When I announced a few months ago that I was taking on a challenge of eating from every food truck in San Francisco this summer, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The execution has been at times sheer delight and at other times trial and error. Take for example the first week, when after one particular night, I said I would never eat from more than 8 food vendors in one day. Fast forward to a month later at the San Francisco Street Food Fest Media Preview, when I tried food from 40 vendors and restaurants…in one evening, including a larvae taco. Yes, that larvae, the one that turns into a butterfly. With a little over a month to go, I’ve tried nearly 50 different street vendors all total. Nonetheless, this has been a smashing hit, as it’s opened up opportunities for interviews, mentions by the Food Network, and published articles. If you have an iPhone, you can download Urbandig, recently featured by TechCrunch, and of which I wrote a San Francisco food truck tour for. As I’ve passed the midway point of the summer, I wanted to provide a short guide to the street food scene in San Francisco and give out a few awards.
You may have noticed that while street food is often just another part of culture in many countries around the world, it has taken some time to take off in the U.S. However, it’s catching on quickly and not just in San Francisco. Portland, for example, has over 400 food trucks and New York City has a popular event that is in its 7th year, the Vendy Awards, which show off the Big Apple’s best street food every fall on Governor’s Island. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, about street food in America. When I asked him what the draw was, he responded by saying: “It speaks to the roots of restaurants. So many great restaurants started as a push cart. It’s accessible and a level playing field. Because it’s a moving truck, there’s something about knowing where it is that makes you in. It’s like you have the password to the speakeasy.” Living in a digital age of Facebook and Twitter has made it easier than ever to track your favorite street food vendors.
The term “Off the Grid” is what you need to familiarize yourself with in San Francisco. Off the Grid is San Francisco’s efforts to better organize street food vendors. The main event takes place on Friday nights, when 20-30 food trucks and carts gather at Ft. Mason in the Marina district for live music and fresh street food made to order. There are also smaller events that take place at lunch and dinner throughout the bay area, which typically range from 3-10 vendors.
Whether you go to the lunch/dinner events during the week or the main event on Friday night, I highly recommend arriving early. Arriving late typically means shorter lines, but you may not be left with many food options. Korean BBQ, cupcakes, and crème brûlée often go quick. If you see one food truck that has a line of 30 people and the one beside it with two, then that should tell you something. On Friday nights, you may have to wait for as long as 30 minutes. If you’re with a group of people, consider having each person stand in a different line and then meet up after you’ve all gotten your food to share.
On Friday evenings, I’ll usually take a couple laps around to all the vendors and see what people are eating before I start waiting in line. As you might imagine, the beer/wine line is often one of the longest, so grab your adult beverage first thing, and then start making your way around to the food vendors. Many people make an entire evening of Friday night. You’ll even find some people tailgating. I recommend ordering a few different items and then heading for one of the picnic tables just outside of the event. Some of the locations during the week have seating available, but this isn’t always the case.
Mid-Summer Streety Awards
Most filling: Señor Sisig, California burrito.
Hangover cure: Fivetenburger, Grassfed burger all the way with garlic fries.
Best appetizer: Happy Dumplings, dumplings.
Most unusual: Don Bugito, larvae taco.
Most likely to return to: The Taco Guys, fish tacos.
Best dessert: Crème Brûlée Cart, Strawberry and Nutella crème brûlée
Thanks to Adam Richman and Visa for taking time for an interview. Visa didn’t pay me, give me anything, or even ask me to write about them, but I want to thank them for taking the time to speak with me for their Memory Mapper application, which allows you to create memories of your trips. When you create a memory through the end of August, you’ll be entered to win $100.