SAN FRANCISCO—Koji Kanematsu folds Japanese seaweed as precisely as origami art.
He tops rice with pickled carrots and marinated eggplant, then expertly wraps that in seaweed triangles in seconds.
It’s a swift yet delicate operation, attracting the attention of a lunch-hour crowd that stops to watch street food in the making.
Kanematsu barely lifts his head to acknowledge the praise of office workers sampling food that was once a meal for Samurai warriors.
“It’s very popular in Japan,” says Kan Hasegawa, ladling hot miso soup into bowls. “It’s the Japanese equivalent of tapas.”
The 33-year-old Japanese immigrant co-founded “Onigilly: The Samurai Snack” six months ago to join this city’s boom in mobile food carts.
They’re usually stationed near one of the busiest sections of the waterfront, across from the historic Ferry Building.
Onigilly are the perfect street food—nutritious, quick, not messy and prettier than most.
With seagulls screeching overhead, Hasegawa explains that samurai warriors in the 17th-century stored rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves as a battlefield snack.
“We’re so proud,” Hasegawa says, stacking cold edamame beans with onigilly (vegetarian, teriyaki chicken, tuna or tofu). “We’re here on a mission, introducing new food to this country.”
The entrepreneurs swapped I.T. cubicles for this outdoor venture. They rent space at a community kitchen for some food prep, and make everything else from scratch in their kitchen-on-wheels.
Street food is booming in San Francisco, where the recession squeezed diners’ choices at the same time Twitter and Facebook became free marketing platforms.
Off the Grid San Francisco has 11,888 friends on Facebook, mostly raving about the quality of Indian and Asian cuisine at mobile carts.
“It’s inexpensive, high-quality food served by someone who cares about the food they’re making,” says Matthew Cohen, 31, Off the Grid founder. “The way San Francisco is doing street food is very particular to the Bay area. It’s more global—we’re taking the best from all over the world.”
Cohen became a street food fan while living in Japan, and returned to the United States determined to serve late-night fare from a food truck.
“I loved eating late-night ramen but late-night was a problem here. There were too many challenges” getting permits, he recalls.
Cohen turned his frustration with city hall into a full-time business, launching Off the Grid to help other entrepreneurs through the permit process. It’s grown into a “roaming, mobile food extravaganza” that organizes food cart gatherings with live music most nights in six different neighbourhoods.
The largest draws 30 or more food tents and trucks to Fort Mason in the Presidio on Fridays.
It costs $50,000 for a used truck and more than $100,000 for a new vehicle, outfitted for street vending, Cohen estimates.
“There are hundreds of food trucks in the Bay Area. About 50 of them are legal, nouveau food trucks,” he adds. “That number will probably double by the end of the season.”
Some vendors describe themselves as “underground” or “renegade”, dodging questions about permits, and luring customers with constant tweets about their changing locations.
On a typical night, dozens of customers responded to a tweet about an impromptu mobile meetup outside “fabric 8 gallery” in the Mission. After sushi, pizza, fish tacos, soup and dessert from separate carts, diners viewed indoor exhibits that included goldfish swimming in an old bathtub.
Each vendor was part-chef, part-performance artist and part-mechanic. They served food with flair and good humour, while explaining the ingenuity behind their carts, from a propane-fuelled kitchen on a bicycle frame (“taco bike 18”) to a wood-fired pizza oven, homemade from bricks and a recycled Weber grill (“the pizza hacker”).
Brooke Cooley, aka “The Soup Lady”, clearly loves banter with customers, and accepts donations only for her meat or vegan/vegetarian soups. She serves on the street near dusk, outside downtown bars at night, and has recently expanded to in-office lunch catering. Everything is homemade from 200 personal recipes she’s developing into a website.
“The best thing is the flexibility,” she says. “I can decide to work, or not. I can work in a different place every day if I desire. I meet tons of people.”
Only in a foodie city like San Francisco would one find “the creme brulee guy.”
Curtis Kimball, 32, began in 2009 with a simple cart, and now has one of the fanciest rigs at one of the most posh addresses—the Financial District (FiDi). He makes only creme brulee, at $4 or $5, caramelizing each with a small torch.
“I don’t call myself a chef—it’s more performance art—and I don’t have any interest in running a restaurant,” he says. “I like the challenge of running a business, inventing a business, but it’s a lot of work.”
Kimball moans when estimating his income at about $5 per hour for an 80-hour week.
His most popular dessert speaks for itself: “Yes Please!” is a French custard with chocolate, peanut butter, honey and vanilla bean, finished by one of Kimball’s six torches.
Kathleen Kenna is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer.