San Fran's Weekly Food Cart Fest


Photo by Daniel Berson

To view images of the historic Ferry Building's Thursday market, click here for a slide show.

When I was first anxiously contemplating a cross-country move to the West Coast, it was a Saturday morning visit to San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that ultimately clinched the decision. Mesmerized by the bounteous displays of freshly harvested produce, artisanal breads, and locally raised meats, I salivated with greedy glee, thinking of the market-inspired menus I could prepare if I moved here.

A similar impulse has inspired chefs, home cooks, and tourists alike since the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) first opened the market at the city's historic Ferry Building seven years ago. And now in that same spot, in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, that rotating cycle of stone fruit in the summer, root veggies in the fall, and citrus in the winter has ignited the hottest lunch ticket in town: the new Thursday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. At this regular outdoor food festival, some of the area's most exciting chefs try their hand at street food, therein bringing together two of San Francisco's culinary calling cards—glorious local harvests and a burgeoning food cart culture.

The next stop is Tacolicious, which fills warm corn tortillas with braised short ribs, chicken, traditional carnitas, or market-inspired vegetables.

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."

VIEW SLIDE SHOW>> ArlequinBoothScones_thumbinpost.jpg

Photo by Sarah Logan

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.

The booth next door—a satellite of the Korean restaurant Namu, run by three brothers named David, Dan, and Dennis Lee—also offers tacos, but these are Korean ssam-style: toasted seaweed shells, filled with kalbi (short ribs) and kimchi. The Lee brothers also serve up the perfect respite from a chilly San Francisco afternoon. Their version of okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake with a crispy exterior and a warm, gooey interior, provides a perfect base for market vegetables, pungent kimchi, and a free-range egg.

Ryan Farr, who runs 4505 Meats, is a bit of a local celebrity, having garnered a following of ravenous carnivores who crave his chicharrones (pork cracklings) and rotation of inspired sausages made with locally sourced meats. Here he also offers a menu of meaty sandwiches, including thick juicy burgers and, recently, a chile-crusted chicken banh mi with house-smoked bologna. As a side, there is an incredibly decadent fried mac and cheese.

Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke is another veteran of the Saturday market, whose honey-cured smoked salmon "candy," named for its sweet flavor and chewy, licorice-like texture, has long drawn fans. Here Cap'n Mike, also known as Mike Hebert, offers a variety of smoked fish sandwiches that accent market vegetables, including, lately, an extra-smoky lox sandwich with fennel and roasted red peppers. The albacore tuna lox option pairs this mild-flavored smoked fish with crusty Acme Bread sourdough, a schmear of rich cream cheese, crunchy roasted golden beets, and a smattering of toasted walnuts.

When the lunch crowd is ready for dessert, they need only cross to the south end of the plaza to check out Scream Sorbet, which offers a rotating assortment made in their kitchen in nearby Emeryville. Recent flavors include a refreshing lemon shiso; a creamy, slightly spicy Thai peanut; and apple-walnut, which has all of the flavors of pie à la mode in each bite. Next over is Arlequin, where pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez says he has the opportunity to play with flavors in a way that he can't at either of his brick-and-mortar establishments, the acclaimed restaurant Absinthe and its sister café. Offering cupcakes, cookies, and some of the city's best scones, Villavelazquez says the "cupboard" that the area's farmers provide is an incredible inspiration. "Quince and persimmon in the fall changed to crème fraiche and lemon poppy seed in the winter," he says. Recently he's been playing around with a red velvet offering, creating a vermillion beet buttermilk cake with blood orange filling and a cream cheese frosting.

Rounding out a visit, diners can grab a cup of drip coffee from local favorite Blue Bottle Coffee Co. And of course, having seen what can be done with ingredients from the local "cupboard," visitors can hit up one of the handful of farmers' stands to purchase their own ingredients and see what culinary creations the area's bounty inspires.