Archive for the ‘frugal gourmet’ Category

San Francisco’s Street Eats Scene

October 30, 2009

magic.curry.kartOkay, so I’m a little obsessed with street food right now. First it was Oakland. Then Sydney. Last night it was time to check out the sidewalk scene in my old stomping ground San Francisco.

It was the call of the Creme Brulee Cart that beckoned me across the Bay on a night when there was no crossable bridge. (Anyway, it’s probably more authentic to show up for cart food via public transit vs. driving into town, don’t you think?)

But the venue for the street eats forum struck me as incongruous at first. I mean, The Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco is hardly a renegade, fly-by-night kinda operation, is it? Turns out a division of the club, Inforum, is designed to appeal to 20- and 30-somethings and spark “provocative dialogue and debate.”

Who knew? While the crowd skewed older and the discussion was thoughtful if relatively tame, it revealed some intriguing details about pavement cuisine.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Charles Phan looked into opening a street cart in Oakland, got put off by all the bureaucracy, and opened a Vietnamese restaurant on Valencia Street in San Francisco instead. Good news for devotees of Slanted Door, Out the Door, and newcomer Heaven’s Dog.
  • News accounts have focused largely on the assumption that the street food trend is booming because the economy is not and so folks are in search of cheap eats. That’s only part of the story. The street cart scene is also growing because lots of talented cooks — some professionals, some not — are un- or underemployed.  Steven Gdula, the freelance food writer behind Gobba Gobba Hey, turned to making baked goods (gobs are portable round cakes filled with cream originally from Phili and a little like a whoopie pie) because the bottom fell out of the media biz.  The man behind the Magic Curry Kart, Brian Kimball, announced he’s being laid off today from his job as a psychotherapist.
  • There’s a mighty fine sense of community among many street cart folk. They often band together to share their goodies on the go and generate some buzz and bucks at one location and readily promote each other’s offerings. The Gobba Gobba guy started flogging a fellow cart pusher’s pickled beans in a story shared last night. (At this point in the conversation, a jar of beans emerged from the audience and was immediately passed around for a taste test.)
  • In perhaps the ultimate display of street solidarity, at the post-discussion sample fest down at 111 Minna Gallery, street vendors sported t-shirts and signs that read: Free Murat: Street Food is Not Terrorism, in support of their fallen comrade, Murat Celebi-Ariner, the vendor known on the street as Amuse Bouche, by all accounts a charming French guy who sold muffins at 24th Street BART in the morning.  Murat Celebi-Ariner, was picked up by Homeland Security’s ICE agency on a visa violation and his deportation is imminent, according to a visibly distraught Gdula, who counts Celebi-Ariner as an early supporter of his sweet street treats.
  • While not every food hawker is a master chef, some gastronomy professionals like Mission Street Food‘s Anthony Myint, clearly pride themselves on showcasing their  techniques and talents in nomadic restaurant settings. We’re talking fancy food way beyond what the typical taco truck dishes up.
  • For some gourmands on the go, it’s important to give back to the community they serve. Mission Street Food contributes all profits to programs feeding the hungry. Kimball plans on reaching out to low-income communities and disadvantaged kids.
  • It’s tough out on the street, dodging health inspectors and police (who mostly want to make sure that sidewalks aren’t blocked and who, true to stereotype, appreciate the baked goodies), dealing with permits, insurance, and health & safety concerns.
  • Without Twitter, Facebook, and food blogs, this beloved food movement probably wouldn’t have taken off so fast or grown so large. Every cart vendor on the panel was helped along, early on, by social media. The Creme Brulee guy has 8,575 Twitter followers and counting as I type.
  • This bricks-and-mortar-less business looks like it’s not going away any time soon: Each week a new cart starts making the rounds In San Francisco, says panel moderator Tamara Palmer, a contributor to SF Weekly‘s street cart coverage.
  • Sampling street eats in a crowded bar/gallery with other cart-crazed folks is a lot of fun. Loved the caramel ice-cream from relative newbie Smitten Ice Cream. The delicacy of the Brussels sprouts canape from Mission Street Food was divine. Curry and creme brulee brothers didn’t disappoint. And the Soul Cocina concoction, that a couple standing in line willingly shared with me (thanks you two fellow food lovers), sung with so many different flavors it made me happy. Exactly what was in those little paper holders? Dried lentils, puffed rice, tamarind, pickled veggies, maybe? Can anyone fill in the missing ingredients for me?

And the final take-away message for the night, words to live by: Follow your passion. Do what you’re good at. Do it well. Good things will follow.

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A Shout Out for the Eat Real Food Festival

August 29, 2009

chef.mimi.eat.real.festival

A roasty toasty day by the bay and foodie folk swarmed Jack London Square in Oakland to sample cheap-yet-chic street eats dished out of food trucks and pedal carts at the Eat Real Festival, an outdoor event where small bites sell for five bucks or less. Thanks, in part, to Twitter, grabbing good food on the go that won’t blow the budget is all the rage in the streets of San Francisco and beyond.

