San Francisco: Snapshots from La Cocina's Street Food Festival

[Photographs: Wes Rowe]

Walking down Folsom Street at around 10 a.m. last Saturday felt like a deceptive calm before an inevitable storm. Mobile food vendors setting up in trucks and tents were in a flurry of preparation; the smell of grilling beef kabobs mingled with a waft of rich stock from a bubbling pot of ramen. Snippets of conversation—Spanish here, English there—mingled in a lull of early-morning noise.

"Hey, is Brad bringing the extinguishers? To put the fires out?" called out a tall man striding down the street, clad in a pink, "Ask Me About La Cocina!" t-shirt.

Morning calm is no reason to be unprepared for fires.

Fortunately, cooking fires were the only things necessitating Brad's services on Saturday. The fourth year of La Cocina's San Francisco Street Food Festival, stretching along Folsom between 20th and 26th Streets, was rife with people, food, people, drinks, more people, and a great deal of community spirit, and no major disasters.

This was my first time at the festival since its inaugural year; back then, booths were crammed onto two blocks, and the lines were so long and slow that a sustainable foodie riot was a definite possibility. I, fueled by a couple of morning cocktails, cut in line for some corn on the cob, ran away from the angry glares and implied pitchforks, and gave up to go house a burrito in Dolores Park.

The expanded space, and the incredible variety of the food available, spoke to how far the festival has come in four years. You can enjoy a traditional Salvadorian pupusa while waiting in line for pickled heirloom vegetables or housemade Issan sausage; heavy-hitting San Francisco restaurants are tented next to members of La Cocina's incubator program, working to establish themselves in a new business, and a new country.

A word about La Cocina. The incubator kitchen program's mission is to help people, especially immigrants (70% of the members), and especially women (90% of the members), build out ideas for a food-related business. They provide them with kitchen space, help them raise funds, figure out business plans, and break in to the food industry.

Their street food festival helps these businesses gain exposure, and allows them to participate on the same platform as chef-driven restaurants such as State Bird Provisions, Il Cane Rosso, and Hawker Fare. And no matter who's cooking, every item was $8 or less. Most vendors had a $8 big bite, a $3 small bite, and often, a $3 drink.

The festival's organizers use tag-lines like "synergy, microcosm of the city, and entrepreneurial spirit" when describing the event...a lot. I don't love the marketing jargon, but I do greatly appreciate what La Cocina, and the Street Food Festival, set up to accomplish. The juxtaposition of different kinds of food, and different approaches to food, is part of what makes San Francisco's dining scene (perhaps most obviously in the Mission) so amazing. You can go out to a prefixe, 4-star meal, right down the street from a corner store making the best fresh tortillas around.

As for those lines—four years and four additional blocks later—they're still there. Vendors were slinging food out at an impressive rate, and while line-waiting seemed to be a pretty inevitable reality of Saturday's festivities, the (large) crowd of attendees were in impressively good spirits.*

Plus, waiting is a lot better when there's some tasty food at the end of it. And we found plenty—enough to leave us sated and with a whole list of restaurants, pop-ups, and yes, pupusa spots, to go back to.

Check out our favorite bites from the festival in the slideshow >>
And see 5 great sips from festival here >>

*Maggie has a theory that San Franciscans wait in line far more than New Yorkers... or maybe anyone. This Tumblr agrees.