Meals on Wheels
I never realized how similar selling street food was to drug dealing until I met Rocky Yazzie.
I was at an event selling spring rolls for Little Knock, my Vietnamese street food venture, when Rocky, the proprietor of Rocky's Frybread, rolled up with a suitcase and ironing board. Rocky set up next to me. His rickety ironing board supported an old Coleman camping stove topped with a cast iron skillet crusted with oil and age. This is where he makes his frybread – a Navajo treat he grew up making and eating on a New Mexico reservation.
I was worried. Wobbly old ironing board and cast iron skillet filled with hot oil didn’t seem like a good idea. “You’re not going to spill this on me, are you?” I asked.
“No, I’ve done this plenty of times. Don’t worry, I got this,” Rocky said.
My skepticism passed within a matter of minutes once Rocky started his street food show: dropping dough into oil, lifting it up and swirling local honey on top. “Free frybread,” he called out. “Come get some free, sweet Navajo frybread.”
Like selling drugs, to hawk street food, you got to hustle your wares: You’re on the street where people are hurriedly passing by on their way home and are sometimes too timid to approach. You’ve go to rope them in with your setup, your style, and most importantly, your food.
Rocky had it all down. Impressed by his ability to chat people up and gather enough donations to make his monthly rent, I decided to shadow Rocky and other street food vendors to learn a thing or two about being a hustler.
In the simplest of terms, all Rocky does is put flour and water in oil and give it away –but he’s able to pocket more money in a week than a lot of us do. His secret? He serves up a friendly attitude, an undeniably delicious treat, and a positive experience.
I watched Rocky in action at El Rio, where he comes three times a week to offer his savory and sweet frybread to hungry bar patrons.
I’m mesmerized by Rocky’s style. First, he doesn’t charge anything for his frybread – he tells customers that it’s free, though they’re welcome to donate whatever they see fit. Most people give him money and are especially generous when they’re tipsy and hungry. “Free – that’s the way to go,” he said. “If it’s good, people will pay $5–6 dollars. People set up the prices themselves.”
And the savory frybread tacos are delicious. They’re loaded up with beans that he soaks for two days (none of that canned stuff), shredded cheese, lettuce, diced tomatoes, and onions, all topped with a squirt of Sriracha. The dough is spongy like pita bread, but has the warmth and undeniable tastiness of fried food. The sweet version is often compared to funnel cake – a classic guilty pleasure – though his version calls for a drizzle of local honey, powdered sugar, and walnuts. They’re so good I don’t feel bad about eating both sweet and savory in one sitting.
As he assembled his Navajo tacos, Rocky asked for people’s life stories as readily as he told his own: memories of growing up on the reservation, his years as a cellist, and how street food “saved his life” when he was almost homeless. We met an older lady who sold flotation devices to recovering meth addicts (she said John Lennon bought one from her family during the ‘70s), and two regulars came from Visitacion Valley double-parked outside just to get some tacos from Rocky.
This experience is a million times better than Benihana: People get to watch someone making amazing food in front of them while they swap life stories and drunken chatter. As a result, everyone enjoys their experience with Rocky and his frybread – and he’s got plenty of generous donations to show for it.
It’s another rainy Friday night, which makes it hard to find people on the street. However, there’s one place I know they’ll always be: Street Food Fridays at fabric8.
This weekly street food party began September 2009 when vendors were sketched out about where they could sell on the street without being busted. Gallery owner Olivia Ongpin offered up her business as a “safe haven” for street food vendors, allowing them to set up in and outside her shop. Since then, a number of rotating vendors have been featured and there’s always a friendly neighborhood vibe.
That night I spotted Brian Kimball of Magic Curry Kart, a fabric8 regular and street food O.G. I was excited to meet him because he was the first renegade street food vendor to utilize Twitter as a marketing tool; he would tweet his location when he started selling curry in front of his Linda Street apartment and around the Mission.
