San Francisco’s Mobile Eateries: SOMAny Food Trucks, So Little Time

food truck
In a city like San Francisco, there’s so much to love, it’s easy to veer into bad poetic cliche (the fog rolling in on the Golden Gate; how, on unseasonably warm days, the entire city appears to be picnicking on every available patch of green; the dreamy views of the bay from the top of Pacific Heights).

There are other things about SF that rock, however, despite an obvious lack of romanticism. There’s the food truck scene, for example, which in less than five years has become a firmly entrenched part of the city’s culture. Like SF’s ethnic restaurants, the trucks roam the culinary map, from Eritrea and Malaysia to the Philippines, Hawaii, India, the Deep South, Latin America, and even, god help us, dessertlandia (cupcakes have nothing on the crème brûlée truck).

I’ve written before about Off the Grid (OTG), the ginormous, weekly food truck fiesta held down at Fort Mason (there are other, smaller venues and food truck “pods” in SF, the East Bay, South Bay, and Marin County, as well). Featuring over 40 trucks, music, and stellar views of the Bay, it’s become a beloved celebration of all that’s great about life in San Francisco. My favorite vendors include The Chairman (as in Bao), and Gohan.

I’ve been to OTG before, but until last week, I’d never visited its more urban equivalent, SOMA strEAT Food Park. Located just south of Market Street (SOMA), this formerly dumpy, sketchy block has been transformed into an oasis, complete with landscaping, attractive seating areas, music, a beer garden, and an indoor tent for inclement weather. SOMA has long been an up-and-coming ‘hood for hipsters thanks to its bars, cafes, and restaurants, but it’s also convenient to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Metreon entertainment complex, Yerba Buena Gardens, Moscone Center and the Union Square shopping district.

Unlike OTG, the Food Park is also open daily. A number of the same vendors work OTG and the Food Park (which has different vendors every day), but others are unique to each location. My favorite at the Food Park is Adam’s Grub Truck, which specializes in Pacific Rim-inflected sandwiches that are the bomb. There’s also Del Popolo, inarguably the most famous – and high-tech – food truck/pizzeria on wheels in the nation. It alone is worth a trip down to SOMA.

Whether you head to OTG for the scene, selection and bayside location, or the strEAT Food Park for a convenient shopping or cultural break, you’ll come away stuffed, satiated and waxing a little poetic about SF, yourself.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Gary Soup]

Budget Guide 2013: San Francisco

san francisco
San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive, but that’s not to say you can’t enjoy it to the fullest on a budget. The joy of this compact, walkable city is that you don’t need your own transportation. Remember, though, that food is the soul of San Francisco. That means loads of pop-up restaurants, street food, food trucks, farmers markets and ethnic bites for cheap. The cultural and multi-ethnic focus of the city also means there’s no shortage of art exhibits, festivals and parades, many of which are inexpensive or free.

The number one thing to do on the cheap? Walk! San Francisco is one of the world’s great strolling cities, with dozens of hidden stairways, garden walks, parks, narrow streets and bay views. There are even books devoted to the subject. If you want more of a historical, architectural or culinary focus, spring for an affordable walking tour of specific neighborhoods. Tip: If your feet are tired from all that trudging, one of the city’s best deals is the 60-minute “foot” massage – which includes head, neck, shoulders, back, arms and legs – at Delightful Foot Massage on Polk Street. And yes, it’s a reputable place.

If the weather is cooperating, take the ferry from Pier 41 to Angel Island ($17) and hike to a picnic spot (everything you need for lunch is right there; more on that in a minute). Since this is San Francisco, though, there’s a distinct possibility of crappy weather. No problem – hit the city’s plethora of museums or the Exploratorium (the latter is a must if you have kids with you). Most have free days. Check here for listings.

The way locals prefer to pass the time? Eating! Great food of almost every imaginable ethnic persuasion is so readily available in San Francisco. You can graze your way through the day for less than the cost of a mid-range dinner. Not hungry? Linger over a cup of exceptional – try Four Barrel in The Mission, and don’t forget a Bacon-Maple-Apple donut for later – and a good book. Used bookstores abound nearby.

Hotels

San Francisco has loads of scuzzy motels, but there are plenty of great places to stay, from hostel to boutique, that won’t bankrupt you. Avoid the depressing youth hostels located on sketchy side streets off of Union Square, the main shopping district, and the sad little motels in the Tenderloin (although there are some pleasant exceptions). For a little bit extra, you can have a more secure, peaceful and cleaner place to lay your head. Tip: Lombard Street just off the Golden Gate Bridge/101 is jammed with motels, most of which are decent, and usually offer parking – a precious commodity.

Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel at Fort Mason: This ain’t no ordinary, janky hostel. Situated in the historic waterfront buildings at Fort Mason, this attractive property with a cool, vintage nautical vibe straddles the border of the Wharf and Marina (which has a glorious green for strolling, kite-flying and soccer playing, as well as a beach). Dorm beds and private rooms provide wallet-friendly accommodations for all types, from young backpackers to older couples. There’s a free continental breakfast; clean, attractive rooms and airy common areas; loads of discounts and activities on offer; and a location that can’t be beat for views and convenience. From $28. sfhostels.com/fishermans-wharf 240 Fort Mason

Casa Loma Hotel: This sweet, 48-room, Euro-style hotel is centrally located in Alamo Square. The clean, spare rooms have a Scandinavian, modern aesthetic that gives off a hip IKEA vibe. Close to the park and famed “Painted Ladies” houses (think: title sequence of “Full House”). From $65 standard/shared bath.
casalomahotelsf.com 610 Fillmore Street

Hotel Des Artes: This swank, modern art hotel, a block off Union Square, is decorated with the current works of local artists. The special “Painted Rooms” are all unique (literally, the walls are murals) by emerging global artists, while standard rooms feature washbasins with shared baths. Seekers of San Francisco’s modern Boho scene will feel right at home at this kaleidoscopic boutique property. From $79.
sfhoteldesarts.com 447 Bush Street

Hotel Diva: Describing itself as, “sexy, modern, and fresh from a facelift,” this Union Square boutique hotel reopened last June. And it’s indeed seductive, from the gray and white color scheme with violet accents, to the sleek modernist trappings. Think the “W” with SF flair: nightly sake hour, fitness center, dog friendly and on the fringe of the rapidly hipsterfying Tenderloin. From $140 deluxe Queen.
hoteldiva.com 440 Geary Boulevard

Eat and Drink

Farmers Markets: You’re in Northern California, birthplace of the modern local food movement. That means year-round farmers markets, the most famous of which is the massive, Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on the Embarcadero (there are also smaller Tuesday and Thursday markets). Hit the market by 10 a.m., before the swarms arrive, and snack your way through the stalls. The Embarcadero itself has undergone a major renovation in recent years; it’s safe day or night, and populated with art installations and trendy cafes and restaurants. It’s also an ideal place for a long, bayside stroll or run on a sunny day.

The Ferry Building is a concentration of farmer- and artisan-owned shops featuring everything from estate olive oil to certified humane meat. Tip: Plan on buying a late breakfast or early lunch at the market. Top picks are the porchetta sandwich at Roli Roti’s stall (get there early or go hungry), anything from La Primavera’s stall, or a sit-down brunch at Boulette’s Larder in the Building (not served on Saturdays). If it’s oysters you want, hit Hog Island’s Raw Bar at the far end of the main hall. Then go stock up on edible souvenirs from Cowgirl Creamery, Miette (pastry), McEvoy Ranch and Recchiuti Confections.
ferrybuildingmarketplace.com One Ferry Building

Off the Grid: Every Friday from 5 to 8 p.m., a fleet of the city’s best food trucks arrives at Fort Mason, down in the Marina. Up to 40 sweet and savory vendors may appear on a given night, featuring street food as creative, multi-culti and adventurous as only San Francisco would have it. There’s music, views of the bay, Golden Gate and Alcatraz, and a seriously local vibe – this isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s simply a raucous, joyous, festival of flavor, San Fran-style. offthegridsf.com

Go Ethnic: Between the Asian restaurants of the Sunset and Richmond Districts (locals know better than to eat in Chinatown) to the diverse ethnic dives of the Tenderloin, you can indulge your inner glutton for less than a ten-spot. Best of all, adventurous eaters have almost every style of cuisine to choose from, as well as menus that boast authenticity (frog legs or sea cucumber, anyone?) Some of the best: Brother’s Korean and King of Thai Noodle on Clement Street (I don’t know why, but this is the only location that does it for me); Wing Lee Bakery and Burma SuperStar (Inner Richmond); and Shalimar, Pakwan, Turtle Tower and Osha Thai (Tenderloin).

The Mission: If you love Latin flavors, you won’t need to venture beyond this Hispanic neighborhood, where you’ll find excellent everything, from El Salvadorean to Peruvian. But the Mission is also the newest hipster ‘hood for craft foods, from coffee and chocolate (such as Dandelion’s “bar to bean” aesthetic) to modern Korean food. Check out the latter at Namu Gaji, or the insane happy hour deals at Wo Hing General Store ($6 craft cocktails to die for, and $5 for a bamboo steamer of shiu mai or plate of pork dumplings, 5:30 -7 p.m., daily). Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the baked goods at Craftsmen & Wolves (yes, you’ll pay $7 for a muffin, but it will have a soft-boiled egg encased within, as well as cheesy, hammy bits and it will fill you up for hours) or Tartine Bakery. Get there early to avoid a wait, and let go of guilt. One look in the pastry case, and you’ll understand.

