On Friday afternoon I met Aris at a bar in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. He’s a craft baker at Tartine Bakery & Café in the Mission where he lovingly creates a maximum of 150 loaves of artisanal bread every day. I’d never thought of it this way, but over a second Russian River IPA Aris explained that beer and bread involve essentially the same creative process. “I just bake it,” he noted.
After checking out Tartine’s web site, I decided that Saturday #8 would be devoted to sampling San Francisco’s thriving foodie scene. Go ahead, splurge a bit, I told myself, you’ll starve for the next 8 days at Burning Man.
I had planned to start with lunch at one of the taco stands near Mission Delores and end with a trip to Aris’ bakery. He told me that a line forms at 3:30 p.m., and if you’re one of the first 50 or so in line you might get a loaf when they come out of the oven at 4:30 p.m. I planned to buy several loaves to share at the hostel’s $5 pasta dinner in the common room. At least that was the plan when I left the hostel on Saturday morning.
If you read Part 1 of today’s entry you’ll know that a Romanian gypsy knocked me off schedule before I even got going. It didn’t help that I proceeded to spend the rest of the morning poking around army surplus shops, a discount building supply store (second visit), and then most of the afternoon at dollar stores and thrift shops in the Mission.
I realized around 2:00 p.m. that I’d miss the bread line but consoled myself with a dozen 4-packs of AAA batteries for $1 each, two rolls of duct tape for $1, several 4’ x 6’ plastic tarps for $1.79 apiece, and a big jug of hand sanitizer for a measly two bucks. You can never have too many useful items to ‘gift’ on the playa. Sorry, Aris, but I’ll be sure to visit the bakery if I survive 7 nights of camping on the most inhospitable 4,400 acres of land on the continent.
Around 4:00 p.m. I was walking my bike through the Mission when I came across a small group of exceptionally good-looking people exiting a restaurant at 2170 Mission. Southpaw BBQ & Southern Cooking looked like the kind of place that would have the nicest washrooms for blocks around. I sat at the bar and sipped Prohibition Sweet Tea (iced tea, cane sugar, vodka & lemon juice over ice) while perusing the menu.
Owner Elizabeth Wells explained that she grew up in Alabama and “learned at an early age that you don’t sass your parents, you always say a kind hello to strangers and there are absolutely no shortcuts in good Southern cooking.”
The couple to my left had already worked their way through several small plates when they ordered the dry rubbed & smoked Hampshire pork ribs ($19) with hushpuppies and sides of cilantro crème fraiche coleslaw and black eyed peas with onions and peppers. They appeared to be in BBQ hog heaven as they loudly smacked their lips, licked their fingers, and washed everything down with pints of Southpaw’s house-brewed Roll Tide Red Ale. Later, at their insistence, we all did shots of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon. I’m certainly no bourbon connoisseur but I know what I like and I like the stuff coming out of Elmer T. Lee’s clawfoot bathtub.
I hadn’t eaten since 8:00 a.m. when I had a bagel and grape jam at the hostel so I didn’t feel the least bit guilty ordering Southpaw’s pulled BBQ pork sandwich, kettle chips and house made pickles ($9).
While the price didn’t lead me to believe that I’d get much more than I did, I also think that when an item is advertised as coming “with pickles” (note the ‘s’), you can reasonably expect to get more than one slice of pickle.
The coleslaw didn’t come as a side dish as I was expecting, but rather stacked on the sandwich, which being pulled pork, was already tough to eat without wearing it. At least the Southpaw version was served on a large aluminum tray that made it relatively easy to repossess strands of errant pork.
I’d give Southpaw top marks for food quality, presentation, ambience, and value for money but the service was indifferent at best. I would have tried one of their in-house brewed beers had I been able to catch the eye of a bartender who was standing about 10 feet away and staring right at (through?) me for several minutes.
All things considered, Southpaw gets a 3.5 out of 5 with an easy upgrade to 4.5 if they ‘upgrade’ the bartender.
On the ride back to my hostel I passed a motley collection of motorhomes parked on 11th Street, sheltered from the late afternoon sun by the elevated Central Freeway. Based on the general state of repair of the RVs and most of the dozen or so people who hanging around and sharing a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, I concluded these RVs aren’t going anywhere soon. They may have been provided by a mission or charity as a cost-effective way to house the homeless without uprooting them. Not a bad idea, I thought.
On the opposite side of 11th Street were both a vacant lot and a second fenced lot that was buzzing with activity. What at first appeared to be more brightly colored RVs turned out to be the SoMa StrEat Food Park. With no bread in my backpack and no reason to return to the hostel, I decided to check out the food park.
I’ve long been intrigued by the whole food truck movement. Toronto’s street food scene is pathetic – many miles behind that of even Winnipeg where the city encourages such businesses. When I was there in early July I marveled at the names of some of the trucks that lined the streets near the Manitoba legislature: Corn on the Curb, Fired Up, Golden Boy Sandwich, Grass Fed Grill, Pimp My Rice, Smokin’ Haut, Pizzapotomus, Sis And Me, Tot Wheels, and Waki Temaki.
And while Winnipeg’s food trucks appeared to be doing a booming business on July 3, it might be a different scene in January or February. It’s obviously a different situation in California, and like so many things, the Bay Area is on the leading edge of the trend.
I stood at a counter and chatted with Chico, one of the regulars, who explained that the recession of ’08 was a turning point for the industry. When construction projects ground to a halt and tradesmen were idled, the taco trucks that serviced these blue collar and largely Mexican laborers began to feel the pinch. Many taco truck operators parked their vehicles while others listed them for sale on Kijiji. The economic slowdown also hit bricks and mortar restaurants. Everyone from busboys to recently graduated chefs were having a hard time finding work. Some of the more entrepreneurial chefs bought used taco trucks for pennies on the dollar, diversified their offerings, and relocated to areas like SoMa (South of Market) where auto body shops, light industry, and sketchy bars sit side-by-side with loft-like offices occupied by startups and established companies ranging from Adobe to Zynga and something called Twitter too.
