Monday, August 22, 2011

A Taste of the San Francisco Street Food Festival - Part One

It was an exhausting weekend with both the third annual San Francisco Food Street Festival on Saturday and the National Street Food Conference Day One Sunday, but I am finally able to partially regroup, collect my thoughts and reminisce about the food highlights that I enjoyed. I met some great people, ate some fantastic food and really got to experience firsthand the vibrant and enthusiastic street food fans of our great city!

The family and I, having first gone to a kid's birthday party in the morning, braved the nightmare that was parking and drove to the festival. I knew that parking would be a challenge, but considering I have a Mini I am quite used to finding spaces that others cannot fit into. What I didn't anticipate was that everything around Folsom Street would be either one hour metered parking or resident parking only. My bad, but we ended up parking across Cesar Chavez and had to walk a few blocks over to the festival. Luckily it was a beautiful day, and we were all in good spirits.

Sweet Potato Pie Waffle from Pinx
Our first stop was at media check-in to grab our badges, and then we headed to pick up our passport, with a bundle of festival dollars and a myriad of various coupons. I texted my friend Lorraine, who was already at the festival, to come meet us, and then we got down to the serious business of eating. With over 70 vendors it was hard to choose which ones to visit, but I tried to eat food from smaller vendors, restaurants that I couldn't normally see about town or trucks that didn't frequent Off the Grid. With the exception of one (I had to feed my Nom Nom addiction), I think I did a fairly good job! I really enjoyed most of the food, but there were three standouts for me.

I have been asked by many people over the course of the weekend for my "favorite" dish. That's a difficult question because what I tried spanned the gamut of various ethnicities, flavors and ingredients. But if I had to choose just one, it would have to be the Sweet Potato Pie Waffle from Pinx, one of the four Vote Your Vendor contest winners. The weekend is over, and I am still thinking about this waffle! Owner Pinky Cooper presented a waffle that was crispy on the outside, dense and velvety on the inside, topped with a bourbon salted caramel sauce and finished with a mound of whipped cream. It was so good I didn't want to share, and when I circled back at the end of the day, full from eating over 16 dishes, I almost got another waffle because I had liked the first one so much.

Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas
Craig Cooper, Pinky's husband and Pinx's public relations extraordinaire, summed up his customers' experiences when they taste the waffle. "The best part is, three seconds until you go to your happy place," he said. You "take that first bite, and you have your 'mmmmm' moment."

It was a succinct way to sum up how Pinky's waffle was received from my fellow festival goers, and in looking around at people taking their first bite, he was spot on. I heard murmurs of "fantastic," and "this is so good," from all around me. Everyone in my family enjoyed the waffle as well, and I only wish I had more!

The next highlight for me was one that I had the most anticipation of trying. At the media dinner a few weeks ago I tried a sample of Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas and came away impressed. Today Alicia Villanueva was serving up her tamales to thousands. The first time I tried to queue up it was just too long, so I continued on sampling other foods. Later in the day I came back, found Villanueva in the booth, and she made me a plate of three tamales—pork, chicken and Oaxaca cheese. I loved the cheese tamal the first time around, but today the chicken was the standout. It was flavorful on its own but made even better by adding some of Villanueva's fresh salsa roja and avocado salsa.

As much as I love her tamales, I also adore Alicia, whose warm and caring personality immediately makes you feel as if you are her best friend. She is the epitome of an entrepreneurial success story, and when you eat her food it's evident that her passion and love of cooking has been poured into each and every dish. As a graduate of the La Cocina incubator program, Saturday was the first time she had been cooking on such a grand scale, and judging by the amount of people crowing around her booth it was a huge success.

"For sure it's doing really good, but now I just feel all the things that one person [can feel], excited and everything," Villanueva said. "I am really happy, so happy! I want that my customers be happy with my product." Villanueva will debut her cart at Justin Herman Plaza on September 1st.

From observing the others around me who were eating tamales, it appeared that Villanueva's customers were indeed happy with her food. Zachary Arrick, a former San Franciscan now turned New Yorker was visiting the festival and joined me while I was eating my tamales.

"They were good tamales," Arrick commented, "warm, moist and welcoming."

Rounding out my top three was the Watermelon Gazpacho from Commonwealth, a brick-and-mortar restaurant located in the Mission. Chef Jason Fox had a winner on his hands with this enticing soup. It was cool, fresh and invigorating after hours of heavy eating. The gazpacho, which was topped with a lemon verbena oil, was absolutely stunning. Its bold red-orange color caught my eye from a distance, and it tasted as vibrant as it looked. A hint of cayenne hit the back of my throat for a lingering heat, and the sherry vinegar gave it a nice tang.

And the other 15 dishes I sampled? More on those in Part Two!

Watermelon Gazpacho from Commonwealth

San Francisco Street Food Festival (@streetfoodsf)
Pinx (@pinxcatering)
Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas (@aliciatamales)
Commonwealth (@commonwealth_sf)

Disclosure: Sweet Potato Waffle and tamales were provided by the respective vendors.

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