All Photos by Wendy Goodfriend
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“This is what we thought the first festival would be like,” said La Cocina executive director Caleb Zigas at Friday’s Night Market, looking out at the mellow, well-fed clusters of friends and foodies strolling from booth to booth, bourbon hot toddies in hand, through the latest addition to the now four-year-old SF Street Food Festival.
He was being honest, if a little rueful, and everyone around him laughed. That first two-block festival in 2009 was planned as a cheerful neighborhood celebration of La Cocina’s newly legit food vendors and entrepreneurs. Instead, thousands of people showed up, which led to endless lines, grumpy neighbors, and a lot of cranky press in the blogosphere.
In planning for this year, Zigas and his staff (supported by a large, dedicated crew of volunteers) took the lessons of the past four years to heart. Saturday’s daytime food fest, now stretching across six blocks of Folsom Street, with additional space in parks, parking lots, and side streets along the way, was remarkably well-organized. Long lines for the most popular booths, sure, but most of the businesses were smoothly oiled machines by now, with lots of hands behind the counter and a well-practiced flow. (As well they should be, given that some of same vendors had just served similar menus to even bigger crowds at last weekend’s Outside Lands.)
But back to the Night Market. Held at the site of the Alemany Farmers’ Market at the southern edge of Bernal Heights from 6 to 9pm, the market was much more casual event, with lots of space, 26 vendors, and almost no lines (except, of course, for beer). Vendors were tucked into the concrete stalls used on Saturday mornings by the farmers’ market, most decorated only with handmade signs and a relaxed attitude. Since the whole market was fenced off for the event, market-goers could walk from booth to booth sipping their drinks, including icy mint juleps and spiced hot toddies by Rye on the Road, rather than being corralled into a drinkers’-only beer garden.
This being summer in San Francisco (ah, Fogust, our other winter month), chilly winds whipped through the crowds, making the scattered heat lamps and fleecy blue blankets on offer very welcome. (Jardiniere, slumming it with burgers and fries, put out a big bowl of matchboxes, which we were tempted to ignite and huddle over for warmth, Little Match Girl-style.)
Smart vendors offered steaming tubs of soup: tomatoey rice noodle broth with bits of crab omelette and water spinach at Soup Junkie; pungently spiced, coconut-based Malaysian laksa with curls of veal brain from Azalina’s, big enough for two; and our favorite, El Huarache Loco‘s spicy, warm-you-through birria, a goat-filled broth served in a flowered terra cotta cup with a shredded lamb taco on the side.
El Huarache Loco is one of La Cocina’s particular success stories. Born in Mexico City to a restaurant-owning family, Veronica Salazar, owner of El Huarache Loco joined La Cocina’s incubator program in 2005, and now has 22 employees and her own restaurant in the Marin Country Mart in Larkspur.
But the big buzz was the Boss Hog, a belly-busting sandwich created by the Bone and Gristle Boys, a.k.a. Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats and three-time Cochon 555 winner Matt Jennings of Providence, Rhode Island’s Farmstead market and restaurant. The hand-drawn sign offered a cross-section of their creation, starting with a buttery toasted English muffin on top and proceeding through jalapeno ranch dressing, chicharrones, greens, red onions, Vermont cheddar, a cornmeal-crusted deep-fried pork cutlet, smoked pickles, AND some chile-rubbed slow-roasted pork, just in case you were still hungry. And then the bottom half of said buttery muffin, plus a wooden stake, we mean skewer, to hold it all together. No one does extreme pork like Farr, who would, the following day, be selling $3 Rice Krispie treats, speckled with Cocoa Puffs and larded with crushed chicharrones.
The beef-stuffed pastries sold out of a vintage-1970 Citroen H-van by local mom (and Cordon Bleu-trained chef) Marianne Depres of El Sur Empanadas made great handwarmers, at least for the 5 seconds before we happily gobbled them up, enjoying the Argentine additions of hard-boiled egg and olive inside. Also tasty were the baked beef-and-onion piroshki from Anda Piroshki, a very local offering coming from owner Anna Tvelova’s counter in the 331 Cortland Marketplace just a few blocks up the hill.
