How Spark Social solves the food truck problem

Spark Social entrance

Near the entrance to Spark Social food truck park in San Francisco

I’ve eaten at a lot of food trucks. Individual roach coaches, of course, but also renowned food truck gardens in Austin, at San Francisco’s Off the Grid and Sundays in the Presidio, and various food truck rodeos in New York’s Capital District. Sometimes the food is good, sometimes not, but the food truck experience brings with it an existential problem: since you’re ordering from a truck, you’re eating in a parking lot. At times there are clever seating solutions; more often or not you’re just standing in the sun with the sauce from your order dripping down your arm.

Spark Social aisle

Aisles are designed so rotating food truck vendors can easily move in and out

Spark Social, a new venue in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district, solves this problem by designing the space around the food trucks. It was built from scratch in a formerly desolate neighborhood which has been innovatively developed in recent years with the UC Mission Bay medical school and related hospitals as a hub. There are various seating areas including a hollowed out two-decker bus, a shed serving bargain beverages and lots of picnic style benches. A rotating assortment of about 20 food trucks roll in and out. All were doing great business at lunchtime and there’s also happy hour and dinner service. (For residents of the spanking new apartments in the area, there’s not a lot else going on in the evening.) There are also special events (like a family ice cream festival this Saturday August 19) and you can rent out one of the dining areas for birthday and other special events.

I’ve got business in the area over the next few days and predict I will be back, often. Spark Social is at the corner of 4th Street and Mission Bay North. The current food truck list and calendar of events can be found on their website.

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The truth about Amish buffets

Waiting at Shady Maple

Diners waiting to be admitted to Shady Maple Smorgasbord

Are Pennsylvania Amish buffets—where diners pay a hefty sum for all-you-can-eat carbohydrate payloads—hypocritical, grotesque, or even evil? You’d think so if you pay attention to critics like the Chowhounder who recently moved back to Lancaster and wants to promote the area’s fine dining. “The buffets haven’t changed in decades,” he complained. “It’s just that the food around them has. Nothing is more frightening to me than to see obese people with walkers and oxygen bottles getting up for one more plate of fried chicken.”

Until my recent visit to Amish country I was of a similar mindset. I had a tentative plan to eat at Good and Plenty, an Amish buffet that Yelpers gripe about because they are forced to share the table with strangers. But I scrapped this plan in favor of buffet alternatives, regular restaurants that specialize in Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. That same Chowhounder recommended Town Hall in Blue Ball—“where buffet employees go when they themselves want to eat out”—and Fisher’s Amish Restaurant near Intercourse.

Town Hall Dining Room

Dining room at Town Hall restaurant

Fisher’s was so so (and we happened to encounter a buffet, their weekend special) but Town Hall was fabulous. It’s a diner wedged into the side of a firehouse where the same family has been serving good and simple food for over 50 years. I had stuffed pig’s stomach (like corned beef hash with a rind) with sides of corn fritters and cucumber slaw and my eyes rolled back in my head. I was lucky enough to score one of the employee t-shirts with the motto “Quality AND Quantity”. Says it all.

Stuffed Pig Stomach

Stuffed Pig Stomach with sides at Town Hall

However, before dining there we did a little detour to the Shady Maple complex a couple of miles away. This includes an immense supermarket, a gargantuan furniture store, an colossal gift shop, and the Shady Maple Smorgasbord—the mother lode of Amish buffets. We parked and entered under a wide portico that reminded me of nothing so much as a Las Vegas casino. The interior public spaces continued this feeling of déjà vu. They’re expansive and opulent without being particularly distinctive—ornamental carpets, large overstuffed chairs used as accent pieces, and generic artwork of Amish country scenes (some in 3-D). Before long we could look through big windows and observe the diners at long tables as far as the eye could see. Then we turned a corner and spied a line snaking across the lobby: patrons waiting for their turn to enter the room. (Wait times stretch to 45 minutes at busy hours.) We snickered and high-tailed it out of there.

In retrospect, though, I find myself asking what is wrong with all this? Do I not pride myself in trying to beat the house at Vegas buffets by eating more than the cost of the food? Shady Maple tops out at a little over $20 for dinner (some days are less) so this shouldn’t be hard. Especially if I plan my visit around my birthday, where the meal is free as long as I am with a companion paying full price.

