“Chef”… Reflections

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WARNING: This post contains detailed descriptions of scenes from the film “Chef.”  If you have not yet seen the film and would not like any spoilers, I strongly urge you to watch the film first before reading this post.

Here’s a quick synopsis just to refresh your memory, courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes:

Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) suddenly quits his job at a prominent Los Angeles restaurant after refusing to compromise his creative integrity for its controlling owner (Dustin Hoffman), he is left to figure out what’s next. Finding himself in Miami, he teams up with his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), his friend (John Leguizamo) and his son to launch a food truck. Taking to the road, Chef Carl goes back to his roots to reignite his passion for the kitchen — and zest for life and love.

The first time I saw Chef, I thought that no doubt it was one of my favorite movies of all time.  It was definitely in my top 5.  However, the more I watched it, the more time I’ve had to analyze it and the more I realize exactly how much this film speaks directly to my experiences.  Chef is now hands down my favorite film, ever.  Here I offer a few thoughts on the film with parallels of my own experiences.

At the time I’m writing this, I have seen Chef four times… and working on a food truck myself. Little did I know that when I wrote a previous blog post on one of my favorite food trucks, Little Green Cyclo, that I would be working for them.  Back in June 2013, during the Sunset Magazine Celebration Weekend, I had asked if they needed any help on the truck.  I had never seen the crew so busy during that weekend, and really wanted to help out wherever I could.  They politely declined, since I was already working a full-time job, working 40 hours a week.  Monica said she didn’t want to wear me out during my time off.

Fast forward to February 2014.  I run into Monica and Quynh at an Off the Grid market where LGC happened to be serving.  We chat for a little bit, and I briefly mentioned that I wanted a career change.  I’ve actually been considering a career in the food service industry for quite a while.  A few days later, I get an email.  It was a response from an email I had sent Monica from back in June when I originally asked if I could work with them.  LGC was expanding, and Monica asked if I was still interested in helping out.  Of course I was.  And just like that, I went from customer to employee.

 

Riding with Quynh on the way to Larkspur.

Riding with Quynh on the way to Larkspur.  My first service.

 

Mr. Bonejangles

As of right now, I am languishing in a cubicle for 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday.  I come into work, do my time, and leave.  I spend most of my week in front of a computer screen and glued to a headset.  I just sit there and collect a paycheck.  It’s everything I told myself I would never want to do.  Yet here I am at a “safe” job because it’s the smart thing to do.  The pay and benefits are good, but I honestly cannot imagine myself in a few years doing the same thing.  I can actually feel the life being sucked out of my body.  I’m just a puppet (along with the rest of my coworkers) going through the motions and essentially helpless, at the mercy of management who care more about statistics and numbers than people.

Chef Carl Casper in Chef is just a puppet, being controlled by a restaurant owner that focuses on revenue and the number of covers in a night while neglecting the kind of food coming out of the kitchen.  Carl is constantly overruled and humiliated in front of his own kitchen staff.  Carl’s hollowed out existence is so perfectly captured when he’s at the market with his son Percy.  Carl is entranced by a marionette that is manipulated into a cheerful dance.  It’s apparent that Carl sees himself as the marionette- utterly helpless and at the mercy of someone else pulling the strings.  I find it poignant that the marionette is a skeleton.  While Carl is a chef that has been ridiculed for his weight gain, on the inside Carl feels empty.  He is devoid of any feeling or passion, and is a chef that has been starved of his creativity.

 

“I don’t need money. I want to cook.”

In the aftermath of the terrible review from food critic Ramsey Michel and his subsequent meltdown which goes viral over social media, Carl finds himself without a job.  As he struggles to pick up the pieces of his shattered professional career, his ex-wife Inez offers him her publicist to help out with his financial situation.  Inez’s publicist suggests that Carl capitalize on his newfound, but unwanted, fame by pursuing promotional opportunities and reality shows.  Carl vehemently refuses, and the publicists responds “I thought you wanted money?”  Carl fires back by saying “I don’t need money.  I want to cook.”

