"Food trucks are the iPhone apps of the restaurant world," my friend Mike told me a few weeks ago. Spending a few hours in food-truck lines, as we'd just done, gives a man some time to think. He explained: "Not just because they're working on a small scale. They have to be designed so you get what they're doing in just a few bites."
Crowd-stunned and bloated — and thanks to a steel-drum player who set up next to our spot, half deaf — we were walking out of Off the Grid, a Friday night street-food gathering at Fort Mason Center. The night market has been SRO since its launch last month, and organizer Matt Cohen just received approval from the city to bring Off the Grid to spots in the Mission, the Upper Haight, and Civic Center. That's in addition to the trucks' regular lunchtime appearances around downtown, SOMA, and office-rich corners of Brisbane and Emeryville.
Because it's summer, and because the street-food movement has all the momentum of Twilight movie mania, the public has been logging sightings of a new food truck every week. In contrast with San Francisco's traditional taco truck fleet, which continues to grow slowly — and is still below the radar — this summer's new food trucks have investors, graphic designers, and Facebook fan pages. Their ambition isn't (just) to make a living, it seems, but to realize big ambitions. To some trucks, that means scaling down the bistro experience to something that fits in a compostable box; other trucks concoct handheld snacks that meld a half-dozen cuisines. The multiculti taco, needless to say, is everywhere.
I spent the past few weeks chasing down new-generation food trucks, managing to eat at seven trucks that have appeared since March (see the box for info on three more I didn't visit). I accrued enough takeout containers to construct a small fort, and observed both the good and dark sides of our species' line-forming behaviors. I also found Mike's analogy more and more apt. The most successful trucks could be described in an incomplete sentence, and the best of their food is like a proper taco-truck taco: a punch thrown hard enough to resonate in parts of the body never touched by a fist.
Chairman Bao, for instance, gets it. The truck is the inaugural launch from an outfit called Mobi Munch, started by the World Wrapps founders to provide "turnkey" trucks to everyone from small-business vendors to major corporations. "You might think of us as the Ray Kroc trying to find the McDonald brothers around the world," Mobi Munch head Ray Villamen told our SFoodie blog last month, not realizing how that might make him sound to San Franciscans like the RDA Corporation plotting its next assault on the Na'avi.
But the red-and-beige truck, a psychedelic pastiche of Chinese kitsch, is the most striking of any on the streets. The concept — steamed buns with chef Eric Rudd's pan-Asian fillings — takes two seconds to grasp. And the puffy, white clamshell buns ($2.95), the kind some of us recognize from Taiwanese gua bao and others from the Momofuku cookbook, cradle fillings flavored in the broadest of strokes: shredded chicken slathered in a Korean sweet-spicy marinade and cut with green onions, my favorite. Pork belly, braised and then crisped, its unctuousness checked by the clanging of pickled daikon. Duck confit covered in mayonnaise and slithery, sweet mango slices. (The lion's head meatballs with kimchi, the egg and Chinese sausage: not so good.)
Who else gets it? Hapa SF. This 3-month-old modern-Filipino truck doesn't have its SF street permits yet, so it primarily appears at Off the Grid and 8000 Marina Blvd. in Brisbane, an office-park lot that welcomes any truck banished from the city. Not surprisingly, given owner William Pilz's time as chef at Citizen Cake, he's making some of the cleanest, most technically sophisticated food on wheels, without self-consciously trying to "elevate" it. The meat in his chicken adobo banh mi ($5) is poached in a traditional soy-pepper-vinegar brine — but only long enough to leave it delicate and juicy. Pilz's pork sisig ($7), doused just as potently in soy and lime, is as crunchy as at tradition-minded restaurants, but it's made from the head and shoulder meat of sustainably raised pigs. The sisig is even more distinctive folded into tacos ($6 for two), where the pork is punctuated with drops of a vivid tomatillo-avocado salsa, and frilly, floral notes of cilantro skitter across the top.
