Every Thursday and Friday around sundown, Coffee Bar, a café on the semi-industrial border between San Francisco's Mission and Potrero Hill neighbourhoods, fills with the sound of laptops softly clicking shut as over-caffeinated freelancers give up their seats to a second wave of guests. In the closet-sized kitchen in back, chef Eskender Aseged is preparing to cook a list of sophisticated dishes with nothing but a hot plate and a sharp knife. Soon, diners will surround the communal tables and votive candles will bring a warm glow to the cavernous space as Coffee Bar becomes home to the nomadic restaurant Radio Africa and Kitchen.
In an area famed for its food, big-name restaurants such as Chez Panisse abound. Radio Africa represents a different model: roving eateries, where young chefs present sophisticated fare in unexpected locations. In-the-know diners now keep their eyes peeled for hidden pockets of culinary treasure, from coffee shops to Asian supermarkets.
The chefs themselves, like all good nomads, have learned to be nimble and humble, setting up quickly with minimal supplies and leaving no trace of their presence. From his makeshift quarters, Aseged turns out dishes that would impress the harshest critics. A native of Ethiopia, he favours North African flavours, often introducing the spice and fragrance of harissa, ras el hanout and chermoula to fresh ingredients prepared with a light touch. The culinary culture for which the Bay Area is famous, with its near-fanaticism for local farms and food, hasn't escaped him. In his own backyard, not far from Radio Africa's adopted home, Aseged grows organic vegetables and herbs that go into nearly every item on the menu.
And homegrown food isn't the only way Aseged incorporates sustainability into his venture. "This is the most energy-efficient way to run a restaurant," he says. "There's very little material, no industrial kitchen appliances, just a hot plate and a few hours in this space."
Eateries even more transient than Aseged's have embraced the adventuresome nature of San Francisco diners, trusting that hungry customers will flock anywhere at the drop of a Tweet. Last year, Mission Street Food, another pop-up enterprise in the same neighbourhood, had foodies lined up down the block before it had sold a single smoked duck beignet.
Mission Street Food was conceived when Anthony Myint, until recently a chef at an upscale San Francisco restaurant, decided to spend his night off from work selling high-concept food in a taco truck, passing pork belly-and-jicama sandwiches and candied sage panna cotta through the window.
The idea was such a success that within weeks, Myint was forced to hunt for a new home. He found it in a Chinese dive on a gritty block of Mission Street.
"I went door to door to underutilized spaces with a kitchen/dining room set-up that seemed workable," Myint says. "I asked them if they would let me use their kitchen and cook for the public if I paid them some amount of money. After some negotiating, we came to an agreement."
Now, on Thursdays and Saturdays, the lights at Lung Shan Restaurant dim, candles land on the tables and inventive dishes parade before a crowd of hungry hipsters.
The growing demand for his on-the-fly cooking has permitted Myint to quit his job to pursue this project full-time. Recently, Mission Street Food took up a second temporary residence during the lunch hour in the rear of Duc Loi, an Asian supermarket, selling beef and vegetarian burgers from noon until the food runs out.
But, despite the more regular service, Myint isn't raking in a big payload. As a gesture of goodwill to those who can't afford to eat so well, Mission Street Food donates profits to hunger-related charities, and Myint dreams of expanding this model. "I ultimately would just like to start a charitable operation that is scalable," he says. "Ideally some investor eats a burger and decides it is good enough and that they can live with a little of the profit going to charity."
Neither Aseged nor Myint aspires to be a nomad forever, even if they have to trade spontaneity for stability. "I'll open my own place eventually," Aseged says.
But for the moment, if you find yourself on the streets of San Francisco with a growling stomach, you're still likely to find first-rate chefs slinging world-class food in very unlikely places.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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WHERE TO GRAB A MEAL Radio Africa & Kitchen Thursdays and Fridays, 6 to 10 p.m. Coffee Bar, 1890 Bryant St., 415-420-2486; radioafricakitchen.com. At this lofty, low-lit café, Eskender Aseged prepares a small menu of North African-inspired dishes with local, organic ingredients. Mission Street Food Thursdays and Saturdays 6 p.m. Lung Shan Restaurant, 2234 Mission St.; twitter.com/missionstfood. Twice a week, Anthony Myint and a rotating cast of guest chefs serve up an ever-changing array of unusual and affordable dishes. Saison Fridays through Sundays, seatings 5 and 8 p.m. Stable Cafe, 2124 Folsom St.; saisonsf.com. In the elegant event space of a new Mission District coffee shop, chef Joshua Skenes creates a refined, French-Californian prix fixe meal three nights a week. One of the few occasional restaurants that accepts reservations; be sure to plan ahead for this one. On weekdays, find Skenes's more casual fare at his downtown mobile eatery, Carte415. www.carte415.com. Naked Lunch Weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Enrico's Restaurant annex, 504 Broadway; www.nakedlunchsf.com. Where Chinatown meets North Beach, San Francisco's little Italy, a stellar lunch counter has taken up residence in the kitchen of an old Italian restaurant. Check the website for the menu, updated daily, which always includes locally made ice cream. S.R.
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THREE HIP SAN FRANCISCO HOTELS Good Hotel 112 7th St.; 415-621-7001; www.jdvhotels.com/hotels/sanfrancisco/good. From $115. Centrally located in SoMa, it has free bikes and rooms decorated with reclaimed building materials. Hotel Vitale 8 Mission St.; 415-278-3700; www.hotelvitale.com. A low-key luxury hotel next to the gourmet smorgasbord that is the Ferry Building. The Phoenix 601 Eddy St.; 415-776-1380; www.jdvhotels.com/phoenix. A buffed-up motel that has hosted rock bands from Psychedelic Furs to the Shins. Staff