I love Carl’s response to Inez’s publicist.  Carl doesn’t want to be a celebrity chef milking his fame for everything it’s worth or become a walking billboard peddling products.  He is not in it for the money.  Carl just wants to do what he loves- to cook.

I don’t need money either.  I already have a pretty decent paying job, and a second job is not necessary at all.  I don’t give up my weeknights and weekends because I want more money.  I love working on the truck, I love the people I work for, and I love the people I work with.  I love the business.  I love the interaction with our customers.  I love seeing the looks of people when they enjoy their food.  It’s not about the money, and it never will be.  Nobody works in the food industry for the money anyway.  People do it because they love it.

 

With Quynh and Monica after the first service at Off The Grid: Ft. Mason of 2014.

With Quynh and Monica after the first 2014 service at Off The Grid: Ft. Mason.

 

Martin

Martin, one member of Carl’s kitchen staff at the restaurant he was fired from, follows him to Miami to help him out with the food truck.  Martin shows up in Miami unannounced and surprises Carl when Martin says he dropped everything to help him out.  Carl is shocked since Martin was recently promoted to sous chef back at the restaurant.  It wasn’t too big of a shock to me given that Martin is extremely loyal to Carl, and has been a great friend from the beginning.

 

The following dialogue between Carl and Martin is not exact and recalled as best I can from memory:

“What are you doing here?”

“I told you if you ever needed a sous chef…”

“But you’re a sous chef now at the restaurant.”

“Food trucks don’t need a sous chef?”

Carl smiles.

“It pays nothing.”

“I’ll take it!”

 

If I were in Martin’s shoes I would have done exactly the same thing.  He put aside his job, a promotion no less, to go help out a friend… for nothing.  It takes a lot of guts to do what Martin did, and I can only hope that I can do that one day.  In reality I’m just biding my time to do drop everything and work full-time in the food service industry.  Martin’s loyalty and the passion with which he cooks is a joy to watch.  The way he massages the mojo into the pork shows just how much he enjoys cooking.  Whereas Carl is very exacting and methodical when he cooks, Martin is often smiling, laughing, and dancing while he cooks.  Two different styles, both very passionate cooks who take great care in what they do.

 

Yes chef”

As Carl is getting settled into his newfound food truck, he along with his son Percy and sous chef Martin are testing our their Cubanos for the first time.  Percy is helping press the sandwiches on the plancha, when he accidentally burns a Cubano.  When Percy calls out that it’s ready, Carl sees that it’s burned.  Percy says, “So what?  They’re not paying for it.”  Carl takes exception and pulls Percy off the truck for a pep talk.

 

The following dialogue is an abridgement and recalled as best I can from memory:

“Do you like this?  Is this fun for you?”

“Yeah, I like it.”

“Well I love it.  It keeps me going. …I’m sorry if I haven’t been the best father.  But this, I’m good at.  I get to touch people’s lives with what I do everyday.  And if you give it a chance I think you’ll love it too.”

“Yes chef.”

“Now, should we have served that sandwich?

“No chef.”

“That’s my boy, now get back in there.”

 

This is one of my favorite scenes because it shows just how important cooking is to Carl and why it’s important.  If you’re not proud of the food you serve, and if you wouldn’t eat it yourself, then you should not serve it.  Cooking isn’t simply about churning out food, it’s about people and the difference you can make in a person just by feeding them.  It made me smile when Percy refers to Carl as “chef,” and not “dad.”  In that moment, you can tell that Percy takes his job seriously and shows his respect with his use of that single title.

The way Carl describes his profession is the same way I feel when I’m working on the truck.  I know that what I do matters and I care a lot about the food that comes out of the kitchen.  I do the best I can to make sure that every customer enjoys their food and has a good experience.

 

“But you look happy.”  “So happy.”

Martin can plainly see that Carl is having fun again cooking, and he mentions “…but you look happy.”  Carl replies, “So happy.”  It’s a reminder that we should do what we love, and love what we do.  I take my job with LGC seriously, probably more seriously than my day job.  And it’s for sure I enjoy working on the truck a lot more than in a cubicle.  I genuinely enjoy what I do and it makes me happy.

 

Working with Quynh on the truck.

Working with Quynh on the truck.

