Northside SF
La Cocina: A vote of confidence for tamales, empanadas and Jell-O shots

Edible art by Rosa Rodriquez of Sweets Collection

I have always been a strong proponent of street food. I happen to believe the food you eat on the street when your stomach is sending you a clear message is to a Michelin-starred restaurant as a sports car is to the family sedan. Street food is a sports runabout just waiting for a sophisticated fuel-injection system. I’m all for classy sedans, but the speedster sports car keeps reaching out to me. 

And with that clearly in mind I headed to Fort Mason one evening where I was accepted as a street-food acolyte by La Cocina, the nonprofit organization that operates a hands-on program in the Mission District to encourage food entrepreneurs. It was the press preview for the Third Annual San Francisco Street Food Festival that La Cocina hosts, and my esteemed editor reluctantly relinquished her press pass to me and wished me buen gusto.  

The actual Street Food Festival was on Aug. 20 in the Mission, and a large crowd of devotees flocked to Folsom and a few side streets to pay homage to what a great food city this is. But I had other fish to fry then – in fact, I was fly fishing in Montana. My colleagues reported that exhibitors included La Cocina clients, San Francisco food truck vendors, visiting food trucks from several other cities, and even some traditional restaurants.

But back to that inspiring night at Fort Mason: La Cocina calls itself a business incubator program. It’s an offshoot of the Women’s Foundation in the Mission and has set itself on a course, as Caleb Zigas, its executive director, puts it, “of helping people – mostly women of color – to make a good living.” In other words, it’s the fuel-injection system for that sports car I mentioned.

La Cocina works with entrepreneurs as they launch small food businesses, and it helps them grow to self-sufficiency.

The night of the press preview, I took it as my duty to help them grow too. The more I ate, I reasoned, the more confidence I instilled in these entrepreneurs. I wanted to give them an important vote of confidence.

First, during cocktail hour I decided to give my vote to a saucy little appetizer called a jambalini, a kind of thumb-sized, deep-fried Italian arancini but with spicy seafood substituted for the rice. For an extra vote of confidence, I had another before I moved on to the empanadas being offered by Sabores del Sur, a catering company specializing in the tastes of South America. And right there with the goods was La Cocina graduate Guisell Osorio from Chile, who has turned her grandmother’s recipes for empanadas and other treats into a successful business. Being stalwart I declined a third empanadaand moved smartly on to try the cucumber with hummus by another La Cocina grad, Love and Hummus Co. I also managed to get in a meatball slider by Beretta, an outfit out on Valencia, before we sat down to deal seriously with our dinner. But it was a small slider.  

The dining area was full of decorated tables for 10, and by chance I sat down with a large group from Wells Fargo. It turned out to be a good choice. The bank is one of the major sponsors of La Cocina and one of my tablemates was Eric Hughes, senior vice president and marketing manager for the bank, who walked me through the La Cocina system. He told me that more than 30 small food businesses had gone through the drill and now provided jobs for more than 100 people, grossing about two million in annual revenue with catering outfits, farmers’ market stands and food trucks.
But then it was time to dig in as platters of food began arriving. We began with piroshkies stuffed with beef, onions, potatoes, and cheese by an entrepreneur called Anda Piroshki. It seems the word anda is Russian for wow.

Another platter held tostaditas de mole verde – bite-sized tostadas, topped with shredded chicken breast in a green mole sauce. Then came steamed buns with chicken, ginger and onion; Scotch eggs; pork belly BLTs; takoyaki, a Japanese street delicacy of baby octopus deep fried with pickled ginger and green onion; pumpkin curry, and even shrimp po’boy sandwiches.

We gave a special vote of confidence to Alicia Villanueva, a native of Mexico’s Sinaloa, whose specialty is her grandmother’s tamales. She operates her own tamale cart in Justin Herman Plaza, but La Cocina has her on track for a new business venture – her own restaurant. I’m keeping an eye out for it. Alicia’s tamales are stuffed with pork and chicken with an avocado sauce.  

But I did save room for dessert. After the chocolate cupcakes on a stick, the shortbread cookies and a tiny dulce de leche crepe, I selected a Jell-O shot – just to cap off the evening. Rosa Rodriguez, a talented artist from Mexico, creates this edible art in transparent molds. Organic gelatin, flower blossoms and in the case of the one I had, 100-proof vodka. It looks like a small glass paperweight. But, it tastes like a wobbly, slightly sweet cocktail.

I had worked my way steadily from the jambalini to the Jell-O shot, and it was time to go. In a burst of what I hoped was comic cordiality, I rose from the table and prepared to leave by saying, “You’ll have to excuse me. I have a late dinner reservation at Gary Danko.”
The Wells Fargo execs gasped in astonishment.


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