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Monday, March 25, 2013

Spring is here and Off The Grid Fort Mason is back in action

I love gourmet food trucks, My heart seriously goes pitter patter when I see two or more of them parked anywhere :)

Thanks to Wagstaff Worldwide I was invited to attend a press tour during the opening night of the 2013 season of Off The Grid's famous Friday nights at Fort Mason Center. It was me, my foodie friend Carl (read his review here), a group of writers and photographers, and 32+ food vendors. Thirteen of them were kind enough to take a few minutes out of their very busy evening to introduce us to their companies and allowed us to sample their food and beverages.

Along with Friday nights at Fort Mason Center, Off The Grid also offers large food truck gatherings at Weekly Markets, smaller Food Pods in neighborhoods, and Catered Events.

We met up with staff from Wagstaff and the other food writers and photographers at the SFMOMA Fort Mason art gallery for libations an hour before the event officially opened. The food trucks and tents are staged in the lower, waterfront parking lot at Fort Mason Center.

Enter the parking areas from Marina BLVD x Buchanan ST

In case you don't read the entire post, here are the tips I think you should know:
  1. When you arrive there are two parking lot options: Free and paid. The free lot is the first one you drive into. Through the open stucco gateway on the right (with the green parking sign) is the paid lot. The food trucks are in the same lot so it puts you right were the action is.
  2. If you don't like waiting in lines be there at 5:00 PM sharp when the event opens. You'll be able to order, eat, and run before the place gets too crowded.
  3. Bring plenty of friends. The more people you bring the more things you can sample if you share each dish.

4. There's a map once you're in the round where the trucks and tents are.
5. The event is (leashed) dog friendly.
6. There are plenty of recycling, composting, and trash bins everywhere.
7. Bring cash. Though some vendors (like Bini's Kitchen) use Square for credit cards.

Our guide, and OTG's founder, Matt Cohen leading the way.

Our first stop was the Wine Bar by QBC Company. Each month they'll be featuring a different Northern California winery. Friday night it was Green Barrel Wine Merchants. They were pouring a Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Rose, Rocker (a Syrah blend), Cool Climate Syrah, and a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sadly, I did not partake because there weren't any dessert wines on the list and dry wines and my taste buds just don't work well together.

That's Chef/Owner Sam Kim at Bok Ssam

A fairly new company, Bok Ssam Korean American Comfort Food offered us samples of their  Korean Fried Chicken Waffle Sandwiches. The sandwich was filled with chicken that had been seasoned, baked, and flash fried in a cast iron skillet. A red wine vinaigrette coleslaw, and sesame soy or spicy sweet "gochujang" sauces were the finishing touches.

I saw later on their Facebook page they sold out before the evening was over. Definitely a good sign that people loved their food.

I did not partake since I don't eat chicken. I'll also state here I also skipped sampling the duck, lamb, beef and pork dishes we were offered that evening. But everything did look delicious and I did my best to photograph everything despite our very quick pace of visiting 13 vendors in less than 2 hours.

And then I tried something new. Bini's Kitchen offers a Nepalese menu. Bini was kind enough to make Carl and I each a vegetarian plate substituting the Momo meat (turkey) dumplings for a vegetarian version (filled with tofu, shredded cabbage & carrots, and seasonings) to accompany the Golveda Ko Achar, a tomato cilantro sauce, and bright yellow Jeera Rice. Everything was delicious!

I also sampled her Nepali Chia Tea. Bini told me it's a classic beverage of Nepal cooked with milk, brown sugar, Nepalese tea and her own brand of kitchen spices. It was sweet and delicious, almost more of a dessert drink than something I'd drink with a meal. I've tried chai a time or two in the past but they didn't compare with Bini's Nepali Chai.

And not only is she at Off The Grid, Bini also offers catering and cooking classes.

It's worth mentioning that Bini started her company as a member of La Cocina.

La Cocina is a local incubator for culinary entrepreneurs who need a licensed commercial kitchen to work from but don't have the budget to rent, lease or own a private kitchen full time. Their focus is to give financially underprivileged women of color and immigrant communities an opportunity to create and run a legitimate business they wouldn't otherwise be able to launch. They help their chefs and food producers by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance, access to opportunities where they can sell their food, as well as access to funding opportunities.

As soon as I saw the Side Pony booth I thought to myself: "Someone there is very creative!" Owner/Chef Dana Croteau has a background in art, and it shows. She went very original with her booth design. I loved her yarn wrapped name and faux brick fabric wall. So cute!

Side Pony served us their specialty: A tender Duck Larb Sandwich with kaffir lime aioli, cilantro mint pesto, pickled onions and romaine lettuce on a baguette.

Dana told me her inspiration is taking her favorite "foods, cuisines, and flavors" and turning them into sandwiches. In the kitchen she's willing to take bold risks when inventing her menu while at the same time exercising a lot of patience to get "it" right, re-working a new sandwich recipe until she's satisfied that the meat, sauces, and fillings are the perfect combination of flavors and textures.