 

Austin

When service ends for the El Hefe food truck in Austin, Carl and Percy are taking in a live music performance.  As they’re enjoying the music, Carl has a personal talk with his son.  Carl tells Percy that once they get back to California, things won’t be the same anymore.  Percy will be back in school, and Carl will be busy working on the food truck.  Carl braces Percy for the reality that Percy won’t be able to work with him on the truck anymore.  Percy is crushed and is in tears.

I can empathize with Percy because I’ve been in his place before.  I get excited when I see my name on the weekly schedule.  I think to myself “I get to work,” never “I have to work.”  A few times I’ve been taken off the schedule, and it’s a terrible feeling.  I look forward to the times I get to work on the truck, and to be told that my help isn’t needed is tough to hear.  I only get to work maybe one or two times a week.  Being taken off the schedule may mean I have to wait another week or two before I get another chance, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.  I would gladly work for free if it meant that I could still work my scheduled hours.

 

California

When Carl sees the one-second-a-day video compilation that Percy made for him, it makes him realize how much it meant to Percy to be working with him on the truck.  All the great memories of spending time together on the truck and on the road with Percy came flooding back to him.  Carl understood how Percy felt when he was told he wouldn’t be able to work anymore.  He also recognizes that he wants to continue to make good memories with Percy.

Carl calls Percy and tells him that he would love his help on the truck, but only after school and on the weekends.  Percy’s reaction is pure elation.  I’m also in the same boat with Percy since the only time I’m able to work on LGC is after my day job and on the weekends.  And I feel all the same feelings Percy does when I get the chance to work.

 

El Hefe’s menu

Food is the central driving force in Chef.  Carl was stuck cooking uninspired food because his creativity is stymied by Riva in the restaurant.  If Carl had not stood up for the food that he believed that he should cook and not gone on a tirade, he may have been relegated to continue to pump out a boring and pedestrian menu that neither he nor his kitchen staff believed in.  It set him on the path to developing a menu, and a career, that was meaningful to him.

El Hefe’s initial menu consists of the Cubanos, media noche, and tostones.  This is the type of food that Inez grew up on, and what was served for family meal- the meal reserved for the kitchen staff.  As Carl, Percy, and Martin traveled back to Los Angeles, the menu started to reflect their journey.  From New Orleans, po boys and beignets made it onto the menu, while their stay in Austin saw the addition of beef brisket in the form of the “Austin midnight.”

Carl hit it right on the head when he talks to Percy about the andouille sausage at the farmers market.  He tells him about the history of the food and New Orleans.  When Percy says that “we can get it here,” Carl says “it’s not the same.  It’s a whole other thing.  When you eat it, it reminds you of the place.”  El Hefe’s menu reflects Carl, Percy, and Martin’s experiences in those places and evokes those memories in the food they serve.

 

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The same can be said of the food we serve on Little Green Cyclo.  The food reflects the people and their experiences, and I am incredibly proud to be a part of the LGC team.  I get to do something that I’m passionate and care about.  Chef shows how important it is to be passionate about what you do and inspires you live, not just exist.

For now I still play the part of a marionette, though things may quite possibly change in the future.  In the same way that Carl gave Percy a chef knife to be responsible for and nurture, I’ve been given a chef knife that gives me the freedom to cut my puppet strings.

 

Stay hungry,

Francis

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Upscale Comfort: Wayfare Tavern

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Sitting at the counter on a Friday night. Candlelight, cold pint of Scrimshaw, and deviled eggs.

I had been meaning to visit Wayfare Tavern for the longest time.  Chef Tyler Florence opened up the restaurant three years ago in San Francisco’s financial district, and  I have no idea how and why it’s taken me this long to finally enjoy a meal there.  The fact that it’s in the FiDi and parking is terrible in the area might have something to do with it though.

After a long work week, it was incredibly comforting to take a seat at the counter, with a great view into the open kitchen.  The space itself is “rustic and elegant” and the menu reflects it perfectly.  Christine was already seated and enjoying a cocktail when I got there.  I ordered a pint of Scrimshaw pilsner and watched the action in the kitchen.

