Gail Simmons

Gail Simmons on her favorite San Francisco street food.

on Dec 15, 2008

A Street Food challenge could not have been more appropriate. When traveling to any new city, checking out what the locals are eating always fascinates me. Every nation has its own interpretation of street food, from hot dogs and pretzels to noodles and kabobs. This was an imaginative way to truly immerse us in the San Francisco scene. Our chefs came up with very creative combinations and the best food we have tasted by them thus far. But in every competition there are always a few mistakes. Harold and Lisa's fatal flaw was not necessarily that they forgot the jicama for their salad or that the seared tuna was not well prepared, but that they simply did not create a dish that was conducive to being served on the street. I clearly remember how many of the passersby hesitated before trying it. Understandably, serving rare fish on a downtown street corner was unappealing and confusing to them, let alone knowing how they were supposed to eat it on the go. Between the two of them, Lisa went home because she relied completely on Harold's misdirection. Tiffany and Dave, on the other hand, had the system down pat. Their Moroccan-Cubano braised pork sandwich layered a common Latino preparation with just the right amount of North African spices. It was so flavorful, easy to carry and those pickled vegetables were outrageous! You would think all that street eating would quell my appetite, but in fact, it made me hungrier!

So, while the crew set up for Judge's Table at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, I went on a mission of my own... My first stop was La Taqueria, one of the area's most famous Mexican haunts. I tried several tacos - fish, chorizo and carnitas. All were fresh, zesty and cheap! Isn't it satisfying to find that meal deals still exist in otherwise expensive cities? Next I headed to Philz for a cup of ex[ertly brewed Turkish coffee. Phil Jaber is obsessive about his unique Master Blends and I was lucky enough to get a lesson on them from the man himself. He and his son Jacob roast every bean to perfection and each cup is slowly, passionately handmade. I had never tasted anything quite like it. With just enough room in my belly, I finished off my mouth-watering adventure with berry and apricot bread pudding at Tartine Bakery, a small patisserie and restaurant with a huge reputation. Warm, sweet and more than one person could finish, I brought part of it home for breakfast the next day. I still dream of Dave and Tiffany's "Queen of Sheba Cubano" and wish a cart like it would open up in my neighborhood. No matter who is crowned Top Chef, that $100,000 could easily buy a few street carts, don't you think?