Get Around

If walking isn’t an option, the bus, MUNI, will get you anywhere you need to go. Sure, it’s a crowded mobile petri dish and full of freaks, but do as the locals do. San Francisco is an easy city to navigate, since it really is a giant grid. Google maps makes things a snap on your phone or computer.

There are also the cable cars, which are just $6 a pop and always fun (they may not admit it, but locals love them, too), the trolley down in the Embarcadero/Market Street area, and BART, which covers the East Bay. It’s also the fastest, easiest way to traverse the Downtown, Financial and Mission districts of the city; otherwise the bus is your cheapest bet.

Budget Tip

One way to save a chunk of cash is to take BART to and from the airport (it services both SFO and Oakland). It will run you around $8, instead of a $50 cab ride, or $17 for a shared van, which can take well over an hour if you’re not the first drop-off. Even if you’re too far to hoof it to your hotel from the BART station, you’ll still save time and money, unless you’re staying out in the hinterlands of the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Trodel]

Scotland asks U.S. to lift haggis ban

haggis, Haggis, Scotland, scotlandThe Scottish government has invited a delegation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Scotland in a bid to lift the ban on haggis imports.

In an interview with the BBC, Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said he wants to show the officials that haggis is made in a safe and sanitary manner.

Earlier this year we reported that the ban on haggis was being lifted. This ban was put in place on UK meat products in 1989 thanks to the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. mad cow disease. The ban on UK meat was indeed lifted, but our report on haggis turned out to be premature, because in ensuing years the U.S. government had added a ban on imports of food containing sheep lungs, a key ingredient in traditional haggis.

Now the Scots are trying to get that last hurdle out of the way. Mr. Lochhead says the U.S. market for haggis could be huge. Think how many expat Scots, Scottish-Americans, and wannabe Scots there are in the good old U S of A. Just the number of people trying it once out of curiosity could add up to millions of dollars in sales.

He believes that if U.S. agriculture officials saw the high standards of food processing in Scotland, they’d give sheep lungs a break and allow them for human consumption.

Personally, I don’t like haggis, but that’s just me. I think that the more ethnic foods are available to the consumer, the better.

[Photo courtesy user Kaishu via Wikimedia Commons]

Five tips to reduce your health risk while eating street food

It was the 18th century food writer and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” For certain cultures, street food is more than just a cheap, tasty, easy way to fuel the body. It’s part of a daily ritual, a way to catch up on neighborhood or community gossip, a means of eking out a living to provide for one’s family. By eating foreign street food, you get a sense of the social fabric and gender roles of a community or culture, but what about the health risks?

Some travelers equate a love of street food with a latent wish to sightsee whilst wearing an adult diaper. They steer clear of anything sold from a vendor, or resembling fruit, vegetable, or beverage not from a bottle (although when it comes to drinking water, you should always err on the side of caution, and there is something to be said about peeling or washing produce to avoid pesticide residue, since many developing nations use chemicals banned in the U.S.). What these folks may not realize is that foodborne illnesses such as E.coli, salmonella, and listeria don’t discriminate. FDA statistics show you’re more likely to get sick from preparing food at home than from dining in a domestic restaurant.

Is street food inherently more risky than eating in a restaurant when you travel? Sometimes, and it depends. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are certainly more at risk of getting ill, and may be best off avoiding street eats. But there are certain precautionary measures healthy travelers can take before scarfing their tacos or mystery-meat kebabs that will minimize the chances of bringing home more than just a suitcase full of sweatshop-made tchotchkes as souvenirs. Read on.

1. Is there a crowd? Just like at home, go where the locals go, as they obviously know where to find the good stuff. But high volume also means that food is being prepared fresh, rather than sitting around attracting flies and turning into something useful for waging biological warfare.

2. Are basic hygiene practices being implemented by the vendor(s)? In Mexico, I’ve frequently observed street vendors slipping clean plastic bags over plates. With every order, a new bag is used, then discarded at the end of the meal. It’s an eco-nightmare, but it’s a lot more sanitary than dunking a plate in a bucket of dingy water doubling as a petri dish. Also bear in mind that in many parts of the world, the left hand performs double-duty as toilet paper. I can’t say it enough: Look at the sanitation practices before ordering.

You’ll often find co-workers whose sole responsibility is to handle money, to avoid cross-contaminating food (this isn’t always the case, however, so sometimes you’ll just have to–literally–suck it up). Once, when I accidentally handed my money to the wrong guy, he turned his hand upside-down to avoid contact with my filthy coins.

3. Is the stand or cart clean and well-maintained? Is hot food kept hot or cooked to order, and is cold food cold? Is purified water or ice used for beverages and frozen treats?