Watching a plate getting prepped. Photo credit: @ChristineCre8s

Watching Kobe tartar get plated. Photo credit: @ChristineCre8s

Whenever a restaurant has an open kitchen, I try to grab a seat with a good view of the chefs at work.  I find it fascinating watching chefs practicing their craft and how they prepare dishes.  It’s dinner and a show.  I enjoy all the sights and sounds of a kitchen- the interaction between cooks, the ingredients being carefully prepared and artfully plated, the controlled chaos.  It’s all so beautiful to me.

Christine had been raving about their deviled eggs, so of course we had to have those to start in addition to the poutine.

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Deviled eggs- English peas, salt cured ham, truffled pea salt.

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Poutine- oxtail gravy, English peas, mozzarella curd.

The moment I put that deviled egg in my mouth it was a life-altering moment.  I knew exactly what Christine was talking about.  I’ve had my share of deviled eggs, but these were something truly special.  They were creamy, salty, and savory- just the perfect little bite.  What I love about this dish is the varying degrees of saltiness.  The salt from the ham was rich and savory while the truffled pea salt added a touch of brightness to the finish.  My tastebuds were confused, but confused in the best way possible.  Mind. Blown.

I was about to go for a bite of the poutine, but I went back for another deviled egg.  Yes, they are that good.  Once I my fork made its way to the poutine however, I was not disappointed.  Poutine by its very nature is a heavy dish: French fries topped with cheese curds and beef gravy.  Thank you Canada.  Wayfare Tavern’s version of poutine however, isn’t heavy at all.  The fries are light and crispy, and the oxtail is fall-apart tender and flavorful.  The gravy is the perfect consistency- it’s neither thin nor gloppy, and manages to coat the fries evenly.  The mozzarella curd is a nice twist since it has a mild flavor and pairs well with the savory shredded oxtail.  I probably could have finished the entire plate myself.

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Fried chicken- buttermilk brine, roasted garlic, crisp woody herbs, lemon.

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Warfare burger “Le Grand”- grass-fed proprietary grind, Marin brie, roasted onion, smoked bacon, brîoche, served with fries.  Baked macaroni & cheese- Vella dry jack & smoked olive oil.

For the entree course, Christine ordered the house specialty fried chicken, while I went with the Wayfare burger.  We split an order of the macaroni and cheese as well.  The chicken was perfectly cooked and everything you would expect a perfectly fried piece of chicken to be- crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, and not at all greasy.  The herbaceous crust and addition of lemon rounds out the dish incredibly well.  The crust is not thick at all and let’s the chicken take center stage- it’s only there to provide an adhesive layer for the herbs to stick to the meat.  The juicy chicken with combination of herbs and lemon makes this simple dish into something truly complex and special.  This is definitely not your typical fried chicken.

The burger surpassed my expectations.  The blend that they use is incredibly flavorful, and the burger itself was cooked well.  I requested it medium rare, and it came out with a nice char on the outside, and pink and juicy on the interior.  The patty was packed rather loosely, which I love since it makes for a softer and more pleasant mouth feel.  A looser packed burger allows for more of the juices to stay in the burger instead of being squeezed out during the cooking process.  The brioche bun provides a great vehicle to soak up the juices that pour out of the burger when you bite into it, and the brie complements the meat well by enhancing the depth of the meat’s flavor.  The red onion provides some texture and bite, the pickles are briny and cut through the richness of the meat, and the lettuce freshens everything up.  It is a classic American cheeseburger made with the best ingredients possible and executed masterfully.

I was quite surprised when I took my first bite of the macaroni and cheese.  I was expecting rich and heavy, but I got light and airy.  After having sampled the dishes we had, I really appreciated the careful execution on all of them.  These are comfort food classics, foods that you would consider down-home stick-to-your-ribs fare.  The dishes have the soul of those classics, but are then updated and elevated.  The mac and cheese at Wayfare Tavern has all the flavor of a classic mac and cheese that you’ve undoubtedly had while growing up, but doesn’t leave you weighed down after having it.