Last week, SF held its own street eats event. This weekend, it’s Oaktown’s turn, led by Anya Fernald, who headed up last year’s Slow Food Nation soiree. In the mix: Farmers, foragers, canners, cooks, chefs, and civilians, who stood in line to sample some of the best of the Bay Area’s mobile food. The mood on the street wasn’t preachy or political but more like a party, with wee ones running through a water fountain, grown ups lounging on the lawn listening to hot licks or, later, watching foodie flicks. And lots of adults sipping local brews out of jam jars as an antidote to the blazing sun.

What’s not to like?

It was a tad too hot for moi to queue for tacos, pizza, or even the Sexy Soup Cart Lady. On a friend’s recommendation, I made a beeline for the sweet treats at Aisu Pop, where handcrafted popsicles in flavors such as kaffir limeade & avocado and honeydew wasabi were moving like hot cakes. Too late: Sold out! Not to worry, I moseyed down to the next ice- cream peddler, where I tasted the subtle charms of sweet corn ice cream before settling on a scoop of Mexican chocolate from the good people at Pepito. Delish. Also refreshing, a Latina pushcart vendor’s watermelon spears doused with lemon juice, salt, and a few shakes of chili for a little kick along with the cool.

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Cardum Harmon and Cid Williams made a picnic in the shade as they noshed on sustainable barbecue and burgers. Their take: Why not bring the street eats back every week?

cardum&cid.eat.real.festival

Live locally? Swing by Sunday from 10-5. Go hungry. Bring cash. Eat real.

Photos: Sarah Henry

Frugal Gourmet: How to Eat Well on a Budget

July 31, 2009

Yuriko Gamo Romer and her family no longer stroll down the street to eat sushi, burgers, or pasta at the restaurants that dot the main drag of their neighborhood in San Francisco.

The Silas-Gonzalez clan from Oakland now spends more time cooking meals from scratch. The dads in both these families were recently laid off, so they need to find ways to keep food costs in check.

silas-gonzalez-familyPhoto of Silas-Gonzalez family by Sarah Henry

With the jobless rate in California hovering around 11 percent, you don’t have to look far to find people impacted by the recession. (Three out of nine families from my former mamas group have been hit by job loss in the last year, including the two families in this piece and, um, me.) After housing, food is often the next biggest expense a family faces. Bad-for-you food is cheap but these folks are committed to getting nutritious meals on the table at a reasonable price.

How to make those dollars stretch at dinnertime? Eat in. Both families agree that the first thing to cut from your budget is routine dining out — at kid-friendly restaurants, taqueria joints, or the museum cafe. Nowadays they make favorite foods like burritos or sushi at home for a fraction of the cost they’d pay eating out.

They’ve also become smarter shoppers. They buy in bulk at stores like Costco and spend more time comparison shopping. Julie Silas says she now knows the exact price of most food items that she buys  — and can usually estimate, within a dollar, how much the bill will be at the checkout.

Neither household eats a lot of meat, another cost saver. They site cheaper sources of protein such as tofu, beans, and peanut butter as staples in their kitchens. (Julie and Yuriko both mention with glee that Costco sells creamy, organic peanut butter for dollars less than the price of other grocery stores.)

They also accept assistance. Julie’s neighbors passed on their Community Supported Agriculture box of produce once a month to the family of four. “That’s such an awesome gift; it really makes a difference in our lives,” she says, while making a stir fry with green beans and onions plucked from the CSA box. Yuriko’s mom bought her an electric skillet so she can make grilled dishes at home.

Each family has a small number of items that they’ll pay more for. For Yuriko it’s high-quality short grain rice from a Japanese market. “But relatively speaking, rice is cheap, so that’s not too much of a luxury,” she says. Julie can’t live without goat cheese — her girls love it — but found an affordable source at Trader Joe’s.

Neither family feels that nutrition or health has been compromised in their efforts to trim the family food budget. Both Julie and Yuriko estimate they now spend 20-25 percent less on food.  Yuriko says she finds herself thinking about the nutritional content of a grocery item and makes purchasing decisions accordingly. So jugs of juice, while popular with her husband and son, don’t make the cut. She’d rather spend that money — around $4-6 a bottle — on whole fruit, so her family gets the benefit of fiber as well as vitamins. Julie buys less organic fruits and vegetables these days, using the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticides in produce as a reference. That means organic apples, strawberries, and spinach, but conventional avocados, kiwis, and bananas to help keep the shopping bill down.

Both families say that they’ve discovered an unexpected benefit of unemployment. By going back to basics they’ve become more creative cooks. “A whole organic chicken, which costs us about $12, can form the basis of a homemade chicken noodle soup; the shredded meat ends up in enchiladas or a pot pie, and leftover broth serves as the sauce for a third meal,” says Isidro Gonzalez. In comparison, a package of chicken breasts costs around $8 and only provides one dinner for the family.  Yuriko prepares favorite Japanese recipes for family and friends more frequently now. She’ll make sukiyaki, a beef and vegetable dish, and okonomiyakia, savory pancakes, and each dish can feed about six people for the price of just one of these items at a restaurant. “We’ve had some really affordable feasts,” she says, “by making food at home.”

Find more easy ways to make your food buck go further from the makers of the movie Food Stamped.

How has the bad economy affected your eating habits? Have you found new ways to eat cheap and eat well? Share your cost-cutting tips below.