Miguel Escobedo lifts a blade to his trumpet and cuts thin strips of roasted pork, colored red by achiote marinade. He clings them to tortillas with pineapple pieces and a pinch of coriander and onions. That part of his business – the pork, the trompo, the magenta food truck painted next to an anthropomorphized skewer of smiling, conical meat called Al Pastor Papi – is still the same, but two years into the coronavirus pandemic, it has turned so much done changed.
Nobody orders at the window anymore, not since apps that made personal service superfluous. Escobedo’s menu now includes bottled Immunity Hot Sauce and tissues that double as face masks, and he’s teamed up with a rotating cast of unemployed DJs searching for tips in front of a few dozen socially distant guests and hundreds more on Twitch.
The biggest change, however, is his Mistral Street parking lot in the Mission. Half down the block alley next to John O’Connell Technical High School turned into a pop-up dining room nine months after the COVID-19 hit, one of dozen of recurring street markets that have sprung up in San Francisco. Food trucks now line both curbs next to stands from nearby businesses: Trick Dogs cocktail carts, a roving flower shop, temporary kitchens from Farmhouse Kitchen Thai and Flour + Water, which are now permanently in use at one street food park or another. Just a few steps away, the high school soccer field is painted with the familiar honeycomb of socially distant food circles. Reservable picnic tables form a ring around the perimeter.
Interactive graphic: A vision for SF’s street food revolution
Summon a Friday night in 2022 any way you want and you can easily imagine that street food is the hottest game in town.
Many countries around the world have a rich tradition of street vendors and open air markets. Thanks to its nimble attitudes, relatively low overhead, and reduced risk of exposure when eating outdoors, street food seems to be exploding in San Francisco.
A glimpse of that potential future can be seen today at Spark Social SF, a food park in Mission Bay. As with much of the city, the room closed in the early days of the pandemic, but it’s reopened – with mandatory masks, sanitizing stations, and seating 6 feet apart – and focused less on lunch from now empty offices than it did on feeding the neighbors.
“We’re very lucky,” says Carlos Muela, co-founder of Parklab, the company that runs Spark. “We were basically built for this pandemic.”
“This is how things could look in the future,” says Escobedo, who often hurls his tacos and burritos around the park. “Everyone is having fun and social distancing.”
Escobedo, a former co-owner of Papalote restaurant, has been offering free food and discounts to needy community members during the pandemic, but even with those deals, its sales have reached and exceeded pre-coronavirus levels. Food trucks, he says, are a good fit for these strange, alarming times. “I think this is a great profit model for COVID.”
As the pandemic drags on into its sixth month and Bay Area residents digest the idea that we won’t be going back inside soon, more and more businesses are looking to the streets. In San Francisco, around 400 new parking spaces and sidewalks have been opened for restaurants as part of the Shared Spaces initiative, says program director Robin Abad Ocubillo. The city has also approved 10 requests to block sections of the road for restaurants and outdoor retail.
“It’s definitely exciting,” says Abad Ocubillo. “San Francisco and other cities are re-imagining the potential of their public spaces. … I think we’ll see more of this in the near and distant future. “
Muela envisions a growing street food culture for San Francisco, with tiny spark-like squares emerging in parks, parking lots, and alleys. “I think we need to blur the lines between public and private space,” he says, drawing inspiration from the Spanish markets (where his parents are from) and his experience at Spark (which operates on public land).
Matt Cohen agrees. Off the Grid CEO sees the opportunity to experiment with public spaces and bring scaled-down versions of his food truck parties to residential areas with a mix of vendors on wheels and local brick and mortar businesses venturing outside to serve customers there to meet you are. Many restaurants are already looking for food trucks so they can be separated from their physical space, and Cohen sees mobile operations go beyond beer trucks and rice bowls to include shopping and services. “There’s a whole universe of mobility that works for really unexplored neighborhoods,” he says. “Everything from dog stores to drug stores to groceries.”
He introduces alleys that transform into commercial corridors, with art in public spaces, retail and, if health contracts allow, places where people can come together. “Where are new community centers being formed?” he asks. “As this will be certain, we are very excited to see how it looks.”
But not everyone sees the road as a savior. Azalina Eusope is the cook and owner of Azalina’s and Mahila, a Malaysian restaurant that opened in the Noe Valley last year. It has three other stationary projects in different stages of development.
Eusope has a deep love and respect for street food. Coming from a family of vendors, Mahila specializes in mamak cuisine, dishes from Malaysia’s Muslim-Indian community that are sold on the streets of Penang.
At home she says: “We don’t go to restaurants. We go to street vendors and they make one dish for their whole life. “Your father sold two types of noodles and illegal moonshine to non-Muslim friends. “He died a poor man without any fortune,” says Eusope. But when he died, “the whole island came to say goodbye.”
In San Francisco, Eusope started her business on a plastic table at Alemany Farmers’ Market and Off the Grid Fort Mason. With two young children at home, it was exhausting work. When she thought about opening a restaurant, “we upgraded ourselves,” she says.
On Friday, Azalina closed the Twitter building in preparation for a new location at 499 Ellis Street. Meanwhile, Eusope serves Mahila take-out and sells turmeric noodles for a pound. She wants the government to increase financial support for small businesses and insurance companies to cover rent for restaurants that are largely closed from the coronavirus that has been paying in policies for years. She says she needs to make it work with her current projects. It’s trying to keep its staff busy and it’s too thinly diversified to invest in something like a food truck, which could cost anywhere from $ 50,000 to over $ 200,000.
This tension seems familiar to Cohen. Off the Grid was born from the 2008 financial crisis, and whatever shows up tomorrow will be the result of a similar stew of economic instability and ingenuity.
“The lower the cost of entry, the more interesting the ideas that can happen,” says Cohen of the future of street food. “Sometimes in San Francisco we can think things over to the death. It would be great if there was more of a willingness to say, “Wouldn’t it be cool …” and overcome the challenges of trying and see what can happen.
“That could be louder than we expect. This may not look perfect. But it could add something unexpected to our collective community. “
Sarah Feldberg is the editor of the Throughline. Email: [email protected]