As Christine and I tucked into our main courses (we shared of course), a couple who had just taken a seat next to us were eyeing our food.  We struck up a pleasant conversation with them, and they ended up ordering the same dishes we did.  I think we need to be on Chef Florence’s payroll since we are apparently very persuasive.  The husband was in town for business and his wife was there tagging along.  The couple was from Cleveland, and we talked about everything from regional food, to our respective cities, to travel, to running, to sports.  And this is the beauty of sitting at a common counter, sharing not only the space with other people, but sharing our experiences as well.  Here is proof that food brings people together.

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Darlene peach pie- organic Frog Hollow peaches, brown butter ice cream, rosemary sugar

As our conversation continued, our dessert arrived.  It was much bigger than I expected.  I was talking about baseball and marathons with the couple while Christine proceeded to tear into the pie.  There was a debate of which city in Ohio I wanted to run a marathon in- Cincinnati or Cleveland.  On one hand, there’s chili, the Great American Ballpark, and the Flying Pig Marathon.  On the other hand, there’s Polish boys, Progressive Field, and the Cleveland Marathon.  Out of the corner of my eye, Christine had already put half of the pie on her plate.  I saw the peach juice slowly dripping down onto the plate, brown butter ice cream trickling down into the fruit, and creating a beautiful swirled pool of cream and juice.  Christine nudged me and reminded my the ice cream was melting.  I hastily slopped a chunk of pie onto my plate, dug my fork in, and had at it.

It was incredible how I managed to focus on both the pie and the couple I was talking to.  The fruit still had some texture and was not overly sweet.  It drives me crazy when fruit pie fillings are reduced to a syrupy mush.  The crust was crispy and flaky, and the ice cream adds a richness that takes it over the top.  Warm, cold, crisp, soft, creamy- the pie was all of that.  Do you sense a theme here?  All the components of each dish complement each other.  No one flavor overpowers another flavor.  The main ingredient is allowed to shine while the others enhance it.  In my humble opinion, it is a very well thought out menu.

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Post-dinner amuse bouche- bread pudding bite.

By this time, the Cleveland couple’s entrees had arrived and Christine and I were polishing off the last of the pie.  Everyone was happy indeed.  It was indeed a memorable meal, but little did I know that it wasn’t quite over just yet.  Our server came over and brought us a plate of two bite-sized desserts, a post-dinner amuse bouche if you will.  We were both intrigued and immediately popped them in our mouth.  It was a little bread pudding bite.  It was a very nice gesture, and just in case the restaurant staff thought I was on the fence about coming back again, that made up my mind for me.  Delicious and well-executed food, “rustic but elegant” ambiance, friendly and knowledgable staff, and good company- you can’t ask much more from a restaurant.  No question I’ll be back for more. 

Cheers,

Francis

 

The San Francisco Marathon: Where The F%&k Is My Beer?!

Picking up the race bib and filling up on the schwag.

Picking up the race bib and filling up on the schwag.

See that tab on the bottom right of my race bib?  It’s the one that says BEER.  Well for the last six years, that tab has remained on my bib… unused.  This year would be no different.  I’ve been running this race since 2007 (full and 1st and 2nd half marathons) and every year they run out of beer by the time I cross the finish line.  It doesn’t matter if I run the full marathon, the 1st half, or the 2nd half.  I never get my beer.

I started off race weekend by picking up my bib and schwag bag at the expo right after work.  Of course, I had to swing by and say hi to the good people at Fleet Feet SF right off the bat.  I got to know them during the Nike Women’s Marathon training program that they hosted last year.  You tend to grow attached to people after running a bunch of miles together.

Since I got to the expo rather late, a few exhibitors had already run out of things to give away and some had already packed up and closed for the day.  Not a big deal since I would be back the next day.  I didn’t leave empty handed though.  I ended up buying a shirt from the race merchandise, pint glass, phone case, and a pair of shoes.

New pair of New Balance 890 v3.  Shake out run.

New pair of New Balance 890 v3. Saturday morning shake out run.

I started off Saturday with a quick 3.5mi shake out run over at Crissy Field.  It was the maiden run for my newly purchased New Balance 890 v3 that I got the day before at the expo.  They felt super light and responsive, and was pretty happy with their overall feel.  I headed back over to the expo after finishing my run, mainly because I wanted to meet up with some other runners.  However I encountered an abomination of nature beforehand…

Blue Monkey Coconut Water mascot.

