Sunday, August 22, 2010

Invading the Streets for 2010 SF Street Food Festival

Saturday was the second year of the SF Street Food Festival in San Francisco's Mission District, put on by food entrepreneur incubator La Cocina. I had a great time last year when this major street fair celebrating street food brought together up-and-coming food carts and small plates from some of the city's most popular restaurants.

But last year it was a major clusterfuck, with hundreds of people squeezed into a two-block area of the Mission, with waits in lines lasting more than an hour and food running out by the early afternoon. This year the organizers said they learned their lessons, increasing the closed streets to another three blocks along with more vendors who supposedly were more prepared for the crowds.

I got there just as the festival got going at 11 a.m., and despite the morning fog, it felt great walking around without the crowds. It definitely felt more spacious, and even though some booths weren't up and running yet, I could walk up to pretty much anywhere and get food. Unfortunately, I wasn't that hungry at 11 in the morning. So I just wandered around checking out the vendors. But that was a big mistake because this is how it looked two hours later ...

Yep, the streets were filled with food-hungry people and it looked reminiscent of last year. But to be fair to the organizers, there really is no way you can get around all the people in the location of the Mission streets. If you publicize more vendors and more food, you're going to attract more people.

This year, despite certain parts of the festival being a mosh pit, the lines did seem to go by faster, and even though some booths were running out of food, there were still a lot of options in the early afternoon.

Some of the more popular booths included this one from food cart vendor Lumpia Cart, who was selling the popular lumpia (which is like the deep-fried spring rolls).

Just as popular were the fried chicken from Aziza, one of the city's more popular Moroccan restaurants. Here these happy helpers are flouring the chicken before it goes into the fryer, which really demonstrates my theory that everyone loves deep-fried foods at street fairs. Other booths with long lines included Nombe's chicken wings, Namu's ever-popular Korean tacos, Hapa Ramen's ramen bowls, and dessert from the Creme Brulee Cart.

Probably the more colorful uniforms were those worn by workers at the Purple Hibiscus, which sells Nigerian food. All the vendors offered up a small bite that ranged in price from $1 to $3, a large plate for about $6 to $8, and a beverage. So what did I eat? Here's the parade of food I ended up trying ...

Duck Prosciutto and Lardo Melon Salad ($3) from Flour + Water. Everything on this plate was amazing, even the little twigs of greens that had a hearty flavor, contrasting with the sweet summer melon and salty duck prosciutto. Where else in the country would you get this at a summer fair?

Traditional Japanese street food Takoyaki ($3) from the Nombe people. The bowl contained about five battered balls made of grilled octopus and then topped with bonito flakes, pickled ginger and special sauce. The takoyaki balls were soft and squishy, but tasty.

The challenge with the booths is that some of the food sounded really exotic, and the display describing it wasn't always that visible. So that meant I sometimes saw something on the banner of the booth and had to commit to standing in line to find out what it is. Case in point: This Guinea Fowl Poutine platter ($8) from Kitchenette SF. I saw the word poutine and thought it would be a plate of roasted hen, but it turned out to be a plate of French fries and cheese clumps smothered with a gravy sauce that included bits of the guinea fowl. The poutine gravy was amazing, and this bowl was the thing everyone would stretched their heads to check out what you were eating. But as some of you know, I don't enjoy eating deep-fried foods and I have high cholesterol, so this wasn't the smartest choice for me. I ate as much of the bits of fowl that I could in the sauce along with a few pieces of French fries but I had to toss the majority of this plate. Too bad, such a waste I know.

To make up for the carb-loaded poutine plate I just had, I got this Cebiche Classico ($7) dish from La Mar Cebicheria. I love La Mar, so was happy to see them at the festival. The cebiche was great, but I felt it looked more like a small bite than a large plate. I mean, I only ate four chunks of fish.

This is the grilled prosciutto-wrapped figs ($3) from Chez Papa Resto. It had a cream sauce as a base, so this was a nice snack.

