Off the Grid: Upper Haight

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Off the Grid is The City’s roaming mobile food extravaganza — bringing the good people of San Francisco delicious food, with free sides of music, craft and soul. You can check out all your favorite gourmet food vendors in one place.

Fortunately for UCSF students at Parnassus, there’s an Off the Grid close by — held every Thursday, from 5-9 p.m. at Stanyan St & Waller Streets. Anywhere from eight to 12 truck may show up on any given week. We recently sent out a team of Synapse reviewers to see what the trucks were cooking up this fall.

Chairman Bao

There I stood, staring at a mob of people stuffing their faces and a horseshoe of food trucks offering up seemingly endless variety. Then I spotted it. Off in the back corner (if a horseshoe has corners), the Chairman Bao beckoned.

Illustrations by Jillian Varonin/BMS4I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, considering this was the first time I had eaten Bao, but I will start off by saying that I have become a comrade. Bao is essentially a deconstructed Chinese bun. The Chairman offers both a steamed and baked version, just as any dim sum place will offer a steamed or baked bun.

Like any good hungry Baoist, I ordered one of each: the baked pork belly and the steamed spicy chicken. The baked pork belly bao was about the size and shape of a hamburger, but in place of the beef, there was an epic slab of pork belly that melted with every bite. This was topped with pickled daikon and green shiso, which added a nice tangy crunch. It was all surrounded by a light, flaky bun that held the scene together.

The steamed spicy chicken was essentially a mini taco on a flat round pillow of a steamed bun. The chicken was indeed spicy, but in no way hot, and the spice was expertly balanced with the savory of the sesame sauce and tart of the pickled veggies. So the next time you’re at Off the Grid and want a filling but not too heavy meal, I recommend visiting Chairman Bao.

Matthew Nordstrom/MS2

Curry Up Now!

As messy as the concept might sound, the deconstructed samosa at Curry Up Now! still managed to be visually appealing, with bite-sized pockets of golden deep-fried dough nestled in paneer, chopped onions, chickpeas, tomatoes, pico de gallo and chutney. If paneer, a chewy and refreshing farmer’s cheese, is not your cup of chai, you can substitute chicken, beef or tofu at no cost, or add lamb or pork belly for $2 more.

Although there’s something comforting about biting into a crispy samosa stuffed with potatoes, peas and spices, I think I like the deconstructed version even better, with a higher filling-to-crust ratio that is not only satisfying, but also makes me feel a little better about myself. Less oil! More vegetables! I might as well be eating a spicy salad.

Speaking of spices, those who don’t like their Indian food on the spicier side might want to look for alternative options.

Yi Lu/MS2

Little Green Cyclo

This bright green food truck features Vietnamese-inspired dishes and touts its sustainably sourced ingredients. The relatively short line and creative menu items like Sweet Potato Tater Tots and various Coconut Rice Boxes caught my eye. I sampled the Truffle Oil Garlic Noodles with Lemongrass Organic Tofu ($9).

The heaping helping with plenty of fried tofu left me full, but any truffle flavor that might have been present was overpowered by the lemongrass. The tofu spring rolls ($6) with a modest serving of peanut dipping sauce were fresh and perfect for sharing.

Bottom line: Little Green Cyclo delivers when it comes to tasty vegetarian (and non-vegetarian) options and will leave you with some leftovers.

Angela Broad/MS1

Phat Thai

As the name would suggest, Phat Thai fills Off the Grid’s Thai food niche. It serves the standard dishes that you can find at any Thai restaurant in The City, with the bonus of fast, phenomenal service and quality food presentation.

Phat Thai’s saving grace is its educational and entertaining spice bar. Using Digimon evolutions as a guide to the levels of spice, the bar provides a description of each sauce and the dishes with which they pair well.

I tried their signature Pad Thai ($8) with a Thai iced tea ($3). I chose to go vegetarian and was pleased with the variety and amount of veggies in the dish. I’m not a big fan of faux meat, so I was also relieved to only receive one piece of tofu, although that made me question whether its inclusion was accidental.

As a fan of spice who has sensitive taste buds, I played it safe and paired it with the Level 2 spicy sauce, Sriracha with garlic and chili flakes. This definitely gave the dish the extra kick it needed. The tea was standard.

Fellow Synapse writer Jeffrey Chen ordered the Som Tum Salad and described it as “a refreshing side, consisting of shredded green papaya with chopped cherry tomatoes, carrots, Thai ‘bird’s eye’ chili, som tum sauce and crushed peanuts — all served on a bed of lettuce. The fruits and vegetables were fresh, and the flavor was very Thai (savory and tangy with only a slight hint of sweet, as these papayas are unripe).