Yes, I am planning to eat there! In fact, I am already scheming around a two-day itinerary in which I eat at Shady Maple one day, Good and Plenty the next. (Ideally the two days will include a Friday, so I can make a return visit to Green Dragon market and hopefully find some decent Shoo Fly Pie.)

I think the bad rap for Amish buffets is in fact our own prudishness. We don’t have similar fits of outrage when we dine at Vegas buffets, do we? It rankles us that the devout Amish would make money by catering to the baser desires of the “English” and do it in such an ostentatious and frankly commercial way. But what’s actually wrong with that? We want them to stay in their buggies and remain quaint for our enjoyment as we tool down their byways and chuckle about the bargains we’re getting on fresh produce. Yet there’s no evidence the Amish intend to abandon their beliefs and their lifestyle in the face of modernity and prosperity. If the money we fork over in the buffets helps to maintain this lifestyle (with perhaps a few buggy upgrades) I say more power to them. Let’s eat!

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ISO pickled tripe perfection

Kings Pickled Tripe

Pickled Tripe from King’s Meats

It says a lot about our readership that Pickled Tripe is one of the most popular recipes on Burnt My Fingers. Good on ya, mates, as I think they say down under. However, on my recent trip to Pennsylvania Amish country I discovered something I liked even better: pickled tripe en gelée, at King’s Meats in the Green Dragon Friday market.

Feast your eyes on the cubes in the above photo. It’s like head cheese, but made with tripe! Which is a conundrum because tripe contains none of the collagen found in a pig’s head that causes the bits to stick together in its final form. Plus in preparing tripe you generally discard the cooking liquid, rather than boiling it down to use as a binding agent.

Rob Handel, an local chef and forager who has come up with a number of helpful identifications and offal ideas, suggests “start by making an aspic out of other cuts- bones, feet, etc. then setting the cooked tripe into that aspic base.” Ah, but should those cuts be beef or pork? Even though it’s made from cows (a pig’s stomach has a completely different texture) tripe tastes “piggy” to me, in a good way. And I expect Amish butchers would be more likely to have pig parts on hand than beef.

While enjoying the photo, take note there are absolutely no visible signs of any flavoring agent in the gel other than a few grains of pepper. The spices were carefully strained out before cooling. I’m guessing it is a standard pickling mix plus a generous dollop of vinegar–apple cider vinegar because, again, I’m thinking about what an Amish charcutier would have available.

Has anybody seen this, or made this? If so I’d like to get your reactions and ideas. I could just jump in and start making a product like I describe above, but am humbled by the perfection of the pickled tripe from King’s. (I did ask about it on their Facebook page, but don’t expect a swift response since they haven’t had an update since 2011.) I want to get it right. Will you help?

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In search of the seven sweets and seven sours

Sweets and Sours

Sweets and sours collected at Green Dragon Friday Market, Ephrata PA

“If you’re looking for the seven sweets and seven sours, you’ve missed it by 20 years.” So said a waitress at Dienner’s, an Amish buffet restaurant in Ronks, PA, when I visited in 2012. Needless to say, I’ve been scheming to get back and prove her wrong ever since.

Kick Bicycle

Kick bicycle arriving at Amish farm stand

I feel at peace in the Amish country of Lancaster County, PA, especially in midsummer when the rows of corn are green and endless. The crop fields and well-kept yards are so tidy, it’s a shock to the system to visit a town like Morganville and see chain stores and sprawling parking lots. I want one of those “kick bicycles” that are preferred by sects which believe chains and sprockets are too worldly. I have not failed to notice that if a younger Amish woman or girl is working at a stand (and they are always women; if there is a man in the area he is doing something out back or else resting on a barrel) and you ask her a question (such as “what is your post popular item”) she will not answer if there is an older Amish woman in the vicinity.

Beilers Bakery

Beiler’s Bakery in the Green Dragon market

But about the food. Yes, it is simple and carb-heavy as you would expect if you plan to make the most of what you have and load up for hours of hard physical labor. Condiments, AKA sours, are exactly what you want to set off that plainness. And putting up seasonable bounty to enjoy all year long is a thrifty country practice regardless of religious belief. As to the sweets, why not? If you’re going to make one pie, why not several so everybody in your large family can have their preference?

