Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Al Fresco Dining Weather (Finally) Arrives

The coldest summer in memory didn't put a damper on one of the best new events in San Francisco: Off the Grid. It's part of the food cart/truck movement that offers relatively inexpensive street food in a sort of roving festival of brightly-colored vehicles. Think really cool taco trucks. On Friday evenings, Off the Grid hits the Fort Mason parking lot 5-9 p.m.

It's kind of a funny scene: A couple dozen of the trucks circle like wagon trains. In the middle there's a bar, some tables and folding chairs, although not nearly enough. Even though it's held in a bayside spot where fog and wind whip through, the event draws hundreds of people. One recent blustery, cold evening that called for wool hats and fleece jackets 4,000 crammed into the truck circle over a four-hour period. Lines were long but everyone seemed to be having a good time.

And, Friday nights' Off the Grid should become even more pleasant during warmer September and October evenings.
Some of the most popular food trucks are Chairman Bao, which specializes in steamed and baked buns, Hapa Ramen, dishing up noodle soup using local and organic ingredients, Calidogs, offering unusual varieties of spiced hot dogs, and the Creme Brulee Cart, serving up little cups of this warm, custardy dessert, comforting on a chilly night. Off the Grid is arranging other food cart events and some of the food cart operators are active on Twitter: if you become hooked on a certain dish (and it sounds like lots of San Franciscans have), you can hunt down the cart and follow it around town.
For more civilized al fresco dining (table service and no lines!) I spent a lovely morning having brunch with friends on the small and charming patio at the rear of the Blue Jay Cafe on Divisadero, which serves wonderful fried chicken and waffles. I've always loved the atmosphere at this American-style diner with its big horseshoe-shaped counter, but hadn't stepped out back. There are only three or four tables, but it's warm and cozy, with tall brick walls and big red umbrellas providing shade. The food is reasonably priced ($7.25 for the chicken and waffles) and there's a lot of down home southern flavor, with biscuits and corn muffins always on the menu.

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