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Monday, August 30, 2010

The State of S.F. Street Food: The View from Eat Real's LitFest

Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 4:47 PM

click to enlarge A diner orders from the IZ-IT truck at Sunday's Eat Real Fest in Oakland. - JOHN BIRDSALL
  • John Birdsall
  • A diner orders from the IZ-IT truck at Sunday's Eat Real Fest in Oakland.
Eat Real's first-ever LitFest was a gathering of writers and local experts asked to talk on a certain theme. I was asked to speak about street food last Friday; I delivered the following talk, a look at where the new-school San Francisco street-food scene started more than a year ago, and where it is today.

In May 2009, when I started as SFoodie editor, the first few carts in the Mission's new wave of street vending had just begun selling in places like tiny Linda Street. Later that summer, I described a typical scene at Mission Pool; vendors like Magic Curry Kart, Sexy Soup Lady, and Gobba Gobba Hey would tweet the location as "the place under the mural," so police and Health inspectors scanning Twitter feeds wouldn't know where to swoop down. Except when they did.

The city's food media didn't exactly know how to cover the spring happenings that became a summer phenomenon. Another local food site suggested SFoodie was naïve for devoting the Weekly's blog space to a handful of nonchefs who'd set up the equivalent of lemonade stands. How could this collection of card tables and rickety carts in any way be the heir to the great street-food cultures of Asia or Mexico?

click to enlarge Street-food seekers at Eat Real in Jack London Square: In one year, an amazing transformation. - JOHN BIRDSALL
  • John Birdsall
  • Street-food seekers at Eat Real in Jack London Square: In one year, an amazing transformation.
They weren't, of course. Still, we sensed a movement. We tried to be diligent about reporting on every new cart startup, every laid-off tech worker with plenty of free time and a hunger for connection with a subculture who'd hit the streets with a butane burner and a concept. Many disappeared almost as soon as they launched. Remember That Guy's Fries? How about Mr. Baklava?

But the zeitgeist was catching up. In August, 2009, before that month's game-changing pair of food fests ― the SF Street Food Festival and Eat Real, which just wrapped up their 2010 events ― I wondered if the new cart scene wasn't, in fact, the heir to Slow Food. After all, the original political and cultural movement had its founding myth in a potluck organized 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. Sort of like the Mission's Friday night cart scenes, with their whiff of rave-era flash gatherings, the sense of danger that came with fear of discovery by the authorities.

A year later, the streets have witnessed an amazing transformation. Thanks to the efforts of Caleb Zigas of La Cocina and Matt Cohen of the San Francisco Cart Project, we have a better understanding of the forces that have prevented San Francisco from

developing a viable street-food culture: an inexplicably expensive and convoluted permitting process, plus politically powerful restaurant owners, who vies even the humblest bacon-wrapped hot dog as competition. What happened a decade ago in Oakland's Fruitvale District, where community organizer Emilia Otero advocated for fruit vendors and taqueros to create a protected business zone, and a cooperative that allowed modestly funded frutero startups to share resources ― none of that seemed possible in San Francisco.

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