The too long, didn’t read of this story is that I found what I was looking for almost immediately, at the Green Dragon swap meet in Ephrata. Do not fail to plan around this event (it’s open one day a week, Friday) if you are headed this way. Bypass the sellers of cell phone chargers and diabetic socks (unless you are shopping for these things) and head for the main buildings #1 and #6, plus the open air sellers in the space between them.

Millers Apple Fritters

Miller’s Apple Fritters

There are many vendors of sours and I struggled to decide which to patronize till I realized most are selling products from the same half a dozen kitchens which are regulated by the PA Department of Agriculture. So you choose by price and variety, rather than looking for somebody’s proprietary formula. I stopped at 5 but could easily have shot past 7 sours to a dozen or more. I tasted the above assortment when I got home and all were solid mainstream selections, with enough differentiation in taste that you could combine several on a plate.

Sweets were more of a challenge. Miller’s in Building 6 sells the best apple fritter I’ve ever tasted (while you’re there, grab an equally good stuffed pretzel across the aisle at Roseanne’s), and you can get an excellent éclair-type thing called a Long John at Sunnyside Bakery in the same building. But in multiple tries here and the next day on the back roads, I was unable to find an acceptable Shoo Fly Pie. Online recipes praised by those in the know feature molasses and brown sugar as the active ingredients, so it’s going to take some finesse to avoid a sugar bomb. If I could go back to Green Dragon, I’d head for the one outdoor stand where folks were lining up to buy pies.

Buggies Only

Buggies only sign in Green Dragon parking lot

Ephrata is a bustling, modern town and you could do worse than to linger there. Stop by the museum at Ephrata Cloisters for the strange tale of the town’s cantankerous founders, who kept forming religious communities and then expelling one another. And since you’re now on the west side of town, proceed another mile or so to St. Boniface, an excellent brewpub. My favorite was the double IPA, on tap at a bargain $11 for a growler.

Next: the truth about Amish buffets.

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Toné’s Minced Onions: deyhdrated and delicious

Tones Minced Onion

Toné’s Minced Onions, on a burger prepared Arco-style

There was a time when I made frequent car trips back and forth between the Bay Area and Southern California. The Route 5 interstate was fast but boring, and I always took a break at an Arco gas and snack station that served cheap steam table burgers.

The burgers were absolutely nothing to write home about—tasteless and textureless, made more so by extended storage at a food-safe temperature in a foil-coated paper wrapper. But what saved them was the unusual onions—dehydrated and reconstituted—that were available in a stainless steel tub. A few scoops of these onions combined with mustard, pickles and maybe some jalapeños and I was good to go.

The dehydrating process made the onions sweeter while concentrating the onion flavor. One of these days I’m going to try making my own dried onions at home. (Directions like on this site suggests you should par-roast the onions before dehydrating, which accounts for the sweetness.) For now, you can get something pretty close in Toné’s Minced Onions, available next to Toné’s Chili Powder at Sam’s Club.

To prepare, just mixed the dried onions with an equal amount of water and microwave 30 seconds or so while you’re cooking your burger. My only complaint is that the diced onions, unlike sliced, tend to fall off the bun. You can correct this, if you’re an onion lover, by putting the Toné’s INSIDE the burger and putting still more more (raw) onion on top.

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Of course I’ll pay $300 for barbecue!

Ms Tootsie Snows BBQ

Ms. Tootsie in the smoke house at Snow’s

We received an email from Eater the other day with the irritating subject line, Would you pay $300 for barbecue? The story was about an outfit called Goldbely which specializes in packing rare foodstuffs for safe shipping and charges accordingly. The example barbecue was Louis Mueller in Taylor TX, which has upped shipments 30-40% since they started using Goldbely 7 months ago. (That would be impressive if they’d provide some actual numbers. If you’ve gone from 10 to 14 orders a week I’m not impressed.)

I say more power to Goldbely, and Amazon, and anybody else who is helping to make farflung treats more widely available and legitimately wetting their beak in the process. This is different from the experience when I was dabbling in mail order foods a couple decades back, and discovered that many shippers were using their packaging and postage as a profit center. Today you can order what is probably the world’s best barbecue from Snow’s and pay a very reasonable $49.95 for 2nd day air, no matter how much you order. Yes, you will rather quickly climb over the $300 threshold, but how much is your time worth when you are getting up at an ungodly hour (assuming you’ve already made it to Austin, which is also a line item) and driving 50 miles across the post oak prairie to get there before they run out of brisket?

