After many requests from readers, I finally dove into the food truck phenomenon in San Francisco. As a longtime street-food eater, particularly in Asia and India, where specialization is the rule, and stalls and carts are right on the pavement and completely open to view, the rolling kitchens in San Francisco feel removed and a bit soulless.
In Asia there is always a place to sit — at low stools and tables on the sidewalk, or folding chairs and tables in a covered alleyway, or dedicated hawker areas set up with numbered tables where purveyors actually bring food and drink to you as it is prepared.
Street food in Asia and Mexico is part of daily life, fresh, cheap, tasty, quick, convenient, easy to find and dependable. The food-truck experience in San Francisco can be cold, uncomfortable and elusive. But there are treats to be mined.
The best place to find them is in the Fort Mason parking lot on Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m. where 30 of San Francisco’s food trucks and street food tents congregate.
Chairman Bao and Curry Up Now are the two brightest stars in the food truck constellation, both highly designed, branded and efficient. Each has a couple of items worth waiting in line for.
At Chairman Bao, I like the steamed buns — not the big baked buns — particularly those filled with grilled, marinated tofu and sharp, al dente kale in copious miso dressing ($3.25), a startling and original combination.
A steamed bun stuffed with slices of grilled pork belly and pickled daikon ($3.75) also achieves lift off — though none come close to the pork buns at Spice Kit, a stationary fast food restaurant at Second and Howard streets.
The deconstructed samosa ($6), a cardboard carton of crispy, crumbled fried shell, savory potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind and green chutneys from Curry Up Now, is addictive.
The other great Curry Up Now invention is the Kathi Roll, $6, a thin whole wheat chapati-like flour tortilla coated with egg, which sets as the chapati cooks on the griddle; then it is rolled around keema, spiced ground beef, pickled onions and chutneys.
Sataysfied, a tented booth, does one thing very, very well: spicy, char-grilled pork satay, hot, tender, juicy, full of spice, slathered with peanut sauce and served with jasmine rice and a finely chopped napa cabbage and carrot slaw in Asian dressing ($5) — perfect street food.
Azalina, the Malaysian booth next to Sataysfied, makes a coconut milk curry soup with noodles, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, tofu and chicken called laksa ($6), which brought back memories of Penang one Friday, but disappointed on another with its lack of depth.
However, Azalina’s warm banana beignets topped with coconut jam ($5) are a must: tender, light, puffy, infused with freshly grated nutmeg, the spice of Penang, and filled with lots of ripe banana.
For an appetizer, have a warm Argentine-style mushroom empanada ($4), thin, buttery, flaky pastry folded over a creamy mushroom filling, at El Porteno, a tent.
To complete your culinary circle of the globe, an Icy Fruit ($3) from the Little Green Cyclo Vietnamese truck — ice, coconut milk, jack fruit and lichee — conjures the lush and tropical, even though you may be chilled to the bone by the wind pouring in from a colder sector of the Pacific.
Patricia Unterman is the author of “The San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Food trucks in SF
11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday and Friday, six trucks
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, six trucks
Fifth and Minna streets
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, six trucks
Stanyan and Waller streets
4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, six to 10 trucks
5 to 10 p.m, Friday; 30 trucks and tents
(off Valencia Street) 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, two to four trucks