The frenzy for food trucks is not letting up, particularly in San Francisco, where food truck "farmers' market" Off the Grid has just expanded from one to four locations. Each week, about a dozen trucks converge on a space, serve food to the crowds, then pack up, drive off, and disappear.
Of course, trucks have been paired up with farmers' markets for a long time, parking at the end of a row of stalls to serve the produce-buying public. But Off the Grid's founder Matt Cohen is after a different kind of experience: His inspiration came from Asian night markets.
"The whole family comes down, you pick and choose what you eat, have a bite of this, have a bite of that, have conversations with people," he says. To that end, Cohen picks spaces with high foot traffic (such as SF's Civic Center) for Off the Grid and carefully curates the vendors, making sure to have slots open each week for newbies so there is always something new for the crowd to try, as well as vendors who come regularly.
Cohen's day job is running Tabe Services, a mobile food consultancy that helps clients get their truck, trailer, or cart up and running. Business is booming, he says, more proof that the food truck trend is still going strong. And it's not just start-ups giving him a call. "I'm getting a lot of clients who are restaurant owners who want to move into the truck business. That way they can do catering, they can do parties, they can park on the side of festivals. They can compete in a new way."
Cohen originally entered into the mobile business with intentions of starting his own ramen truck. "We made tonkotsu ramen, the very best tonkotsu ramen," he says, wistfully explaining that he'd lived for several years in Japan and had a hankering for the kind of pristine noodles and broth he'd experienced there. But permit hassles scotched the plan after almost a year of development. "All we wanted was to make ramen!" Cohen says, clearly still a bit frustrated several years later.
You can check out Off the Grid every Thursday at Stanyan and Waller from 4 p.m.–9 p.m.; Fridays (including today) in front of City Hall from 11 a.m.–3 p.m., and Fort Mason from 5 p.m.–9 p.m.; and Saturdays from 10 a.m.—11 p.m. at McCoppin and Valencia. That location, incidentally, may become the site of San Francisco's first full-time Portland-style food "pod," depending on whether the Saturday markets work out.
If you can make it, Cohen has some recommendations: "If you haven't had sisig"—a Filipino pork dish—"the sisig with rice from Hapa SF is really a wonderful dish. I am also in love with El Porteño Empanadas. The crust is really crispy and delicious and the fillings are just—oh. My favorite is the chicken with raisins and olives." For dessert, he recommends the key lime cupcake at Cupkate's. "You won't be sorry." We believe you.
Image by Raul Panelo