Experienced international travelers will tell you that eating street food is always a gamble. Delicious yet not without risks, street food will delight you now but may betray you later. Fortunately, San Francisco and Berkeley host a plethora of chefs from around the world who recreate dishes from their native countries that aim to please both the street food-phobic and the more adventurous souls who brave dysentery for a decent baleada. This list represents eight local spots where you’ll find some of our favorite international street foods; be sure and let us know yours in the comments.
Indian: Pani Puri
India is awash in street food, and pani puri is the most ubiquitous. (It might also be the closest you’ll get to nirvana.) Roughly the size of a walnut, one pani puri nestles comfortably on your tongue. When you crunch down on the crispy shell, resilient mung beans pop between your teeth while a juicy deluge of sweet, spicy tartness drenches your palate. In India, pani puri is served by roadside vendors – always men – who punch a thumb through the top of a puffed disc of puri. It’s stuffed with spiced potatoes and beans, then roughly equal amounts of minty, spiced “pani” water and tangy, tamarind chutney are ladled inside before handing over each bite-sized bubble.
In San Francisco, you can get pani puri every Monday at DOSA Valencia on Valencia during “Chaat Night,” which also features a few other Indian street food specialties like bhel puri, sev puri and vada pav. DOSA’s pani puri “kit” is served artfully on a single plate with all the ingredients you’ll need to make your own mini flavor bomb, and your server will demonstrate the proper procedure on request.
995 Valencia St., San Francisco [Map]
Ph: (415) 642-3672
Hours: Mon-Wed 5:30-10pm; Thu 5:30-11pm; Fri 5:30-midnight; Sat 11:30am-midnight; Sun 11:30am-10pm
Facebook: DOSA on Valencia
Price range: $ ( $10 and under)
Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley serves pani puri everyday on the same kind of cafeteria-style metal trays you’ll find all over India. What Vic’s lacks in presentation, it makes up for in flavor. Their version of pani puri features garbanzo beans instead of mung beans, and the green pani juice is served in a small bowl that encourages you to dip your stuffed puri directly into the dish. You’re encouraged to lick your fingers afterwards; after all, “chaat” means “to lick” in Hindi. And if you’re in the South Bay, you’ll find tasty pani puri at several Indian restaurants. Chaat Bhavan in Fremont is universally praised by my chaat-loving Indian friends.
Honduran: Baleadas and Pastelitos de Carne
In its simplest form, the baleada is a thick, folded flour tortilla filled with refried beans. But this humble description does scant justice to Honduras’ de facto national dish. They’re made fresh by mostly middle-aged women at makeshift streetside stalls equipped with only rickety table and a Coleman-style camping stove. And for just a dollar, one baleada will stave off hunger for about an hour. Starting with malleable dough made from wheat flour, the “baleada lady” flattens a ping-pong-sized ball between her palms into a disc, then slaps and spins it back-and-forth between her hands until it stretches beyond her fingers. Then she fries it in a dry skillet, turning it by hand to brown on both sides. While it’s still piping hot, she smears on a layer of flavorful Salvadorean red beans that have been mashed and refried to a spreadable consistency. Upon request, she might top it with crumbled cheese and crema, avocado, or chismol (diced tomato, onion, and bell pepper), which are all folded inside the soft, slightly chewy flour tortilla. Unlike thin tortillas that exist primarily to keep burritos intact, these slightly-puffed flatbreads take a starring role in this warm and comforting Honduran-style taco.
Pastelitos are nearly as popular as baleadas on Honduran streets, and they cost about the same. These deep-fried, meat-filled pockets typically feature ground beef and potatoes or shredded chicken. The corn-flour dough — made from Maseca or homemade masa harina — is flattened into a disc, then molded into a half-moon shape around a fistful of meat filling before being pan-fried in an oiled skillet over a camping stove flame. Pastelitos are always served warm with a ketchup-consistency tomato salsa and a lightly fermented cabbage relish called “curtido” that has a mild, salty crunch.
You’ll find both at El Paisa Restaurante in the Mission. Their baleadas are as soft, chewy and fulfilling as any of the street food versions I tried in Honduras, and their pastelitos are as crispy as I remember (and juicier). Though the baleadas are listed on the Spanish-only menu, you’ll have to ask for the pastelitos by name from the “secret menu.” Baleadas are available in three different versions: sampedranas with beans, cheese and Honduran crema; ceibeñas with beans, cheese, crema and avocado; and al paisa with beans, cheese, crema, avocado, eggs and chorizo. The pastelito de pollo is stuffed with spiced shredded chicken, while the pastelito de res is filled with ground beef and potatoes. Both are topped with curtido and warm tomato sauce.
Salvadoran: Pupusas and Tamales de Elote
Honduras and El Salvador share more than a border. The same red beans inside baleadas and the Maseca dough used to make pastelitos in Honduras are turned into pupusas in El Salvador. If you’ve walked down 16th Street between Valencia and Mission on a weekend evening, you’ve probably seen these stuffed tortillas being hand-slapped into shape at the sidewalk stall in front of Panchita’s. Pupusas are similar to South American arepas and Mexican gorditas, except that they are stuffed prior to cooking instead of after. Typical fillings include any combination of beans, queso (cheese), chicharrones (fried pork skins), shredded pork, and loroco, a succulent, green vine with edible flower buds. Pupusas are also served hot off the griddle with curtido and tomato sauce; smother your pupusa with the condiments and devour it all with a knife and fork, or tear off strips and use them as a utensil for grabbing condiments.