The SoMa StrEat Food Park is open 7 days a week, till 9:00 on weekdays and 10:00 on Saturdays, and features 15 or more different trucks every day. They also offer bike parking, washrooms, and free wi-fi. What more could a backpacker with a bike ask for?
Well, he could ask for four different kinds of sangria, Mexican Coke, Arnold Palmer ‘Granate’ Lemonade, crab cake burgers, grilled pesto sliders, white cheddar, bacon and fig sandwiches, fingerling potato fries, and Sea Salt Caramel Ice Cream – and he’d be able to at least sample all of the above over the course of many hours.
Some of the eclectic vendors who frequent the SoMa StrEat Food Park: Bacon Bacon, Benedict Arnold’s, Bob Cha Korean, Boneyard, Brass Knuckle, Burr-Eatery, Cheese Gone Wild, Cluck It Up, Curry Up Now, Dum Truck, Dusty Buns Bistro, Eiretrea, Icebox, Lil’ Burma, Me So Hungry, Naked Chorizo, Oui Chef, Rib Whip, Seoul On Wheels, Voodoo Van and Waffle Roost.
I spoke with Dusty (pictured above), proprietor of Dusty Buns Bistro & Bus. Dusty mans the grill while his wife, affectionately know as ‘Mrs. Buns,’ gets up early to bake the bread and buns that are the base for Dusty’s signature sandwiches. They specialize in local organic sandwiches with ‘California flavor’ and proudly serve “the Central Valley’s harvest in every bite,” according to a backgrounder on their site.
I ordered ‘Le Grilled Cheese’ and was very pleasantly surprised. According the menu board, Dusty makes his GC with aged white cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, and seasonal fruit. Saturday’s fruit du jour was sliced fig. Tired old pear and gruyere aside, I can’t think of no better combination of fruit, meat and cheese than Dusty’s brilliant creation.
When I mentioned my blog, Dusty insisted that I try his fingerling potato fries. They were on the house (truck?), he said. They were also warm, a perfect consistency, easy to eat with your fingers, and served with an extra thick ketchup. And while the fries were excellent, they were overshadowed by the grilled bacon, fig and white cheddar sandwich. It was a far cry from the Kraft single on two pieces of A&P-bought white bread that I grew up with, and thankfully so. It was perhaps the best grilled cheese I’ve ever encountered, and that’s saying something as I’m a sucker for the fried fromage. Thank-you, Greg, Dusty, Mrs. Buns and Baby Buns.
I couldn’t possibly balance my bike, two plates of food and a carafe of sangria, so I set out to find a picnic table. I ended up sharing a table with four guys who I soon learned were part of a group of about 15 who had rented a sailboat for the day to celebrate one guy’s 50th birthday. I struck up a conversation with Bob, the birthday boy, his partner Brian, and many of their incredibly nice friends. I also stayed four about four hours. Hope I didn’t overstay my welcome, boys.
The gang of friends brought their own red velvet birthday cake (with ‘to-die-for’ butter cream icing) and a lemon meringue pie that resembled a hornet’s nest. Bob certainly had his pie and ate it too. Well, not all of it, but he made a pretty good dent in a pie that was at least 8 inches tall. The red velvet cake was cut and passed around. I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to serve birthday cake it had better have icing, and if you have icing, it should be the kind you had at your 5th birthday party, not the airy, whipped stuff that passes for icing these days.
Most of the folks in this group have known each other for about 25 years – dating back to the days when some of them were in a west coast production of A Chorus Line. It didn’t take long before the music was cranked and sangria-fueled dancing ensued. I’ve found that a gallon or so of sangria tends to bring out the best or worst in people. In this case it revealed the nicest group of people you’d ever want meet. Thanks, Bob, Brian and the gang for including me in your party.
Here’s some video evidence:
I really didn’t want to get a citation for riding under the influence so I walked my bike several miles back to the hostel.
Nothing I’ve found to date sobers you up quite like a late night walk up and down the hills of San Francisco, especially when pushing a bike and balancing a day’s worth of shopping on the handlebars.
I should add that the preceding statement was accurate when I went to bed at 2:00 a.m. Everything changed a little more than an hour later, at 3:21 a.m., when all four of us in Room 315 at the USA Hostel (San Francisco) sat bolt upright in bed. The Brit who was in the top bunk, above me, was the first to clue in. “Oh god, tell me that’s one of you guys shaking the bed.”
Nope, none of us were shaking the bed. That was an earthquake. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, it takes a lot to raise me from a sound sleep and this raised me from a very serious sangria-induced sleep.
There wasn’t much damage that I could see in SF proper but just 38 miles north of here, at the epicenter near American Canyon, California, there was serious damage. More than 170 people were reported injured in Napa and serious damage was done to a number of historic buildings, in addition to multiple fires and buckled pavement on roads in Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties.
And at 6.0 on the Richter Scale (later upgraded to 6.1), it’s the most severe earthquake to hit the Bay Area since a 6.9 magnitude quake over 25 years ago!
As the first major earthquake to hit the Bay Area in the age of smartphones and social media, photos and damage reports surfaced almost immediately. I checked the website for the National Geological Survey within 3 minutes of feeling the quake and they were already reporting the magnitude on a live feed.
As my friend Paul Hillerup noted, “I suppose you can knock ‘survive an earthquake in SF’ off of your bucket list.”