Next Chotto, a Japanese Izakaya, served us two dishes. First was the very unusual applewood smoked Bacon Mochi wrapped with a strip of nori seaweed. Along with it was an Albacore Tartare, made with locally caught albacore tuna, Japanese cucumber, jalapeno, shiso, and sesame served on a fried Gyoza chip.

You can try these small plates at Off The Grid or at Chotto's brick and mortar location, a dinner restaurant located at 3317 Steiner Street (b/t Lombard & Chestnut), San Francisco, CA 94123.

Unfortunately I fell behind the group at Sticks Corndogs and wasn't able to get a good, unobstructed photo. The reviews on Yelp are all raves though so I think it's safe to say their food is great. People especially love their made from scratch honey batter. Their sausages, by Taylor's Sausage, and custom sauces are also highly recommended.

I think the next time I go on a speed tasting event I'll have to bring an assistant. I simply couldn't photograph, take notes as the chefs talked about their dishes, and sample food all at the same time. Fortunately I've had no shortage of offers from people who would like to help :)

Fins on the Hoof didn't just have an unusual name, they had the most unusual Poutine I've ever seen! Poutine is a Canadian dish consisting of french fries, gravy, and cheese curd. Chef/Owner Todd Middleton generously offered us three dishes to sample: His Smoked Haddock and Clam Chowder Poutine topped with double smoked bacon, Grass-Fed Lamb Burgers, and a Pork Sausage Gravy Poutine made with fresh cut fries, cheddar cheese curds, and smoked salt.

Chef Middleton has made a spot-on video explaining his background, food, pricing, and what gourmet food trucks are like so I wanted to share it with you.

Upper left: Borscht - Right: Chef/Owner Kenny Hockert - Bottom: Yum!

And Kenny Hockert at the Old World Food Truck went over-the-top at Off The Grid offering each of us a bowl of Borscht (I was able to request a vegetarian version) and a plate filled with a smorgasbord of Eastern European and Jewish Soul Food bites that included:

Juicy chicken schnitzel, chopped liver schmear, caraway-paprika spiced honey, poppy seed slaw, crispy chicken skin, and horseradish aioli on a schmaltz basted Acme bun, served with zesty pickles and smoky paprika chips

REUBEN REDUX - “A Deli Resurrection”
Slab of house cured corned beef with sweet mustard glaze, savory rye bread pudding, sauerkraut, and brandied Russian dressing

PIEROGI - “Dumplings Do It Better”
Polish style dumpling stuffed with Yukon potato and goat cheese, boiled and pan-fried, and topped with traditional “condi-mensch”: smoky pepper relish, caraway sour cream and crispy onion

BEET BORSCHT (SOUP) - “From Russia With Love”
Hearty beets and vegetables stewed with tomatoes and aromatic spices, topped with horseradish crème fraîche, Rye crouton, and fresh dill with Brisket

I didn't realize until later I could have eaten the Pierogi too. Oh well, it's what I'll order along with a bowl of Borscht the next time I visit the Old World Food Truck.

Next we visited the truck of El Sur's Argentinian-style empanadas. With five options to choose from I was happy to be able to try a Verde Empanada filled with swiss chard, spinach, onions, 5 cheeses, olive, and some hard boiled egg. It's important to owner/chef Marianne Despres to use fresh local ingredients so her herbs, olives and many of her vegetables are grown on her family's property.

To be honest I was hungry but didn't have time to eat it that night because I was so busy trying to take pictures and keep up with the group. So I took the empanada, given to me in a paper bag, wrapped it up and slipped it into the empty cup I'd sampled Bini's tea from, and slid it into my purse. I had it for breakfast the next morning which explains why I was able to get the inside view picture to include in the post. It was delicious!

Next we entered "The Lounge." New for the 2013 dining season, it's a small, private, by reservation-only area where we found a cocktail bar, a beer bus and reserved, seated dining areas where you can enjoy a multi-course, price fixe menu.

You've heard of street food, well, now there's also street libations. Derby Cocktail Co. is a new mobile cocktail lounge by the Stag Dining Group. The Derby fellas offered us not only cocktails but a small plate consisting of Grilled Lamb Shoulder with Salsa Verde, and a spear of Tempura Asparagus accompanied by a Gribiche Aioli. I tried the asparagus. Deep fried in a delicate batter its fresh flavor came shining through and perfectly complemented the aioli which was tangy, rich, and creamy.