“What was it like when you first started?” I asked. His eyes drift to the horizon as he fondly refers to March to June 2009 as the “heyday of street food,” when entrepreneurial (and mostly unemployed) folks started becoming street food vendors and taking to the streets chronicling their guerilla-style dining on Twitter for devout fans to follow.
Since then, he’s seen new vendors enter the game while others have retired. The crowds have changed too. They’re going to Off the Grid, a weekly street food and truck gathering, and other food events, he says. And there’s not much “Twitter fury” – people who seek out his curry through his 140-character announcements.
One big change for him is that he’s not on the streets as much. Instead, he’s doing what a lot of other vendors are doing: catering private gigs. They’re more stable, he says, though he misses the interaction with people who find or stumble across him in a neighborhood.
There I realized that the street food movement is constantly evolving: old and new street food vendors are reinventing how they do business. Brian is moving past the pavement to sell his Magic Curry Paste at Whole Foods and shooting a cooking show that features other street food chefs. He’s also expanded his business to include Street Food 2 U, a lunchtime catering service operated out of the Mercury Lounge.
Brian says there’s a new generation of vendors who want to kick the curb; they come to him for advice about getting their products into Whole Foods even before they’ve even started selling on the street. Even though some vendors want to reinvent street food, there’s still some doing it the old-school way. And that’s when I turn to Soul Cocina, the ultimate street food hustler.
Whenever I talk to a street food vendor –old or new –they mention their mentor Roger Feely of Soul Cocina. He’s a hustler’s hustler; many people in the scene get his advice as a professional chef to help improve their work. And he’s one of the most affable people around, the kind of person who gives his food away to other vendors, and promotes their stuff while they’re selling next to him. You can recognize him by his hats (fedora or baseball cap) and a missing front tooth, which is pretty badass if you ask me.
I was excited to roll with one of street food’s favorite hustlers –so excited I found myself braving the rain on a Saturday at 1 a.m. to meet Roger in front of the Rickshaw Stop, where he was selling to attendees of the Non Stop Bhangra dance party going on inside the club.
Roger’s known for his “global cuisine with local ingredients.”The minute I approached he handed me a bowl of veggie curry, and I scarfed it down –the heat of the spices and the fresh-off-the-grill roti kept me warm.
Our first customer that night looked polished –a well-groomed beard, perfectly wrapped red turban –but his behavior was anything but. “I’m drunk and I’m high,”he proclaimed right off the bat as he slammed his hand on the table, looking at us for dramatic effect. No shit, I thought to myself.
Roger was in the zone. This is one of the keys to being a street food hustler, and Roger’s a prime example of that: luring people in with the smell of his curries, answering the same questions with a smile, all the while managing two pots of simmering curry, and making sure his roti doesn’t burn on his makeshift grill – an upside down wok on a portable burner.
The drunken guy in the red turban chimed in his review after finishing off his fourth bowl of curry. “He’s hardcore. This is fucking awesome,” he said, pointing at Roger. “A white guy serving this shit!” He’s sold.
A line of hungry people started to form so I helped Roger by taking orders and handling the money. An older gentleman walked up, surprised by the whole scene. “You do this in the rain?” he asked.
“Rain, sleet, snow, man,” Roger replied.
That’s Roger’s spirit. Rain or shine, he’s there on the streets selling in front of fabric8, Grand Café, and other bars in the Mission. By 2 a.m. the rain was coming down strong. Roger was ready to tough it out, but I was ready to call it a night. I left feeling mad respect for Roger, and made a mental note to sling some food at Rickshaw Stop some weekend. In the meantime, I was ready to go back to my warm bed.
Rocky Yazzie ( @rockysfrybread ) posts up at El Rio most days of the week. Brian Kimball ( @magiccurrykart ) owns the 22 nd and Valencia intersection with regular appearances at fabric8 and Latin American Club. Roger Feely ( @soulcocina ) is always on the move, but if you follow him and the other guys on Twitter, they’ll let you know where they can be found.