Just be warned; under all that limey fresh goodness awaits the occasional bird’s eye chili, which has a surprisingly spicy kick.

Nicole Croom/MS2

Señor Sisig

The longest line at Off the Grid on the night I went was at Señor Sisig. Just the day before my older brother had told me that Señor Sisig was his favorite food truck

in The City and I just had to try it. So I decided to brave the long line and try their Filipino fusion fare. Because no one likes a person who is still undecided when she gets to the front of a lengthy line, I decided to read the menu on my phone while I waited.

On my phone, I learned that sisig is a traditional Filipino dish of marinated pork — traditionally made with meat from the pig’s head but here substituted with pork shoulder. You can order tacos, burritos, fries, nachos, rice and salad, and add your choice of sisig pork, chicken or tofu. To try all three sisig op- tions, I ordered two tacos (pork and chicken, $3 each) and the nachos with tofu ($8) for a fellow vegetarian Synapse reviewer. I also or- dered a calamansi fruit drink (brand name Nomsi). I had never heard of the calamansi fruit, but the bottle assured me it was “wildly popular in Asia” and a “lusciously delicious” mix between a lime and a mandarin orange.

I was not disappointed. The drink lived up to its glowing label. The tacos also lived up to my brother’s praise, with the pork being especially rich-flavored. The tofu on the ta- cos lacked the flavor of its meat sisig counter- parts — a fine, if boring, dish overall. If you are headed to Off the Grid, I would strongly encourage you to give it a try, especially if you eat pork.

Jillian Varonin/BMS4

Thinking back to how excited I was to try Señor Sisig’s fare, I was probably setting myself up for disappointment. The people waiting in line for Señor Sisig, easily one of the more popular trucks at Off the Grid, probably weren’t exercising their patience for nachos and tofu.

Sure, the tortilla chips were crispy and the nacho cheese was appropriately nuclear yellow, but it didn’t really offer much more than I could have gotten at a Dave and Busters. The under-seasoned tofu limply lying in those pools of salty cheese didn’t bring anything to the table either.

Yi Lu

Bacon Bacon

For dessert, I decided to try the choc- olate covered bacon ($3) from the Bacon Bacon truck, which features dishes including a ba- con burger ($9), bacon fried chicken ($9) and bacon grilled cheese ($8). There were so many things wrong with the chocolate-covered bacon, it’s hard to even write about, let alone re- live the memory.

The pre-packaged bacon strip was cold, like it was kept in a freezer until right before purchase. The temperature of the item was just wrong for fatty bacon.

To continue the downhill trend of this dish, the taste was almost inedible, like the smell of the stale air of bacon cooked in the morning and left hanging around until late afternoon. Package that smell, freeze it, and take a bite.

I couldn’t tell you when the item was made, but I assure you it was far too long ago for the dish to still taste good. Another self- proclaimed “bacon lover” Synapse reviewer decided to give the bacon a try and agreed it was terrible. Unable to finish the whole strip of bacon, the trashcan was forced to eat the rest.

Jillian Varonin/BMS4

Off the Grid Vegan Choices

Despite the variety at Off the Grid, vegans face a couple of obstacles. And if you’re like me, and you’re a vegan who doesn’t swoon over burritos, this food spectacle can be less appealing. However, I found a few gems to help guide you through the rough.

From Chairman Bao, picky vegans (I prefer to describe myself as a Buddhist vegetarian, FYI), can nibble on a crispy miso-cured tofu and baby choy sum bao (bun sandwich). Remember to request no garlic-tofu mayo.

Even without the extra dressing, this bao is a delicious bite. The tofu is lightly crispy on the outside, and tender just beneath the surface. The bao is similar to the buns served at traditional Chinese restaurants, only it’s softer and less greasy.

You know you eat at food trucks too often when someone says “sweet potato tater tots” and you instantly say “Little Green Cyclo.”  At Little Green Cyclo, you can find a variety of tofu and vegetable dishes and banh mi, but the real attraction here are the sweet potato tater tots. Try the vegan mango ketchup that goes with an order of tots.

Moving on to the Slider Shack, you’ll find the Black Bean Slider, which boasts 11 unique ingredients. Unfortunately, you’ll have to substitute a green chili sauce for their mango yogurt sauce. This bean patty was dense and lacked flavor. However, they use Hawaiian sweet buns instead of regular hamburger buns, which is a clever (and tasty) idea.

Geraldine Tran/MS2