by Conor Friedersdorf

In San Francisco there is a street cart company so popular that it has taken to occasionally renting out a local Chinese restaurant and serving sit down meals cooked by guest chefs like Fred Sasson, whose delicious offerings I enjoyed last week. Mission Street Food donates proceeds from these special evenings to local charities that feed the poor. My favorite dish an aged prime ribeye with seared cherry tomato, wasabi creme fraiche, basil oil, yucca crouton and katsuobushi ($11). Also delicious: Mediterranean Octopus Confit with shaved garlic, picked thyme, leccino and extra virgin olive oil ($10). Though the menu changes every evening these events happen, friends assure me that all are worth attending. (The street cart folks also had the good sense to shut off the awful fluorescent lights inexplicably ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in favor of some hastily strung Christmas lights and table top candles.)

Gourmet street cart food is something of a trend lately -- acquaintances in Portland rave about a Korean taco truck that roves the city, announcing its location via Twitter. Washington DC foodies are hopeful that eased municipal restrictions on street carts will lead to better options in the nation's capitol. The New York City market is successful enough that some vendors are paying five figure rents on their mobile stands.

My own food horizons are also lately improved by the excellent Yelp iPhone application, which I've tested out over the last week as I've traveled around California. Yesterday morning, I found myself in Hollywood near Sunset and the 101 Freeway, needful of a good spot for lunch, and afterward desiring a coffee shop with outdoor seating, free WiFi, sparse crowds and electrical outlets. A month ago I would’ve driven around semi-aimlessly and wound up someplace less than optimal. Now I allow Yelp to determine my location, scroll through its restaurant and coffee shop options, and wind up enjoying scenarios like the following: three exceptional fish tacos for $4.50, and what may be the perfect coffee shop for writing work, The Lyric Hyperion Theater and Cafe.

What I am hoping I’m stealing this insight from a conversation, but I don’t remember who I had it with is that Yelp plus smart phones, and other similar applications, will tip the competitive balance away from chain restaurants and toward exceptional independent eateries, bars and coffee shops. The uncertainty that is a cost of trying these establishments is growing ever lower with crowd-sourced ratings and reviews that are readily accessible even in neighborhoods far from where one lives. There is some lost fun finding hidden gems oneself, but I nevertheless welcome my new Yelp overlords. 

When I aired these thoughts at The American Scene, a commenter wrote, "I find something touchingly, heart-warmingly naive in the belief that the existence of broad, for-profit services with remarkable customization and targeting abilities will in the end favor small independent establishments over large faceless corporations with their own electronic communications/social media staff." I disagree. The social media staffs of most corporations aren't nearly savvy enough to fool or surpass the combined knowledge of Yelp users.

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