I have frequently hawked mail order sources like Benton Country Ham and ButcherBox, as well as Frog Hollow Farm and Allen Brothers. (Full disclosure, the last two have been my clients at one time or another.) I also buy spices and specialty ingredients that are available on Amazon at obviously high markups with “free” Prime Shipping, because how else are you going to get them in a remote enclave like Saratoga Springs, NY? Paying extra is  better than it used to be, when you could only dream about these exotic foodstuffs.

The thing to watch for, of course, is that defrosting and reheating a brisket from Snow’s (it arrives frozen) is not exactly the same experience as ordering it in their little shack and maybe eating outside next to the smokehouse with Kerry and Ms. Tootsie. You need to factor that into your meal planning and maybe do a little research. The meat or other product will be just fine, but for it to be truly worth $300 the right ambience has to be provided by you.

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Recipe: Cuban-Style Cole Slaw

Cuban Cole Slaw

Cuban-Style Cole Slaw

Cuban-style Cole Slaw is “Cuban” because it has white vinegar. That make it the perfect accompaniment to my Cuban sandwich and black beans and rice. Serves 4.

½ medium cabbage, shredded, about 1 ½ lb
3 T olive oil
1 ½ T white vinegar
½ t cumin seeds
¼ c chopped green pepper (optional)
¼ c chopped green onions including some of the green
1 t salt

Method: sweat the cabbage by evenly distributing salt in a bowl and working it in with your hands so all surfaces get some salt. Refrigerate 30-60 minutes until a good amount of liquid has been thrown off. Rinse the cabbage and press it with a towel in a fine-screen strainer until water has been pressed out. Transfer to a serving bowl and add all other ingredients; toss. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

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One simple trick to avoid a “nothing burger”

I love the presentation of the to-go burger at Country Drive-In. But it’s missing salt.

I stopped in at Country Drive-Inn, a locally famous spot in Clifton Park NY, to pick up some food for a road trip. I ordered their legendary onion rings plus a cheeseburger. Couldn’t resist a nibble of the rings before I hit the road and they were as good as remembered, with a robust yet balanced seasoning. Then an atavistic instinct made me try my cheeseburger. And it was completely devoid of salt.

As a dad, I have often suffered through the bro-speration of watching another dad prepare burgers—on a school camping trip, cub scout expedition or back yard barbecue. The usual practice is to peel pre-formed Bubba’s patties out of a box and drop them onto a grill. How many times was a shake of salt or a proprietary seasoning part of this process? I can’t recall and after today’s experience, I’m thinking never.

Maybe the bro dad/prep team assumes you will season the burger to your liking. And indeed, at Country Drive-Inn salt and pepper shakers were available and I definitely partook. But that first bite is key, and it’s going to disappoint. Plus lifting the bun and digging around in the ingredients spoils the stage management of the burger. I don’t want to know how my sausage or legislation or burger is made, I just want to enjoy it.

I’m not demanding you heavily season your patty as a matter of course (though the fabulous Greek style salt at the original Burger House on Hillcrest is part of its secret). Just a shake or two of salt and a few grains of pepper to establish a flavor base.

Or look at it this way. Would you serve up a steak that was completely devoid of seasoning of any kind, including salt? I have ever had such an item. If you have, please let me know.

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Battle of the tiny tube steaks: mini-hot dog taste test

Mini Hot Dogs

Mini-hot dogs from the National Hot Dog Day tasting. Clockwise starting at 9 o’clock: Famous Lunch, Hot Dog Charlie’s, Gus’s, Country Drive-In, Jack’s.

In honor of National Hot Dog Day we attended a mini-hot dog taste test, comparing five prominent vendors in upstate New York. Interns from Gramercy Communications sped to the five locations and brought back their payload at roughly the same time. The establishments involved were Famous Lunch in Troy, Hot Dog Charlie’s of Lansingburgh, Gus’s in Watervliet, Country Drive-In of Clifton Park and Jack’s in Wyantskill.

A mini-hot dog is one of the defining cuisine items of our area. It features a teeny frankfurter, always made by Helmold, on a wee bun about four inches long. The dogs are often garnished with onions and mustard, but more important there is almost always a meat sauce made from ground beef and various herbs and spices plus possibly a tomato component (there is some debate on that last ingredient). You need at minimum three of these to make a meal, and half a dozen is by no means gluttony.

For a fair contest, each of the entrants should have been garnished the same way, probably with nothing but meat sauce. Two of the dogs I tried added onions, and one was slathered with mustard as well. Looking at my photos of the distribution tables after I left the event, I discovered that all but one of the selections was indeed available with just meat sauce. So the interns who had provided such careful control in the hunting and gathering process ended up pushing their personal favorite condiments when it came to serving. (Nobody ASKED me if I wanted mustard and onions.)

But that’s a distraction, because when it comes down to it these dogs must be, and were, judged on their meat sauce alone. (The buns, like the frankfurters, are generic.) And the clear winner was Famous Lunch of Troy. Their “Zippy” sauce has just the right kick from paprika, spices and an overall well-balanced and greasy flavor profile. Jack’s, Gus’s and Country Drive-In were all equivalent just a slight step below, and Hot Dog Charlie’s unfortunately finished out of the running. Their sauce was uninteresting (too bad, since it’s the only one widely available at retail) and also the buns were stale.

The event took place at the Innovation Garage in Troy and donations supported the Regional Food Bank of Upstate New York. If you’re interested in experimenting with your own sauce, here is one that claims to be like Famous Lunch (no tomato) and here is a replication of Hot Dog Charlie’s sauce.

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Recipe: Digger Bread

Digger Bread

Digger Bread, in “coffee” can and loaf pan versions

Welcome to the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The other day I drove past the Panhandle, a mile long grassy strip where the Diggers gave away bread to keep people nourished while they were grooving. Digger Bread packs a lot of nutrition into a simple, hearty loaf anyone can make. There are two recipes online, one at the Diggers’ archive and the other in a 1970 edition of Mother Earth News. I prefer the latter except for a couple of flaws which I’ve corrected. Note: by making this bread you are swearing an oath you will never sell but only give it away. Makes two 1-lb loaves.

For the wet mix:
1/2 c lukewarm water or whole milk or yogurt
1 T dry yeast or one (2 ¼ tsp) package
1 T whole wheat or all purpose flour
1 ripe banana, peeled and mashed
1 T honey, sorghum, maple syrup or raw sugar
For the dry mix:
4 c whole wheat flour (enough to fill a 1-lb coffee can* to the brim)
½ c nonfat dry milk**
1 t salt
½ c raisins or currants
½ c or more of “something weird” (I used 1/3 c muesli, 1/3 c wheat germ, ¼ c dried cranberries)
Additional water or milk as needed
Additional honey, fruit, nuts or whatever strikes your fancy if desired

Method: mix the wet ingredients in a 1-lb empty coffee can or equivalent*. Rest for a few minutes to let the yeast feed, then pour into a big bowl with the dry ingredients and mix with a big spoon until no dry patches are left.  You will almost certainly need to add more liquid to accomplish this, up to 1 or 1 ½ c total. (If dough gets too wet, just add some flour. This is a very forgiving recipe.) When dough is thoroughly mixed and uniform, cover bowl and put aside in a warm place until it has risen by half, about 45 minutes.

Knead the dough thoroughly (that’s right, in this recipe you knead after the first rise) until it is firm yet spongy like a baby’s bottom, 10 minutes or more. Divide in half and transfer to two 1-lb coffee cans or equivalent which have been greased with butter, lard or oil. Allow to rise again until it has almost doubled in volume, about 45 minutes to an hour. Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 390 degrees (use a cookie sheet under the cans to prevent accidents) and bake for one hour. Eat with a hearty soup or load up with peanut butter and jelly for a complete meal.

*Alas, coffee cans have changed since the 1960s and most now have a lip which will keep the dough from rising evenly and make it impossible to remove the finished loaf. I substituted a 28 ounce bean can which was as close as I could get to the form factor of a 1-lb coffee can. You could also just bake in a loaf pan, like I did for my second loaf.

**If using milk or yogurt instead of water you can omit the dry milk. I think it was included in the original recipe because the Diggers wanted people to get their dairy, and refrigeration in the parks was unreliable so they didn’t have fresh milk.

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