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The old-fashioned food cart is now hip -- and on the run -- with the help of Twitter 

Wednesday, Jul 29 2009

The renegade food-cart craze currently sweeping San Francisco depends on word of mouth for its very existence, which is why Twitter, everyone's favorite punchline, is so vital to the movement's late-breaking, social-networking persona. Although the technology has been around for three years, keeping everyone in the loop about everyone else's musings and grocery store shopping lists, it's only in the past year or so that Twitter has become a social phenomenon, entering the general zeitgeist just about the time the economy tanked and out-of-work foodies looked around for inexpensive means to express their talents.

Factor in our local obsession with handcrafted artisanal all-organic foodstuffs, the hip-speakeasy allure of being in the know, and the fascination with tiny shiny gadgets, and you have a whole new definition of dining out. This metaphysical convergence has resulted in pho carts, curry carts, pie carts, falafel carts, and carts serving something called moo moo cakes dodging permit-happy health, planning, and fire department officials by moving their operations from place to place, cluing customers into their whereabouts (usually in the Mission District's parks, plazas, and saloons) via terse tweets, sometimes updated hourly.

Our first encounter was with John and Dean of Left Coast Smoke ("Oh hells yeah! Smoke is on!" they'd tweeted earlier that day), who set up shop in the darkling recesses of the Knockout bar at Mission and Valencia. Their cart was equipped with a Crock-Pot that produced moist, luscious, slow-cooked pulled pork they'd smoked at home. Stuffed into a toasted bun with crunchy pickles ($6), the pigmeat was on the bland side, but improved exponentially with the addition of the boys' citrusy, peppery mustard sauce.

Next it was off to Dolores Park for an all-star threesome with the Sexy Soup Lady, the Crème Brûlée Guy, and the Wholesome Bakery, um, Baker. A cryptic tweet had instructed us to go "where the kids play," and sure enough, there they were by the jungle gym, dispensing nourishment from two carts, a bicycle, and two picnic tables.

The Sexy Soup Lady (who does possess a cool, glam Carolyn Jones mystique) is a nutritionist in the daylight hours, and her light vegetable chowder ($4) brimmed with farmers' market carrots, potatoes, sweet peppers, and corn kernels with a sprinkle of minced scallions on top — a slightly peppery and particularly nourishing bowl on a cold summer's evening. Nearby, Curtis the Crème Brûlée Guy pulled ramekins of custard from his cart, sprinkled them with sugar, and broiled the tops with a butane torch in a nice display of culinary showbiz. (His brother, Brian, kicked off this whole street-food mishegoss in March when he started selling plates of Thai curry outside his house at Linda and 19th streets, the Haight-Ashbury of the Twitter-era renegade-foodie movement.) Curtis' lavender crème brûlée ($3) had a pleasantly bright and floral flavor, while the Bailey's version ($3) perfectly combined the liqueur's lush essence with the custard's equally rich and creamy texture. The Wholesome Bakery table had cupcakes at $2 apiece, all of them organic, high in fiber, and absolutely vegan. And tasty, too (believe it). The carrot cupcake was moist and light and studded with walnuts, while the vanilla bean was full of dark-chocolate chips and crowned with a dollop of fluffy chocolate frosting. No guilt, and well worth Twittering about.

You don't have to enter the Twitter netherworld to hook up with good street food, of course. The elusive, even legendary Bacon Dog Cart (usually spotted one step ahead of the cops in front of one of those Mission hipster-doofus joints) offers a totally infarctionary, spiritually uplifting jolt of late-night fatty proteins. Equally celebrated is the Tamale Lady, who serves up masa-riffic delicacies to the drunken hordes at Toronado, Zeitgeist, and elsewhere on a schedule known only to herself. (She has a Twitter account, but doesn't seem to use it.) Tanguito sits still and specializes in Argentine cuisine, and its made-on-the-premises empanadas ($3-$3.50) just might be the best in the city. The flakiest pastry this side of Tartine encloses a variety of savory fillings: molten queso blanco ribboned with sweet grilled onion; moist shards of chicken meat with carrot, onion, Peruvian peppers, and hard-cooked egg; a quichelike concoction of sweet, smoky ham and melted cheese; and our favorite, ground beef accented with olives, onions, and a lip-smacking housemade chimichurri sauce doled out of a big jar. These substantial turnovers can be enjoyed at a small adjacent picnic area.

The snazziest of the new street-food conveyances comes from Laurent Katgely, chef and co-owner of the acclaimed French eatery Chez Spencer. His Spencer on the Go! truck is a shiny, streamlined takeout window on wheels with a menu of Gallic classics not often encountered on the streets of San Francisco. The food doesn't always live up to the hype, however. Although the lamb stew ($10) boasted lots of al dente carrots, ripe tomatoes, and a warm, pleasant field-of-lavender flavor, the meat itself was on the tough and chewy side. The mushroom vol-au-vent ($9) wasn't particularly earthy or exciting, despite its pastry toque and artisan Far West Fungi toadstools. The frog's legs ($9), skinny, meaty, and lightly battered, would've been delectable without their uncopacetic curry sauce. But the ratatouille ($7) was terrific, a lush, colorful, nourishing medley of freshly plucked eggplant, peppers, squash, and tomatoes served in a shell of flaky pastry. Enjoy it with a glass of vino at the Terroir wine bar across the street.

Then keep your ears open. The next tweet you hear just might concern moo moo cakes.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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