4. Are the ingredients fresh? If you’ve got eyes, a nose, and some tastebuds, you can figure this out for yourself. I look at the condiments and garnishes to determine if I want to eat at a given stand or cart. If I see crusty bowls of salsa, dessicated limes, slimy herbs, or flies congregated on any raw foods I might potentially eat, I’m out of there.

Stick to local specialties. One of the greatest joys of travel is eating regional ingredients or dishes. It also stands to reason that ordering seafood in an inland desert is a calculated risk. Raw protein products (egg, meat, poultry, fish, fresh cheeses) in general are to be avoided in the Third World. What about dishes like ceviche, where the acid in the citrus juice denatures (breaks down proteins, killing some potential pathogens in the process) the fish? It’s still risky, because technically it’s an uncooked food, and only application of heat over 145 degrees can totally annihilate anything potentially deadly lurking in fish. Again, use good judgment based on freshness of ingredients and basic sanitation, but remember that you can’t eliminate all risk.

If you’re in a coastal region, it pays to do a bit of homework on the cleanliness of the local fresh and ocean water supplies; algae blooms or cholera outbreaks will be widely reported. Try to avoid eating raw river fish or seafood, or river fish/seafood from just offshore; remember that many developing island nations and coastal regions use high tide as their toilet. If you’re eating pork in the Third World, always make sure it’s well-cooked. While trichinosis has effectively been eradicated from our domestic industrial pork supply, the disease is prevalent in other parts of the world. And not to get too graphic, but you’ll often find pigs in rural parts of the developing world lurking around latrines, searching for a snack.

Fresh ingredients don’t necessarily mean great food, but it helps. Delicious street food is ulimately a reflection of the loving care that goes into its preparation. Are the carnitas slightly crispy on the outside, with an interior succulent with greasy goodness? Is the masa in the tamales moist, with a sweet, earthy corn flavor? Are the noodles slightly toothsome, the herbs fresh and bright-tasting, the broth fragrant and piping hot? These things matter.

5. Use hand sanitizer before eating, take probiotics with live active cultures prophylactically, and pack a broad-spectrum gastrointestinal antibiotic and Imodium, just in case. I’m just sayin’.

For more information on food safety, go to this page on the USDA website.

Foods found when traveling that you have fallen in love with

Jeff White loved talking about food and travel. He’d try new foods, explore local customs and truly enjoyed sharing those stories with you. Enjoying food as much as I do, especially when traveling, I loved Jeff’s food posts. He loved discussing food and that’s what he did with all of you in this featured post. He compiled your responses to the question “What foods have you discovered while traveling that you now love?” and was so pleased with what you shared. Please honor Jeff’s memory by continuing this conversation. Post your favorite travel food memories in the comments or send us a tweet @Gadling.

A while ago, Gadling posted a question on our Twitter page asking people to name some foods that they discovered while traveling and now have a hard time living without.

Not surprisingly, the replies came in with votes for currywurst, Indian chai, exotic fruits and a variety of libations.

Here’s how some people answered our question. (Want to tell us a food you discovered while traveling and now can’t live without? Send you story here.)

Larry Bleiberg says, “Great question! Hard cider from UK. Taramasalata, Athens. Side note: Trader Joes started by selling stuff folks discovered traveling.”

Laura Byrne Paquet of Facing the Street says, “Believe it or not, I first got up the nerve to taste smoked salmon on trip to Scotland about a decade ago. Now I’m addicted.”
Nathan Midgley of Travel Weekly Blog says, “Currywurst. Classy, no? I also tried pure sulfer on White Island, NZ, but that wasn’t really a keeper.”

Alex H. of theycallmearex says, “In Taiwan it’s all about the fruits!–cherimoya, guava, ‘lien-au’, etc. Actually, I’ll try most any local foods in any country. Yum.”

Soultravelers3 says, ” We never had StickyToffeePudding, til we had it in our Spain village at 4 table restaurant by UK expats. Yum! We had it 1st nite back.”

NewWrldYankee says, “Beans on toast – sounds gross but can be perfect during exam time! And corn on pizza.”

Eva Holland says, “Fresh lime juice in KL. Real chai in India. Hand-pulled ales, ploughman’s lunches in UK. Of course, it’s never the same at home!”

Jessiev says, “NOT durian. Ha!”

Joodlenoodle says, “Tasted crystallized ginger candy at a temple outside Tokyo and now have to make my own because I can’t find the right kind anywhere!”

PAadventure says, “Most people have never heard of putting french fries on their sandwiches… until they go to Pittsburgh, PA and have a Primantis!”

TheWildPair says, “What foods have you learned about while traveling and can’t go without? Mangosteen! Fell in love with this fruit in Malaysia.