I also tried the ume onigiri from the newish Onigilly, which appears regular at the Friday night Off the Grid street food fair. They specialize in the popular Japanese onigiri or musubi, which is a rice ball filled with a center of a variety of ingredients and wrapped in nori. This makes a great street food snack, and this ume version was especially good. The ume, or pickled plum, was fresh and intense in flavor, and the rice was nicely done. The pink wrapper was also pretty.

At one point the Hapa Ramen line didn't look so bad, so I decided to get a bowl of its baby ramen ($6). Hapa Ramen is the food booth at the Thursday Ferry Plaza farmers market created by Richie Nakano. After having a preview ramen at another mob-mash event earlier this summer, I wanted to see if Hapa Ramen is better now that it's running with all engines. The ramen actually didn't taste like ramen. The texture was flat and thin, but I did enjoy the broth with the fatty pork and rich flavors. There was a lot of depth to the broth, so a nice deal for $6.

At this point I was winding up my eating and went for some sweets. There were a lot of temptation with a whole block of dessert vendors, but I ended up with a simple scoop of Three Twins' roasted peaches ice cream ($3), which was just perfect for the summer day.

The SF Street Food Fest also brings out some of the city's best chefs, and for people like me who likes to geek out recognizing chefs, it was like a day of being a food paparazzi. I was amazed to see how many of the chefs actually manned the grills and worked in less-than-ideal cooking situations instead of just sending in their sous chefs. It's a testament to how much they want to make sure their food is always perfect, even at a street fair. Some of the chefs seen working the street festival included Thomas McNaughton (top left) of Flour + Water, David Bazirgan of Chez Papa Resto (top right), Mourad Lahlou of Aziza (bottom left) and Charles Phan of Slanted Door (bottom right).

I was really impressed by the selection of foods (but I really was confused by the booths for Pepto Bismo and Yahoo pimping Justin Bieber) and despite the major crowds later in the day, it did seem like a successful event with a lot of happy eaters. Here are more shots from the San Francisco festival. If you missed it, you can still get a taste of street food this weekend when Oakland throws its larger version at Jack London Square with the Eat Real Festival.


Nate @ House of Annie said...

Great writeup! Thanks for taking us along.

I'm intrigued by the pink wrapper on the onigiri - it wasn't seaweed?

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks Nate. Yeah, I should have asked what the pink wrapper was. It was like a gel and thin and transparent. Almost like colored rice paper. It didn't have the salty flavor of nori.

Anonymous said...

Still amazed you continue to post, and no one calls you out on your crap. Poutine is a dish, from Quebec, composed of fries, gravy, and cheese curds. It is not a part of a guinea fowl. There no poutine in a gravy. Poutine is the name of the dish.

Please, try to learn about food before you continue writing.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

By the way, House of Annie has moved to its own domain, I'd appreciate it if you changed the link in your blogroll to point to the new site instead of Thanks!

mark said...

I think I would travel a long way for duck prosciutto!

Ms. Munchie said...

Great summation of the event. I liked it so much that I linked it to my blog post.

Single Guy Ben said...

Anonymous, I can't believe you keep coming back to read this crap. :P Now that I know what poutine really is, I'm definitely not going to order it the next time I see it on the menu.

Thanks Nate, Mark, Ms. Munchie. Nate, I fixed the link. Like you're new site design!

Jo said...

At the Street Fest, there was a booth selling virgin sangria. Does anyone know what restaurant that was from? I know they also sold virgin pina cola and shared a booth with a restaurant making bacon wrapped hotdogs.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for enlightening me, Anonymous. I had no idea what poutine was and hadn't even heard of it before, so your information is valuable. But why be such an ass about it? If you don't like this blog, why not just move on? -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

Jo, I think you're talking about the Ica Juices booth. They're not a restaurant but one of the incubator vendors with La Cocina.

Carolyn Jung said...

Oh, you need to get yourself to Canada for your fill of poutine. It is kind of an acquired taste, but boy, on a cold winter day, it sure hits the spot in a way that's so bad that it's good! ;)

JulieK said...

I will galdly join you next time and try any deep fried foods you don't want to eat - unless that sounds weird, in which case nevermind

Single Guy Ben said...

LOL, I'll keep you in mind next year Julie! I'm always looking for deep-frying taste testers!