though none come close to the pork buns at Spice Kit, a stationary fast food restaurant at 2nd Street and Howard.)
The deconstructed samosa ($6), a cardboard carton of crispy, crumbled fried shell, savory potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind and green chutneys from Curry Up Now is addictive. The other great Curry Up Now invention is the Kathi Roll, $6, a thin whole wheat chapati-like flour tortilla coated with egg which sets as the chapati cooks on the griddle; and then it is rolled around keema, spiced ground beef, pickled onions and chutneys.
Sataysfied, a tented booth, does one thing very, very well: spicy, char-grilled pork satay, hot, tender, juicy, full of spice, slathered with peanut sauce and served with jasmine rice and a finely chopped napa cabbage and carrot slaw in Asian dressing ($5)– perfect street food.
Azalina, the Malaysian booth next to Sataysfied, makes a coconut milk curry soup with noodles, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, tofu and chicken called laksa ($6), which brought back memories of Penang one Friday, but disappointed on another with its lack of depth. However, Azalina’s warm banana beignets topped with coconut jam ($5) are a must: tender, light, puffy, infused with freshly grated nutmeg, the spice of Penang, and filled with lots of ripe banana.
For an appetizer, have a warm Argentine-style mushroom empanada ($4), thin, buttery, flaky pastry folded over a creamy mushroom filling, at El Porteno, a tent.
To complete your culinary circle of the globe, an Icy Fruit ($3) from the Little Green Cyclo Vietnamese truck–ice, coconut milk, jack fruit and lichee–conjures the lush and tropical, even though you may be chilled to the bone by the wind pouring in from a colder sector of the Pacific.
Monday and Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Civic Center, 6 trucks
Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., UN Plaza, 6 trucks
Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. 5th Street at Minna, 6 trucks
Thursday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Stanyan at Waller, 6-10 trucks
Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Ft. Mason, 30 trucks and tents
Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., McCoppin Street (off Valencia near Market) 2 to 4 trucks
Check out www.offthegridsf.com.