And did we mention the bacon maple kettle corn, served in big movie-theater buckets, by Endless Summer Sweets? Oddly, for a town that loves its chocolate truffles and watermelon popsicles, the salty-sweet popcorn was the only sweet thing at the Night Market. Note for next year: a hot chocolate-and-churros vendor, not to mention Ritual Roasters‘ cute red coffee truck, would be very much appreciated.
Lacking coffee and dessert, Night Market-goers just ate more meat. (Surprisingly, given that we’re at the bountiful apex of summer’s harvest, fruits and vegetables were mostly limited to slice-of-tomato, sprig-of-cilantro supporting roles.) Second only to pork was lamb, clearly the meat of the moment at both the Night Market and the SF Street Food Festival. The Whole Beast‘s John Fink was grilling up the last of the 800+ Merengez sausages made for last week’s Outside Lambs booth by his meat-world buddy Ryan Farr, along with kefta meatballs, chubby cylinders of spiced ground lamb wrapped around wooden skewers and dunked in a thick, herby yogurt aioli, and a coconut-based lamb mulligatawny soup. Sadly, though, there was no lamb poutine, the seriously delicious fries-n-lamb gravy treat that was the hit of Outside Lands.
On Saturday, Radio Africa & Kitchen dished up gorgeously rosy slices of grilled lamb leg, for those with the fortitude to queue. (If not, you could sit down and eat it in Bayview, where Ethiopian-born chef/owner Eskender Aseged recently opened his own restaurant.) Hoss Zare of Zare at Fly Trap made a Persian-inspired abhogsht wrap, recommended by San Francisco’s finest.
So, given that this event is a fundraiser for La Cocina’s work throughout the year, where does the money come from? Booths at the Street Food Festival cost vendors up to $600, depending on the status of their business. (Presumably, established restaurants pay more, while beginning entrepreneurs get a break.) But the booth fees barely cover La Cocina’s per-booth expenses, including signage, the custom-built booths themselves, and health, fire, and city permits for each vendor. Vendors are encouraged to donate some of the day’s profits to the organization, but marketing and communications manager Margarita Rojas admits this rarely happens. Instead, the non-profit makes its money off alcohol sales (all the beer and spirits are donated) and corporate sponsorship, from big guys like Whole Foods, Wells Fargo, Zipcar, Zagat, PG&E, and Gruppo Campari to local companies like the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Cooking School, Good Eggs, Rainbow Grocery, Berkeley Farms, Off the Grid, 7X7 magazine, Veritable Vegetable, and more.
While the event was, of course, locally-focused, five hand-picked vendors from around the country were invited by La Cocina to share their wares. The companies, including Eurotrash, one of Portland, Oregon’s most popular food trucks, got volunteer labor, ingredients, and kitchen space for prepping; in exchange, they donated their day’s take to La Cocina. There was a Southern contingent, too, rounded up by the Southern Foodways Alliance‘s John T. Edge, author of the recently published Truck Food Cookbook and a good friend of Zigas’s. Gamely, they served up pulled pork and sweet tea and crayfish boudin balls, sporting fleece hoodies typically unnecessary when, say, cooking in Birmingham at this time of year.
Sometimes, waiting in line to try yet another taco or spring roll can seem a little absurd, here in the Mission where taquerias and inexpensive Central American, South American, Asian, and Middle Eastern restaurants abound, and where Valencia Street offers every trendy snack of the moment. Still, after four years, the Street Food Festival has become part of the San Francisco calendar, that alternative string of holidays and festivities that goes from Chinese New Year, Bay to Breakers, and Pride to Outside Lands, Litquake, Folsom Street Fair, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Day of the Dead. And for every recently laid-off person with a secret recipe, a Twitter handle, and a food-biz plan, it was tasty evidence that hard work (and savvy marketing) can make an entrepreneur’s dream come true.