When Is a Food Cart a Food Carte?
A central tension is emerging as street food carts take to the city in droves. What, exactly, constitutes proper street food? Can you serve fancy food and pedigreed ingredients from a cart? Do people want frogs legs and bagna cauda from a mobile vendor? When is a cart actually a carte?
This question is central in my mind as I digest my lunch from Carte 415, one of the latest ventures to hit downtown. The early reports have the details—Joshua Skenes, ex-chef of Chez TJ and before that, one of Michael Mina's SoCal ventures (which explains why Mina himself was kicking it by the carte, which is housed in the Atrium at 101 Second Street), wanted to bring good food to the people—well, at least some of the people. You know, the ones who work downtown and don't mind spending $8 on a sandwich. Skenes is also hard at work on another project, the one-night-a-week prix fixe dinners he's serving on Sundays at Saison, a pop-up restaurant within the Stable Cafe on Folsom and 17th.
But here's the rub: To call Carte 415 a street food vendor, to lump what Skenes is doing in with, say, the Kung Fu Taco guys or a dude making bacon-wrapped hot dogs in the Mission, is kind of like comparing apples with oranges. For example, at Carte 415 they're using an immersion circulator to keep the meat— today, brisket and pulled pork—warm. The crudité (served with a delicious mixture of creme fraiche and bagna cauda for dipping) is an assortment of "fancy" vegetables—purple carrots, Easter egg radishes, the babiest of baby fennel. A half-pint of hummus is drizzled with paprika oil and garnished with fried chickpeas. This isn't a cart—it's a restaurant without the infrastructure. They even take credit cards.
But what interests me most is that Skenes, according to his own website, didn't open Carte 415 because he wanted to ride the high tide of pop-up mobile vending in San Francisco. As a chef accustomed to fine dining, he wanted to do great food, with ingredients sourced from his favorite farms, but he also needed to eliminate the overhead costs of doing so in order to bring high-quality food to the greater masses. Let me read between the lines for you here: it's getting too damn expensive for young, talented chefs to open brick-and-mortar restaurants in this city. Mark my words—by 2010 our town will be awash with fancy sandwich joints, hot doggeries and pizza joints and we'll all be wishing for a nice white tableclothed spot with real, live servers.