'You Should Open a Hot Dog Stand!'

The Mysterious Lack of San Francisco Street Food

“I don’t see why you’re still opposed to buying a hot dog cart.”

The passage below has been, for the past year, my argument when discussing with my significant other what he should do with his summers. He’s more inclined to travel, mainly in Europe, but I think my plan could bring in some real capital.

“I mean, think about it. How many street vendors are there in San Francisco?” I plead. “There’s that one hot dog guy near Macy’s downtown, one across the street from Old Navy on Market, one near the Embarcadero subway exit in front of the hotel, and lately, that family who take turns selling churros on New Montgomery and Second. That’s really it.” All solid reasons in my book for becoming an entrepeneur. “Okay, okay. If it’s really warm out, sometimes there’s a guy who hangs out in the park near the Conservatory of Flowers, but I don’t think he’s in it for the long haul. He’s really inconsistent.”

The arguments against the hot dog venture go as follows:
1. “I’d eat all the goods and never make a profit.”
2. “I’d rather travel.”
3. “I don’t want to own a hot dog stand.”

That last one is mightily unconvincing.

From my perspective, San Francisco is lagging poorly behind other metropolises when it comes to street food, which is particularly a shame in terms of celebrating cultural diversity. In many ways, San Francisco is still a highly segregated city, and I wonder if that physical, geographical distinction keeps certain types of people out of particular neighborhoods. Afterall, I don’t forsee the Tamale Lady doing much business in Nob Hill.

The Tamale Lady, I should note, has escaped my attention for I don’t know how long. Only recently on a Friday night, I was holed up with some friends in the back room of Toronado, a lower Haight Street bar that specializes in imported labels and microbrews. In the middle of a fairly low-key conversation, I lost the attention of three people simultaneously, who sniffed the air for a moment, whipped around in their chairs and unanimously exclaimed, “Oooh! The Tamale Lady!”

When I first saw the Tamale Lady’s get-up, I thought she was selling ice cream, since she had a huge cooler bouncing off her belly that was secured with a long strap tied behind her neck. Where I come from, anyone wearing this gear is expected to shout, “Chipwiches! Frozen Snickers! Fuuuuuuudgie Wudgey bars!”

The Tamale Lady silently opened her cooler and let the crowd come to her. She barely spoke two words but to take orders and make change. She doled out hot little tin foil bundles of tamales, either chicken, beef, or cheese, if I recall, for a few dollars each.

A few weeks alater, I asked my friends who seemed to be in the known about the Tamale Lady again. “Oh yeah, she hangs out at the 22nd Street CalTrain station,” they told me. “The toss up when deciding which CalTrain station you’re going to use is do you want the relatively clean public restrooms at King Street, or do you want the Tamale Lady? I don’t think The City would let her hang out at King Street anyway. They’re pretty tight there. The thing about 22nd Street is that there’s only one stairwell that everyone has to use, so she hangs out at the top. You literally can’t get on CalTrain without passing her. And half the time, it’s irresistible.”

San Francisco, in all its neighborhoods, does excel in small eateries that cater to the take-away crowd... but it’s just not the same as a street vendor. All the quick dim sum bakeries, burrito shops, coffee houses, and gourmet sausage huts don’t amount to the same sensation one experiences when walking the city streets and finding, every few blocks a rugged face and steaming hot water bath, hands that splotch red and crackled. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that San Francisco must have a very strict policy for street vendors, or maybe that the license is absurdly pricey. Or maybe past experience has shown that street vendors just aren’t profitable in this city.

Now that it’s 2007 and the Third Street light rail is connecting outer lying neighborhoods to the main downtown area and the central transit lines (though that’s a very mixed blessing, already proving to be more of an advantage to the wealthy than the blue collar residents of those neighborhoods -- but that’s another story), just maybe we’ll see a new try at some authentic street food. Or just maybe I need to hang out closer to 22nd Street station.

Jill Duffy is a writer and editor in San Francisco. She enthusiastically recommends finding the Churro Family in the Market-to-Mission and Second-to-New Montgomery vicinity for a taste of $2 heaven. Email her at jilleduffy@gmail.com.