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Monday, August 10, 2009

Are the Mission's New Street-Food Carts the True Heirs of Slow Food?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 10, 2009 at 3:25 PM

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J. Birdsall
A serving from Adobo Hobo: Accessible and easy to like.
It was a few minutes before 7:30 last Friday night, at an undisclosed location in the Mission. The patch of grass before us would soon coalesce into a de facto market of underground street food: Magic Curry, Adobo Hobo, Gobba Gobba Hey, even newcomers Gumbo Man and Jharna's Kitchen. Sexy Soup Lady buttoned her chef's jacket, while a beaming Amuse Bouche unloaded pear frangipane tartlets from a plastic box, talking about his City Hall wedding earlier in the day.

The Mission's new-school street food phenomenon hasn't exactly fit into the slots observers like us have tried to squeeze it into. We've covered it as nightlife trend, the way we'd cover a Snuggie pub crawl, or as a news story filled with tension. Even as a gastronomic event.

On Friday evening, two things became clear to us. First, this new-school underground street-food movement isn't going away. And second, it's a phenomenon that doesn't fit any easy classification. It feels like such an eruption of the zeitgeist, we can't quite assign it a place yet. Except to say that it feels very much like the city at this particular moment.

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J. Birdsall
Gumbo Man served up bowls heavy with andouille.
​Friday was mustache night, but only a scant quarter of the crowd had bothered to paste on fake ones, and fewer still were rocking actual lip fur. It didn't matter. In one queue some dozens of people long, a girl behind us asked, "Anybody know what this line is for?" That didn't seem to matter either. Could've been for soup, could've been for pear tartlets. The point wasn't to get a taste of any particular thing, but merely to be part of the scene.

As it turned out, some of the food was pretty good. Adobo Hobo's chicken adobo was easy to like: a pair of skinned, super-meaty drumsticks on a hefty bed of rice, with a pretty mild adobo sauce that kept soy and vinegar in balance. A bowl of the Gumbo Man's andouille-studded creation was thick and satisfying -- not much heat, but loads of complex vegetal sweetness, with a whiff of smoke from the sausage.

It's almost exactly a year since Slow Food Nation, the multi-day food fest that exalted local, artisanal foods and farmers. Slow Food comes with baggage (the rap: it's pricey, beautiful restaurant food for diners with cash) and so did Slow Food Nation. The sprawling event felt top down, from Gavin Newsom and Alice Waters to some of the city's most talked-about chefs, and ticket costs for the Fort Mason food pavilions were enough to make even those who could afford it think twice.

It occurred to us Friday, waiting patiently in line for a serving of adobo in a cardboard boat, that the Mission's underground food scene feels a bit like some spontaneous, bottom-up expression of the ideals that fueled the original Slow Food movement, a political and cultural movement. After all, the event that grew into Slow Food was a potluck in Rome in 1985. Citizens pissed off about a McDonald's opening on the Spanish Steps protested by bringing food out of their houses, sitting down at group tables and sharing. We'd like to think it was honest food, accessible, not too fancy, something everyone could understand and enjoy. The equivalent, say, of chicken adobo.

Seems to us that the mustached and clean-shaven on Friday in the Mission, sitting on low concrete walls, eating and laughing over cups of soup and bags of bacon potato chips, might have had more in common with that 25-year-old protest in Rome than with diners at some $100 prix fixe made with pristine local produce. Is the Mission's street-food scene essentially Slow Food minus the upscale food fetish?

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