Many of the trucks have one dish that sums up everything they're trying to do, a dish good enough to earn them a spot in your Twitter feed. With Primo's Parrilla, an Argentinian truck that travels around the East Bay, it's Javier Sandes' tri-tip sandwiches ($12, or $9 without mashed sweet potatoes). The grass-fed beef, sourced from Kansas, is grilled slowly over almond wood and mesquite; Sandes fills a warm, crisp French roll with slices of the lean, earthy meat, then drizzles in a chimichurri sauce whose every fleck of oregano, every spot of minced shallot, is sensed.
At SF Crispy Tacos, chef Matthew Griffin takes big Mexican-American tacos and pushes them several steps further into dude-food territory. The further he goes, the better: His crispy tacos ($4 apiece) are better than his soft ones ($3), the jerk-spiced pork loin more savory than the carnitas. The burliest, gnarliest of them all is his bacon taco, a monsterpiece of refried beans, pickled carrots, onions, and cilantro sprigs, all enrobing a 3-ounce mound of bacon ends glazed in pineapple juice and hot sauce. Before you lift it off the plate, grab three times the number of napkins you would normally go through.
The newest trucks I made it to, both one month old, are still working out their concept and their food. IZ-IT Fresh Grill hasn't yet figured out how to focus its Hawaiian beef and chicken tacos ($2), but the owners sell a Chinese fried chicken ($4 for two legs) whose fragrant juices bead up the moment you bite through the delicate crust. The recipe was perfected decades ago — by the owners' grandparents, who sold it at the Richmond's Kwong Shing Market. And at 51st State (www.51ststatesf.com), Francesca Salcido, Nathan Smith, and Daniel Gutierrez are doing high-low versions of regional American dishes, with sputtering success (and, as a former Seattleite, I have to take issue with the Great Lakes wild rice in their "Northwestern" wild-rice pancake). The promise of the truck comes through in its strongest dish: The Brunswick stew ($8) is dense with tomatoes and braised, smoked pork, and lightened up with creamy coins of fingerling potatoes and corn kernels that pop sweetly in the mouth.
Akash and Rana Kapoor's Curry Up Now is the first of the new-generation trucks to clone itself. The Kapoors' original truck has been circling around the Peninsula since last September, and in early April a second truck began traveling to San Francisco. Curry Up Now's chicken tikka masala burritos ($6.75) and aloo-parantha quesadillas filled with cheese and ground, spiced beef ($7.75) can be a hot grease-slicked mess. But not the beef kathi roll ($6), a thin, wheat-flour chapati tightly rolled around shredded beef, pickled onions, and chutney. Order it spicy, ignoring the barrage of disclaimers you must undergo before the cashier hands it to you, and the fervidly spiced roll vibrates in your clutches. Is it a chemical reaction, produced by the conflagration of cumin, coriander, hot peppers, and mint, or just the jangling of your overstimulated olfactory nerves? It takes just a bite of the kathi roll to get its layered, flashy flavors, and get the Kapoors' taco-truck take on Indian street food. Heck, you might get it again.
Locations: Off the Grid; locations around San Francisco, Emeryville, and Brisbane
Web: www.facebook.com, search for "Hapa SF" (no, really)
Locations: Off the Grid;8000 Marina Blvd., Brisbane
Locations: Various locations in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville
SF Crispy Tacos
Web: SF Crispy Tacos
Locations: Townsend at Fourth Street,noon-2 p.m. weekdays; Valencia at Duboce, some evenings
IZ-IT Fresh Grill
Locations: Off the Grid; various locations inSan Francisco and Brisbane
Locations: Multiple locations around downtown San Francisco
Curry Up Now
Locations: 225 Bush (at Sansome) and Off the Grid, plus additional locations in Redwood City, Brisbane, and San Mateo
Two more trucks too new to review: Señor Sisig (www.senorsisig.com) and The Southern Sandwich (www.southernsandwich.com). A third truck, The Taco Guys (www.thetacoguys.com), appears in Marin County and San Francisco, but conflict of interest (i.e., I've known the chef for years) prevents me from reviewing it.