Maseca dough is also a main ingredient in tamales de elote, or corn tamales. Slightly sweet and lightly studded with corn kernels, these fresh corn cakes can be served steamed or fried, usually for breakfast or as a starchy side dish with lunch or dinner. Tamales de elote are usually topped with Salvadoran crema, which is creamier than sour cream and tastes like crème fraîche.
Balompie Café (pronounced bah-loam-PEE-ay) has been serving handmade pupusas and tamales de elote in San Francisco’s Mission District for over 25 years. Their pupusas are as good as they get, with a wide variety of traditional and specialty stuffings such as shrimp, prosciutto, ground beef and jalapeños. While I can attest to the finger-licking goodness of the basic bean and chicharrón versions, loroco and cheese was my favorite flavor by far. The curtido and tomato salsa were served on the side in separate dishes, and no one batted an eye when I set aside the silverware and dug in with my bare hands. You’ll also find tamales de elote on Balompie’s menu, both steamed and fried, presented with a side ramekin of Salvadoran crema.
Another source of Salvadoran street food is Elsy’s Pupusas y Mas!, located next door to La Taqueria on Mission at 25th. This neighborhood eatery is prized more for its authenticity than its ambiance, and you can watch your pupusas being made to order in the open kitchen with traditional fillings of beans, cheese, pork and loroco. They’re available individually or on a platter with up to four pupusas, with curtido and tomato salsa served on the side.
Elsy’s tamales de elote aren’t listed on the menu; instead, they are advertised on a handwritten sign posted by the counter. Available both steamed and fried, they’re served with a dollop of crema and a small portion of casamiento, which is a “marriage” of beans and rice. The steamed version is soft, moist, and slightly sweet, with fresh kernels of corn cooked inside. The fried version is the same, with a crispy exterior. For a taste bud trifecta, combine tamal, casamiento and crema into a single bite.
If you’ve traveled in or near the Himalayas, you’ve probably had a momo. Sold in restaurants and at roadside stalls throughout Nepal and some parts of northeastern India, these handmade dumplings are traditionally filled with meat from a freshly-slaughtered water buffalo, steamed and topped with a spicy tomato sauce. Momos can also be fried or stuffed with vegetables, and they are eaten at all times of day as a snack or a meal.
Lacking a water buffalo supplier, Binita Pradhan of Bini’s Kitchen makes turkey momos and vegetarian versions which she sells at Fort Mason’s Off the Grid on Friday nights. Each round momo is a treasure of functional art, featuring a thumbprint-sized opening in the top to accommodate a bit of tomato cilantro sauce. The slightly chewy wrapper of Bini’s turkey momo provides just the right amount of resistance before your teeth pierce a tender morsel of spiced ground meat, releasing a warm cascade of savory juices that slides across your tongue. Pradhan takes great pride in her momos, going so far as to dry, grind and mix her own imported spices for the sauce and fillings. She learned the recipe from her mother, who worked as a royal chef in Nepal, although she’s toned down the heat of her tomato sauce to cater to local palates.
Off the Grid at Fort Mason on Fridays
Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco [Map]
Ph: (415) 361-6911
Hours: Fridays 5pm-10pm
Facebook: Bini’s Kitchen
Price range: $ ( $10 and under)
If you want a momo with a little more kick, try Little Nepal in Bernal Heights. Available in minced chicken, pork, and vegetable varieties, these momos are crescent-shaped and served six to a platter, alongside a dish of tomato chutney sauce spiced heavily with chilis, roasted sesame, garlic, ginger and cumin. Little Nepal’s momos may not be as pretty as Bini’s, but they’re unapologetically spicy and available six nights a week.
Sri Lankan: Kottu Roti and Egg Hopper
Sri Lankan kottu roti might be the only street food that produces “music” while it’s being cooked. Roadside vendors stir-fry shredded roti (a thin flatbread), egg, vegetables, spices and sometimes leftover chicken curry on a griddle, then chop and tos the mixture with a pair of handheld blades that look like oversized dough scrapers. Each kottu roti maker chops to his own beat, creating a signature rhythm for his dish. The customer decides how much of each ingredient goes into the mix, so every kottu roti is an original work of edible, audible art.
Sri Lanka’s other favorite street food, the egg hopper, is a cup-shaped crepe cradling a steamed egg topped with spicy condiments such as chili paste and sambol, which is similar to a chutney or relish. Made from a batter of fermented rice flour and coconut milk, the crepes are crispy around the edges and easy to eat with your fingers.
You can try both street foods at 1601 Bar and Kitchen, a Sri Lankan-inspired SOMA eatery with a French flair. 1601’s egg hopper is served with spicy chili paste, sweet and tangy onion sambal and toasty coconut sambal. If Chef Brian Fernando had his druthers, he’d toss all the condiments into the hopper himself to give diners a medley of diverse flavors he knows and loves from Sri Lanka. Instead, he provides generous portions of the onion and coconut sambols on the side, with a big dollop of chili paste to spice things up.
The kottu roti at 1601 is a tapas-sized dish topped with a fried Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab. Toothsome strips of roti provide a stable stage for shredded carrots and cabbage that are stir-fried with spices and sauces that bring all the ingredients together without stealing the limelight from the tender crab.