Beyond Festivals: Street Food Actually on Streets and Sidewalks

Night dining in Hong Kong

These last two weekends in the Bay Area have been a celebration of the best and the biggest of food on the go. La Cocina and Eat Real both showed that there are indeed thousands of people willing to stand in long lines in the full heat of summer to try any tasty treat served from a bicycle or cart, tent or renovated taco truck.

But it was a bit like eating Thanksgiving dinner, my cousin’s 12-course wedding banquet and my mom’s new year’s brunch all in the same week. The specialness of each blurred together, and the meaning of each was lost in the flurry of food.

If we would like to see the creativity of those festivals extended to the other 362 days of the year, we now need to divert some of our gustatory energy to ensuring systemic support of microenterprise. Yes, I know, public policy and economic reform is not nearly as sexy as a coconut-basil popsicle. And, yes, talking about immigration and community development is such a downer. Tweeting is way more fun than writing letters to our city supervisors.

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Rules of Thumb

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There was a time, before Pyrex and Oxo, calculators and even cookbooks, when rules of thumb ruled the kitchen. My mother taught me my first one when I was six and still standing on a barstool to reach the kitchen faucet, the infamous and eerily accurate “one-knuckle” rule for cooking rice. Like all good R.O.T., the measures were flexible. It didn’t matter how much rice or what size pot or what kind of stove. It worked.

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Summer Trifle

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The best summer desserts are simple to make, portable for picnics, and highlight the season’s sweet, luscious fruit. Trifle would be at the top of my own list.

While its name might lead you to think that this dish is of little consequence, it belongs in the pantheon of fantastic frugal food, along with panzanella (another wonderful summer dish) and pain perdue (good anytime of the year or day). Back when little bits of bread or cake were far too valuable to toss away, even if stale as a board, cooks invented ingenious ways to use up every last crumb. Dry cake has a way of soaking up endless flavor and, in the process, transforming itself into a silken gift.

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Red Crawfish

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One of my favorite culinary mash-ups of recent years is the Vietnamese-Chinese-Cajun crawfish boil served with rice or garlic noodles. Following the arc of families moving from Vietnam to New Orleans to Southern California to, finally, San Jose and San Francisco, mud bugs have taken a garlicky turn and shown up, of all places, in Little Saigon’s across the country.

Red Crawfish in San Francisco’s Tenderloin is the one closest and dearest to me, as I head over that way anytime I’m craving familiar, comforting flavors. Boiled crawfish is a new tradition among my peeps, but it’s one that I’m very happy to adopt, too.

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Fry Bread and Indian Tacos

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As California’s road trip season begins, it’s time to pull out that list of foods that are worth a detour or two. If you’re passing by or through tribal land, allow time in your day and space in your stomach for a stop at roadside stalls offering fry bread or, even better, Indian tacos. Many of us are all a-twitter about the mash-up of Korean bbq and tortillas. But this much quieter and long established blend of taco toppings on soft, still-hot flatbread is better than anything I’ve tasted from digitally hyped menus.

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