Text by ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH / Audio slideshow by HÉLÈNE GOUPIL
Walking into any alley in the Mission District brings with it a general expectation of the smell of stale beer and urine, and the passed-out bum attempting to become one with the murals. Not so with Linda Street on a Thursday evening. There, the adventurous encounter the aromas of milky curry and cinnamon, and a crowd gathered around several rickety carts at the end of the alley.
“Sometimes it comes in waves, and sometimes it’s like this—people right off the bat,” said Brian Kimball as he hovered over pans of simmering chicken and vegetable curries. “This is probably the biggest crowd I’ve had.”
Kimball, 34, started the Magic Curry Kart a month and a half ago. His brother Curtis was serving crème brûlées from the adjacent and aptly named Crème Brulée Cart.
A declining economy has helped bring about a sudden proliferation of cart-carried delicacies that has elevated street food beyond the bacon-wrapped hot dog. In recent weeks, the Misson’s food carteros—generally considered outside the high-tech realm—have been Twittering all the way to the bank, or at least to a following.
“Someone told me you should get on Twitter. I did that and now people just come to me,” said Kimball, who at the time of writing had 991 followers. His brother Curtis had 1,025 (his 1,000th follower was offered a free crème brûlée).
Kimball said he started serving $5 curry plates outside his house on Linda Street six weeks ago, and was soon joined by his brother’s crème brûlées, which sell for $3.
Low on cost and high on quality, in just a few short weeks the carteros have created a new Thursday-night dining venue as the carts are joined by other vendors and a rapidly expanding network of customers.
A crowd of approximately 20 people milled about the carts at 7:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday as diners in the know steadily streamed into the alley eager for something to eat. In addition to the two brothers, there is Murat, creator of the Amuse-Bouche cart, which sells a muffin-and-hot-drink combo for $1.
Dining here is as idiosyncratic as the setting. Many start with dessert, heading straight for the crème brûlées, which are rumored to sell out first.
A little later, a fourth vendor showed up and set several spring rolls on a table.
Kimball, who learned the art of curry in Thailand, said he typically serves 35 to 40 people per night. “It’s a dead-end alley,” he says. “It kinda works.”
A stereo sitting in the doorway of Kimball’s building pumped music into the street. It’s powered by an extension cord running up the stairwell to his apartment.
“San Francisco needs more of this,” he mused.
With the efficacy of Twitter and the demand of San Francisco palettes, that’s likely to happen.
Murat, who declined to give his last name, signed up for Twitter two weeks previously and has already amassed 388 followers. Since he and the others work locations from the 24th and Mission BART plaza to Dolores Park, and sometimes have to be wary of police asking for permits (they have none), he apprises his customers of his whereabouts on Twitter.
But there are other uses as well. As supplies ran low, Curtis Kimball tweeted, “Only 8 left. Come and get ’em.”
That brought out Allison Traina, but too late to grab one of the last crème brûlées. She instead opted for a strawberry tart from Amuse-Bouche.
“I love it, I love the concept,” said Traina, 25, who just moved to the Mission from Sunnyvale. “I’m perpetually poor, so street food is always appreciated,” she said, adding that it allowed people to indulge on a budget.
“It’s like a backyard party, except you’re out on the street,” said Charles Perretti, who was serving homemade Vietnamese-style spring rolls. Perretti is a furniture designer who plans to design new carts for the brothers to help them move between different venues in the Mission.
Perretti and Kimball expressed frustration that more quick street food options weren’t available compared to elsewhere in the world.
“Everywhere I go, they’ve got food on the streets … Then I come here, land of the free, and you can’t get shit.”
While Thursday nights on Linda Street may be the epicenter of a new street food movement in San Francisco, innovative mobile food offerings are citywide. If Thai curry isn’t your flavor, or it’s raining outside, you can have an Indian bento box delivered straight to your door in a yellow Mini Cooper. Another vendor, Chile Lindo, serves empanadas at 16th and Capp streets on weekends from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. One of the Mission’s hottest new dining options, Mission Street Food, started last year in a rented taco truck on Thursday nights at 22nd and Mission.
One Twitter user, streetfoodsf, has even dedicated themselves to coverage of the burgeoning scene in 140 characters or less.
“It’s definitely changing the perspective on cuisine,” said Martin Rosetti, who was waiting for his curry order, adding that it’s “not pretentious, it’s just really good.” Rosetti and his friend, Apple Fuentes, both heard of the carts through Twitter.
“If it wasn’t for Twitter, how would these people find out?” they asked before running off to get their curry, after waiting nearly an hour in the cold misty evening.
While the carts are overwhelmingly popular—Amuse-Bouche even has a coveted five-star rating on Yelp—there is one catch. Not one of them has a license to operate. Murat, who usually operates at the 24th and Mission Street BART plaza, has been asked to leave before by the police.
“They’re gentle, they’re very nice, but they ask me to move and I come back the other day.”
Perretti said he “would be happy to pick up a license as long as it’s affordable and you can go out and make some money.”
The police weren’t a problem that night, however, as customers were free to enjoy his onion tarts and zucchini quiches with a hot chocolate or Turkish tea. All of Murat’s pastries, as the rest of the carts, are fresh and homemade. And there is a love for the craft.
“He’ll make them even if we’re not selling them. He loves tarts,” said Pelin Ariner, who helps with the cart. Murat, who sold all of his belongings in France to be with Ariner in the U.S., started the Amuse-Bouche cart to earn cash.
As the crowd began to clear out around 9 p.m., a few customers, including two Mission Loc@l reporters, stood waiting for the last batches of curry.
“It tastes very fresh, very spicy,” said Swarup Bandyopadhyay. “It was worth the wait.”
Although he added, “It was more about the experience than anything else.”
While Linda’s street food night is rapidly expanding, Kimball sees even greater potential, and would like “to start a street market, maybe some artists … I have a friend who’s going to debut his band.”
“I can see this getting bigger,” Ariner agreed. “I hope there will be more people, more sellers and more fiesta.”
Click below to play the audio slideshow of Street Food Night on Linda Street.
Nom nom nom, you’re making me hungry! Wishing I was in the Mission right about now.
Beautifully written and photographed, Armand.