I spent most of September roadtripping around California. Pretty much the most amazing holiday I'll ever have. We started off in San Francisco, tripped inland to Yosemite, back to the coast to drive down Big Sur, and then powered down to Los Angeles.
California truly felt like the world in a place - prairies, mountains, desserts, coasts, cities, wealth, poverty, liberals, conservatives, skinnies, fatties. Not quite the image of tattooed yoga-obsessed wheatgrass-shot-chugging lifeguards we might have over in Britain.
The food was amazing. There were fresh, local ingredients in abundance at every price point. Cuisines from across the world were represented - Armenian? You got it! A specific region in El Salvador? I know just the place. But particularly well represented was food from Mexico, Central and South America, and from the Pacific Rim. Street food is also big, with lots of creativity in that scene and the Californian cuisine.
I'm going to do a few posts about my trip, but I'll kick off with one about San Francisco's street food.
The scene seems to be highly organised, in particular by the Off the Grid crew, who have a roster of street food vendors operating at 23 weekly food markets of varying sizes - their biggest is at Fort Mason on Friday nights and has about 30 stalls. The focus is on high quality, innovative fusions of cultures and cuisines, and prices start at around $8 a dish.
Bok Ssam's Korean Chicken Waffle
Revising the classic Southern comfort fish of chicken and waffle (brought to our shores with Duck and Waffle), but with herby, spicy Korean fried chicken, tangy Asian slaw, and lots of sticky, sweet, spicy sauce. And the waffles act as sandwich rather than a plate. It was a great combination, and surprisingly un-messy...
The Chairman Truck's Taiwanese buns
Another Off the Grid favourite, The Chairman specialises in Taiwanese baked and steamed buns, which are terribly trendy right now. This is reflected in the queues at their stall wherever they pitch up - innovative Asian is a big deal in San Francisco. We opted for steamed - one with caramelly pork belly and turmeric pickled daikon radish, the other with miso marinaded tofu and raw cavolo nero.
Curry up now's indian burrito and butter chicken chilli cheese fries
Curry up now is one of the San Francisco street food scene's success stories - starting off as a truck, it's now got three proper restaurants throughout the Bay Area, but still moonlights at a fair number of Off the Grid events. We were looking for "something healthy", but couldn't avoid the temptation of sweet potato waffle fries, topped with creamy, rich butter chicken sauce, and then lots of melted cheese. This went nicely with the burrito - of pilau rice, really flavoursome Punjabi curry, chick peas and onions. Pork belly and beef featured as options, which would make you question its authenticity in the UK, but in California it's all about fusion, and here's another example of good, unpretentious mixing of cultures and tastes to delicious ends.
SOMA StrEat Food Park
SOMA StrEat Food Park is a little oasis tucked between motorway flyovers and entrances, in this no man's land if infrastructure and industry between Mission, Downtown and the hilly northern parts of the city. It's an area in flux - Twitter will soon be moving in to their new headquarters up the street, but hobos pace the streets pushing their trollies, and hostels spill out onto the street. But the crowds pouring through for Tuesday lunch suggest there's already quite the draw.
I opted for Hawaiian food as soon as I saw the cart - an exciting new cultural foray. My $8 got me a generous portion of sweet, slow cooked pork with sesame seeds, really tasty kimchi, a coconut-y, mayo-y cold macaroni salad, and sticky coconut rice. It was homely and authentic, and good to taste a new set of flavours.
But I was slightly jealous of all my friends, all of whom opted for Korean-Japanese rice bun burgers and chilli cheese fries from KoJa Kitchen. I remember hearing about Yo! Sushi entering the burger market with a similar concept and being very sceptical, but this is the real deal - and utterly delicious. Slow cooked, marinaded pork, pungent, earthy pickles, Asian variants on tomato sauce and mayo. The Asian chilli cheese fries were particularly good.
Dynamo Donut, Mission
Dynamo make seriously delicious doughnuts - and sell them from a cafe in Mission and kiosk by the marina. They make creative use of ingredients and flavours in both the dough and the glaze. We particularly enjoyed the maple and smoked bacon for its swavoury taste, while the lemon and pistachio and the apricot and cardamom had a slightly exotic aromaticness. A delicious if not quite health-giving breakfast to power us through a day of scaling San Francisco's hills.