Going Off the Grid
I realize on the cab ride over that this might've been a bad idea to spend nine hours eating 54 bites from 30 food trucks, in between sipping on 14 beers and three cocktails. But who cares.
My story pitch – that I’d hit half of the eight Off the Grid locations in the city over the course of one 24-hour period, trying at least one bite from every single food truck – sounded awesome in theory, so why the fuck not.
I step out of a cab at 12:11 p.m. I'm 11 minutes late for my date with food destiny, thanks to a taxi driver who makes a bold attempt to convince me that I need to give him a larger tip in order to make the credit card machine work. Right.
I spot the trucks and tents sitting in the shadow of City Hall and immediately know I'm in the right place. They're fanned out across UN Plaza, and they're officially affiliated with Off the Grid, a two-year-old food truck consortium that has taken San Francisco's streets, alleyways, proxies, and federally owned forts by storm. This location is a mix of striped and solid dress shirts. It's largely a middle-aged, pants-suit crowd (which, duh, I love).
The lines are 40-deep, so I should probably start standing in one, but not until I find Marla, Joe, and Lou. These are my three fellow face-stuffers on this mission. I find them huddled in the middle of the food truck fan. We exchange hugs and hand-pounds, then park it in a corner of sunken grassland surrounded by lunchers and homeless nappers.
It's at this point that we meet Matt Cohen. He's the guy officially behind Off the Grid. The grand food truck pooh-bah.
He talks while we listen and, more importantly, eat.
Back to Matt: His background is a mixed bag. He's a Colorado native who lived in Japan, then worked at the W Hotel in SF, then launched Off the Grid. Somewhere in between he was (a) inspired by an Inc. Magazine article he read outside an emergency room (he apparently did something to one of his toes), and (b) had a beer at Magnolia somewhat serendipitously next to one of the organizers of the San Francisco Street Food Festival, who connected him with the folks at La Cocina, who then connected him with the folks at Fort Mason, OTG's very first venue.
I stop him here, mid-bite into Sisig's Cali 'rrito: "Wait, this has French fries in it??"
After a year of red tape, Civic Center opened year-round in Fall 2010. "This one fills a very direct need," Matt says. But not too often. It's only open on Fridays from 11 a.m.–2 p.m., which helps keep it "an elusive thing."
Our Bacon Bacon orders finally make their way over (a "bacon bouquet" and cheese fries), along with two falafel-filled boxes from Liba Falafel.
Nothing we end up ordering is more than $10, and some items cost as little as $6.
Now on the move, I bite into a just-arrived Cuban sandwich from Ebbett's Good to Go as we make our way to our mode of transportation: a black Dodge minivan rental. Joe turns around, and points to my mouth. "You've got Thousand Island," he says. "No, the right corner." That I do.
Marla drops us off at the mouth of a Chronicle building-splitting alleyway filled with seven trucks parked bumper to bumper alongside the left curb.
This is 5M.
If I owned a social network, I would fricking love this market.
We traverse the dimly lit catacombs, weaving our way through a sea of salmon pants (no, really – more than one person is wearing salmon pants). This location, launched in March 2011, is parked in a street that's closed twice a week (Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.), which immediately makes me feel more important.
Marla rejoins us: "Dude, parking a minivan is really hard."
I'm about to eat a spicy chicken bite from Hiyaa as Marla pulls a chair up to our sun-soaked swatch at the end of the tunnel and starts telling us about a jazzercise class (wha??) she just started taking. She's just audible over the live music (a three-piece indie rock outfit under an E-Z Up tent). She continues to jazz-ucate us, as we collectively dive into two containers filled with Smokin' Warehouse barbecue.
I look over at Lou, who's now fork-eating a rib. He has led me to what is officially my Matrix moment.
Then a massive shrimp po' boy from Brass Knuckle arrives and gets immediate approval from Joe: "That's really fucking good."
He takes two bites, pauses, passes the sandwich, and sits ever so still. His hand is slightly trembling. "I think I have the meat shakes.”
We're early enough to duck into Biergarten, for, um, a while. We clink several steins, then make our way one lot over to Proxy – a four-truck pod parked on a sandlot right behind two converted shipping crates that house a mini-Smitten and a mini-Ritual.
This is the smallest of the OTG locations and the most frequent (Wednesday–Saturday), with trucks alternating every other week. It's also the lone stop where we will skip a truck (but only because Avedano's Meat Wagon serves nothing but raw meat).
Marla's now doing actual, hard-to-believe jazzercise moves as we dive into a falkor from Adam's Grub Truck. It's a fried chicken sandwich with bacon and egg. And while I may be a little drunk, this is still the most incredible thing I will eat in this all-day eat-a-thon. One Tandoori chicken sandwich after, I then consume what will be tied for the most incredible thing I will eat today: Grandma Ruth's Buttermilk Pie from Rib Whip.
There's a graham cracker bottom and custard-filled middle that are stomach-rousing. We wipe the plate clean, just as the overhead strand lights flick on and the oh-so-neighborhood-y crowd starts to roll in.
"We'd be in the fetal position if we'd done this alone," Marla says.
When Fort Mason launched, OTG had five trucks and 10 tents. They now have 16 trucks, 15 tents, 400 seats, two bands, plus a full bar run by the folks from Magnolia and Alembic. A thousand people came out the first week. More than 8,000 will show up tonight.
Random Fort Mason Fact You Didn't Know No. 1: It has a loosely followed food theme – Asian or Latin.
Random Fort Mason Fact You Didn't Know No. 2: The top four most popular trucks (Senior Sisig, Curry Up Now, Koja Kitchen, The Chairman) on any given week get the four spots in the middle of Mason, where there are lines, with ropes and everything.
The crowd here feels like a 1999 Dave Matthews Band concert. From what I can scientifically deduce, a third are wearing North Face jackets and double-fisting it (bro), a second third have kids, and a third, um, a third are in Uggs and yoga pants.
I take all of this in while eating (no joke) the following: Fat Face's avocado and mango sticky rice ice creams; Lima Peruvian's beef heart stick; Little Green Cyclo's tamarind prawn with garlic noodles; 3-Sum Eats' deep-fried mac 'n' cheese egg rolls (good) and Angry Korean Philly cheesesteak; Phat Thai's pad thai; Fogcutter's pork belly, egg, and house pickle torta mi (also good); Seoul on Wheels' Korean BBQ fries ("holy shit" good); Hapa SF's spit-roasted suckling pigburritos; three Taco Guys' tacos (fish, Thai, and pork); Koja Kitchen's pork Koja, waffle-cut fries with Korean BBQ (these are really, really good); Eat on Monday's calamari and beef tacos; four types of Crème Brûlée Cart’s dessert-age; The Chairman's pork belly sando (“holy effing Christ” good) and chicken bao; Cupkates' churro, toasted coconut, red velvet, and salted caramel treats; Peter's Kettle Corn's strawberry and regular bags; three Alembic cocktails; and one Monk's Kettle beer.
Just don't eat 54 of them in one eight-hour stretch.
Off the Grid has markets going on Monday through Sunday in San Francisco at eight different locations. They start as early as 11 a.m. and go as late at 10 p.m. For the complete lineup, check out offthegridsf.com/markets. Oh, and bring cash.