Last weekend, we took a leisurely drive to San Francisco for the city’s first ever Street Food Festival. Organized by La Cocina, a non-profit focused on developing ‘food entrepreneurs’, the event was part of the drive to raise awareness about street food culture and the challenges faced by vendors seeking legitimacy from the city. Reading about San Francisco’s complex and onerous maze of regulations facing street food vendors prompts a “Why?!”. After all, street food is about accessibility and simplicity, and to infringe on either of these characteristics seems almost….wrong.
We turned up at the festival slightly past 1pm, eager to satisfy our hunger pangs. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Everyone else had the same idea, and the event was over-run with hungry attendees, forming endless queues all over the block, up the sidewalk and around trees. After a quick survey, we decided to join the shortest line for Onigilly and dessert-makers, Kika’s Treats.
The name is a play on the word onigiri, a triangular sushi wrapped with raw or cooked fillings and rice bundled in a crisp, seaweed coat. These were among our favorite grab-and-go snacks from the supermarket when we were in Singapore and I was delighted to find them at the festival.
Traditionally served with white sushi rice, Onigilly’s versions allowed a guilt-free indulgence with their use of brown rice. We had the house-marinated eggplant onigiri, which vanished pretty quickly. The thick slice of eggplant provided just the right counterfoil to the sticky grains of rice. We also ordered the tuna onigiri – tuna marinated with a miso aioli – which I found a little dry and too paste-like for my taste. Regardless, both were welcome appetizers refreshingly washed down with a cup of barley tea as we eyed our next target.
We decided to join the line for Laiola, Onigilly’s festival neighbor, for their gypsy pepper gazpacho and heirloom tomato ‘tomaquet’ with grilled bread. Despite a 15-minute wait, the food was worth every second.
The gazpacho was nothing short of excellent, each sip exploding with a heady blend of cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, tarragon, wine grapes, almonds and cilantro, tied together with drops of olive oil. Their take on the traditional bruschetta with the tomaquet was, in my opinion, Californian cuisine at its best. Plump, juicy tomatoes bursting with flavor were served on a hot, crisp slice of grilled bread and dressed with a simple shallot, basil and olive oil dressing. It was a dish that had been over-reproduced on countless Italian restaurant menus all over the world, but its simplicity, married with vibrant flavors and fresh ingredients gave it a distinctively Californian attitude.
And that is where our adventure ended. Our hungry companions (who arrived after we did), were reluctant to wait upwards of 45 minutes for lunch. That is how we ended up completing our meal with some finger-licking delicious carne asada tacos, not from a truck, but at Taqueria Vallarta, which serves up some of San Francisco’s best tacos according to its avid fans.
Although I was secretly hoping that the festival’s crowd would dissipate a teeny bit while we were gone, it was not to be. The sight of endless queues and the prospect of navigating through snaking lines to figure out which stall each line belonged to, topped off with a long wait was hardly appealing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to spend the requisite amount of time waiting for that sandwich/bowl of noodles/rice rolls from that stall to satisfy my food cravings for a particular meal, and even to drive 30 miles to dirty my fingers in a crab feast. But to have to repeat the extended waiting process over and over within the span of an afternoon just didn’t make sense, even if the food being dished out was worth every minute (as I have no doubt they were).
There’s no doubt that street food is essential to a city’s identity and culture. It’s the badge you wear when queueing up for that serving of crème brulee, bowl of pho or escargot-on-a-stick, the sense of camaraderie with your fellow diners that, despite the neighborhoods you live in, the car you drive or the school you went to, for those 55 minutes of waiting, you’re part of a shared experience, one with its roots in memories of your culture, childhood and identity. It’s the great leveler, placing us back squarely where we came from, where our tastes were developed and fondest memories forged.
That is why street food is important.