Vigilante chefs hit the streets of the Mission
Residents turn to street food for extra income
April 29, 2009 8:26 PM
With the twist of each of the two wooden spoons over open burners, Brian Kimball is creating magic.
As he stirs, adding chicken and vegetables that hiss and sizzle, a spicy smell rises through the air and wafts through the lines that have begun to form at his small, portable outpost, located in an alley near Dolores Park.
As the sun descends behind the hills, Kimball is just beginning his late night shift. Known as the proprietor of the Magic Curry Kart, he cooks for the hungry, the weary, the broke, the drunk and the curious.
"I've been out to the late night bars and the thing that sucks is that there is no food around. I used to complain about it, but I started thinking that curry would be a good thing to offer people," he said.
The Mission is becoming home to a new culinary and business movement by working class people inspired by one idea: Making and selling street food.
Over the past year, small carts, coolers and even items out of backpacks have been feeding Mission travelers and park-goers. From the infamous Tamale Lady who peddles her wares to put her kids through college, or the Bacon Hot Dog entrepreneurs who can always make a hot dollar, street food culture is flourishing.
But Kimball rises above his predecessors -- people are searching for him.
"I have to turn people away sometimes because I'll run out half an hour early," he said. "I'm by no means on my way to becoming a chef, but people seem to like what I make."
Kimball, who works as a full-time psychoanalyst in the Tenderloin, began the cart to make a few extra dollars. Budget cuts at his full-time job left him looking elsewhere for income.
With his only training being a few cooking classes he took while traveling through Thailand and Asia, Kimball has managed to create a following over just a few months.
"It's the underground - no one really knows about it. You can take your friends to this sweet thing that no one else knows about and suddenly people start talking," he said. "Before I knew it, there were more and more people showing up every week."
Kimball has 824 followers on Twitter, and the number is growing. His brother, Curtis, who runs a crème brulee cart and often sells next to him, is inching up in the ranks as well.
Another vendor, Murat, also uses Twitter to avoid incarceration.
Murat, who asked for his last name to be anonymous, stands outside the 24th and Mission Street BART station every weekday for 3-4 hours running his stand. Known as Amuse Bouche, a Franco-American term for "amusing the mouth," he sells small, handmade muffins, tarts, quiches and spicy-sweet chai tea.
"It makes me happy to be a part of someone's day, to put a smile on their faces," he said.
Originally from Paris, he is on a traveler's Visa and unable to apply for work. He started Amuse Bouche to try and stay afloat in his sea of living expenses and is barely making ends meet. Unless he returns to Paris next month, he runs the risk of being deported.
Peter Rogers, one of Murat's early morning customers, nibbles on a lemon poppyseed muffin. "There has to be some kind of regulation," he said. "I don't know how much it costs to get a permit, but it should be easy."
Cooking and distributing food without a license is a state offense, and efforts to continue the wiping of quasi-chefs without credentials is still in motion.
El Toyanese, the company that owns the majority of taco trucks in San Francisco, and agrees with law enforcers about the regulation and need for licenses.
"I don't have anything against anyone trying to make a living," said Esquivel Santana, owner and operator of El Toyanese. "But food should be regulated by the health department. Someone should be able to come by at any time to inspect."
His taco trucks have come under fire in the Mission for their proximity to a local elementary school. Teachers and administrators are working to get the truck eradicated from the block, claiming that because of their location, they are by providing "unhealthy" food choices to young children.
Still, Murat remains optimistic.
"Cops? They've bought breakfast from me before, and when they usually see me at Dolores [Park], they just turn the other way," he said. "They know times are hard."
Kimball and Murat are working together to promote their businesses, and are organizing a night market where people with the same ideas can gather.
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