Previously, the midweek market had struggled to find its niche. "It wasn't working," says Lulu Meyer, CUESA's associate director of market operations. So CUESA shuttered the market and did some rethinking. Putting vendors at the forefront was different, and it worked. A hot ticket since it launched in July, the market draws area workers, restaurant industry folks, families, and tourists with regular offerings ranging from Neapolitan pizza to smoked fish to Korean tacos, along with weekly market-inspired specials.
Already, the Thursday market has dramatically changed the San Francisco restaurant scene. Joe Hargrave, for example, recently shuttered his popular Spanish restaurant Laiola after realizing that making his signature tacos with slow braised meats—at a taco truck at the Thursday market—was his true passion. "The lines got longer and the brand grew," he says, so he transformed Laiola into a taco palace, naming it after the stand, Tacolicious. While the restaurant is doing well, Hargrave has no plans to abandon the market. "It's the urban center of this town,"he says. "Taking that break and working there, being in the sunshine. We love that day."
And as the long lines at lunchtime on Thursdays suggest, San Franciscans love that day too. Here's a look at what you can find at the market:
At the north end is RoliRoti, a rotisserie on wheels and one of a couple of vendors here that is a veteran of the Saturday market. The queue for the porchetta sandwich, rotisserie chicken, and roasted potatoes is always long—they pull in a lot of "guys in suits," according to Meyer—but it's well worth the wait. The chefs sop up stray pork drippings with freshly baked bread before sandwiching slices of crispy roast pork loin and belly to create a spectacularly rich feast. The chicken features a crackling, herb-encrusted skin and moist, tender meat.
Just next door is Pizza Politana, run by Chez Panisse alum Joel Baecker. While the Neapolitan crusts, with their charred outer corniciones, draw in the crowds, Politana's outdoor wood-fired pizza oven, imported from Italy, entertains waiting diners with a kind of street theater. "We wanted to build a business around the pizza oven," Baecker says. "Because we are at the market and everybody can see what we're doing, we have to be transparent and encourage people to watch the process." So as customers wait for their breakfast pizza, which is served until noon, or the weekly special Market Pizza, inspired by what's in season, they can watch dough being stretched; topped with fresh veggies, cheese, and meat; and placed in the fiery oven.
The next stop is Tacolicious, which fills warm corn tortillas with braised short ribs, chicken, traditional carnitas, or market-inspired vegetables. Braising the meats was a stroke of genius that hit the owner, Hargrave, when he realized that trying to make carne asada and pollo asada on the grill either necessitated a long wait for customers or dry, pre-grilled meat. So, he says, "We cook it for hours and hours in the restaurant to create warm, beautiful braised meats." The result, especially when topped with fresh salsas, including a particularly fine avocado-tomatillo version, is indeed tacolicious.