Their fun and oh so flirty cocktails were curated by Reza Esmaili of Ananas SF. We had our choice of:
  • Rose Garland Coolers: aromatized rose vermouth, pisco, rose water, bergamot, bitters (upper left)
  •  Derby Fruit Cup No.1: botanical liqueur, gin, local vermouth, blood orange, berries, mint (upper right)
And seriously, who's ever heard of Triple Crown Cocktail Snowcones? There were three flavors to choose from:
  • bramble: gin, blackberry, lemon
  • hurricane: rum, passionfruit, lime
  • brown derby: vodka, grapefruit, honey
If you're a cocktail lover I think a visit to Derby is a must.

And then things got very interesting. Californios served us a bubble that was wrapped in plastic. At first I didn't understand why. But when I removed the plastic wrap a light vapor rose out of the opening and quickly dissipated. But not before I could smell its smoky aroma. The plastic was holding in smoke!

And the container was so cool I saved mine. From now on I'm going to eat all of my meals out of it at home :)

Califrornios is a fusion of Northern California and Mexican cuisine.

Inside we found Hamachi Aguachile with coriander cured hamachi, candied kumquats, miner's lettuce, clover flower, and citrus aqua.

I know people say to never judge a book by its cover but one look at Chef Val M. Cantu's elegant appearance in his crisp white chef's coat and impeccably clean white apron and you just knew his dish was going to be equally refined. It was a pleasant surprise to find such a sophisticated presentation just yards away from casual street foods. His Hamachi Aguachile convinced me there's literally something for everyone at Off The Grid.

The bonus was I'd never had miner's lettuce before. Not only was it pretty, a single green leaf with a set of tiny flower buds in its center, It tasted good. I did some research and learned on Hank Shaw's blog it's also nutrient dense (high in vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron) and it's a native plant to Northern California. I'm definitely going to pick up some seed when I go to the Petaluma Seed Bank and plant it in my yard. Along with the Swiss Chard I got at Cole Canyon Ranch I'll have plenty of greens right outside my door this year.

While chatting in The Lounge we were offered a sweet bite by Azalina's Malaysian food. It was a Fried Banana Fritter with caramel sauce for sweetness and just a bit of finely grated cheese to bring in a bit of salty savoriness. It was delcious. I could have eaten an entire, plate, pan, dish, or bowl of it. Seriously.

Owner/Chef Azalina Eusope is a fifth generation street food vendor from Malaysia belonging to the Mamak tribe on the island of Penang. Her recipes are authentic but having lived in the U.S. for a decade, some have a a touch of local fusion like that bit of cheese dusting her caramelized banana fritters.

We also stepped on board the BrewTruc. It's a black painted school bus gutted of its rows of seats. They've been replaced with a bar at the rear and bench seating along the sides. The green walls and ceiling combined with the super cool, retro, tail light motif pulls on the beer tap handles gave the on-board ambiance a very stylish, Amélie (the movie) feeling.

Even though I've never liked beer I did give it the old college dry. I'm sure anyone who loves beer would have enjoyed it. Carl did. But me? It was pretty much a case of being destined to be disappointed. Our bartender Natasha did tell me to try a cider beer if I ever had the chance. If I like desset wines I'd probably like cider beer.

Then we shared a laugh because Natasha's incognito name is Stacy. I told her mine is Madeline. Then we both said at the same time my new alias name should be Natasha. Done! LOL

Here's one of the seated dinner tables for the pop-up, price fixe dining. Basically if standing in lines out where it's breezy isn't your thing, this is. Check it out and make a reservation at SeatMe.com.

After spending a bit more time in The Lounge courtyard we headed back out into the circle of trucks.

And WOW had it gotten busy! The crowd was huge, in good spirits, and very hungry.

I will say I found it surprising that there was plenty of seating available. You could easily find a chair or picnic bench once you'd grabbed your food.

As the sun set the lights came on and I waited for the blue hour right after sunset when a clear sky glows amazing shades of blue as the sun drifts deeper past the horizon line.

Carl noticed this gobo of the Off The Grid logo projected with light on the side of a building.

We climbed the three flights of stairs on the adjacent building to get some overhead shots of the trucks, tents, and crowd.

It was a lot of fun and I'll definitely be going back this year. Maybe I'll even bring Kitai with me. He loves food. Maybe I'll have to dress him up as a food truck this year for Halloween and take him to OTG. Or reprise his sushi costume and bring him.

As we walked back to our car I caught this glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge on the other side of the marina. It was really beautiful and I savored the moment as much as I'd savored the food we sampled earlier in the evening. Thank you Matt Cohen, your staff, all of the Off The Grid chefs, and Wagstaff for this fun and delicious experience.

To learn where the Off The Grid events are taking place just CLICK HERE to visit their website. Go and have fun. Don't forget to go early if you don't like lines and if you go late enjoy the sunset and blue hour. Carl and I had a great time. I tried new food and made new friends both with people in the press tour (Gwen Park) and people who were just there to eat (J&P).

And here's how to get to OTG at Fort Mason Center on Friday Nights from 5:00-10:00 PM

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