A crowd is gathered in an alley that grows darker and colder by the minute as the sun departs from San Francisco’s famed Mission neighborhood. Conversations mingle and fill the air alongside smells unfamiliar to most alleys in this city—that is, favorable, delicious smells that awaken appetites and leave the crowd restless and hungry. But they wait patiently in long lines, knowing that the reward—an authentic San Francisco street food experience—is worth the investment.
Curtis (who prefers that we not reveal his last name), a consistent figure in the local street food scene and a member of this alley crowd, owns and operates the Crème Brûlée cart, one of the most popular and famous carts around. For $4, he offers gourmet taste in a portable cup with flavors like Dark Chocolate Chambord, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Orange Creamsicle, White Russian, and the top seller, Lavender. Not only is he a local celebrity, he’s even been covered in the New York Times. So how did a humble food cart rise to such great fame?
The Start of a Street Food Empire
Prior to his street food ventures, Curtis was a carpenter who always wanted to be a chef, but disliked the kitchen confinement. “[I wanted] to make people happy and share in that experience with them, but if you’re in the back of a kitchen, you’re not experiencing that,” he shares. So when he helped his brother, Brian, put together his street food cart—the Magic Curry Kart, another SF institution—Curtis decided to start one of his own.
Curtis and Brian became part of the street food night scene in the Mission district, a cultural hotspot with a heavy amount of foot traffic. The timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks to a tanking economy, many people were out of work and looking for inventive ways to make money. And even those still lucky enough to have jobs struggled to put food on the table, let alone enjoy a meal on the town. Enter street food nights, where people gather and enjoy a cheap meal; it’s socializing without the usual hefty price tag. “I think one effect of a down economy is you have more of a sense of community,” Curtis says. “They’re attracted to having a culinary experience that’s more interactive.”
A Cart Conundrum
That doesn’t mean the business isn’t without its bumps. The city makes it virtually impossible for street food vendors to operate legally. According to Curtis, “There’s no permit you can possibly get because of various restrictions.” San Francisco has extremely strict rules, which means that many carts are run behind the law’s back. Curtis has found a way around this by using commercial kitchen spaces to prepare his food. Most cart owners use Twitter as a way to alert customers about their whereabouts, which keeps their locations from law enforcement under wraps (though the lined-up masses are usually a giveaway).
However, Curtis says that cops are usually “pretty cool” and won’t shut down carts unless there are complaints. In fact, he argues that cops benefit from the street food scene. “It creates a stronger bond in the community,” he maintains. “If you have people gathering peacefully for positive reasons, it’s much better than them gathering for negative reasons or not gathering at all.”
The Future of Street Food
When asked about the possibility of San Francisco reaching Portland or New York status when it comes to our street food scene, Curtis chuckles. “If I think about it, this is one of the most creative places in the world. There’s a real atmosphere of creativity and there’s no reason that shouldn’t spread into street food,” he surmises. “Once we can get the policy issues ironed out, the sky’s the limit.”
That’s certainly true of the ever-growing number of carts filling the streets, offering everything from Vietnamese sandwiches to pies. As for the future of crème brulee, Curtis—or, “Crème Brulee Cart Guy,” as he’s known among customers—has a few tricks up his sleeve. “I’m about to try some more experimental ones,” he promises. Given the unique flavors he’s offered in the past, I’ve no doubt they’ll be worth the wait in line.
Photo source: inuyaki (cc)