Blue Monkey Coconut Water mascot.

As I was walking around the expo floor I laid my eyes upon one of the most hideous and terrifying things I had ever seen.  It was the mascot for Blue Monkey Coconut Water.  Holy Lord, I was scared shitless.  This thing looked like the illegitimate child of the evil monkey and someone from the Blue Man Group.  I don’t know how effective this monstrosity was at promoting that its brand of coconut water, but I’ll let you know that I’ve never wanted Zico so bad.  Thank goodness I had met up with Captain Linz and Pavement Runner shortly thereafter to erase that image from my short term memory.

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Energy Bits from Captain Linz!!!

I recognized Captain Linz while I was waiting around, and to my surprise he still had the Energy Bits that he was offering earlier in the morning.  Huge score for me.  It’s such a pleasure meeting people from social media in real life.  Captain Linz is one cool dude.

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Pavement Runner in the flesh. Peace.

And then there’s Pavement Runner.  I met Brian for the first time, albeit briefly, at the Boston Strong run in San Francisco.  It’s always nice to chat with fellow runners when not actually running. 

After grabbing some of the products that the exhibitors were handing out, I headed over to SoMa StrEat Food Park for lunch.  A few of my favorite trucks were serving there that day, including Little Green Cyclo, Manna JPT, and Adam’s Grub Truck.  I don’t always see Manna so I decided to grab some sushi from them.

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Unagi street roll. Unagi, fried egg, and golden Japanese curry over avocado roll.

I went with the unagi (barbecued eel) with golden Japanese curry and fried egg over avocado roll.  This is usually on the menu, so don’t think I ordered some crazy off-menu dish.  I did request for brown rice for the avocado roll cause I didn’t want to feel like a complete fattie.  I love that Manna serves Japanese comfort food, unlike the typical Japanese dishes you see on restaurant menus.  It’s this kind of food that I crave and grew to love during the time I worked at a Japanese bilingual preschool some years ago.  It’s nothing very fancy- just good homestyle comfort food.  Totemo oiishi desu nee!

Being that I was running a full marathon, I decided to have something from Adam’s Grub Truck as well.  I have to carb load don’t I?  Although I love their food, I seldom visit because their food isn’t exactly healthy.  Okay let’s face it- their menu is a cardiologist’s nightmare. 

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Ultimate AGT fries.

Putting aside my better judgement I ordered the Ultimate AGT fries… for dinner.  This is a mound of season criss-cut fries, pulled pork, Asian coleslaw, house-made bbq sauce, fried egg, jalapenos, and two dinosaur chicken nuggets.  I’ve always wanted to try this but I knew I would feel too guilty.  And I did feel guilty.  I did take solace in the fact that I would have 26.2 miles to burn off the calories the next day.

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Decked out in Giants gear for the race. Orange and black all day.

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The sun rises from Treasure Island on race morning.

On race morning I took some of the Energy Bits with my morning coffee.  Later on I found out that drinking coffee while taking vitamins and supplements inhibits their absorption into your system, since coffee is a diuretic.  I guess that explains why I wasn’t exactly bouncing off the walls at the start.  I’ve taken Energy Bits before (during work) and about 90 minutes after taking them I wanted to do push-ups and jumping jacks in my cubicle.  I swear I was ready to do an Insanity circuit or run a few miles right then and there.  Well I know better now don’t I?

I felt pretty good from the start up until about mile 16.  Running on the Golden Gate Bridge is amazing.  It’s the only time you actually get to run on the road deck… and not dodge tourists in ugly shorts.  I took it nice and easy and I was still feeling strong.  I’ve run this race plenty of times, and I train on much of the acutal course throughout the year.  I just knew I had to save myself for the final 8 or so miles.  Also, my training wasn’t as rigorous as I wanted it to be.  I only topped out at 18 miles for my longest run during training.  I was trusting my experience with this race and fittness from running the Oakland Marathon back in March to get me through.

I was pretty bummed when I got to Golden Gate Park and the Hash House Harriers weren’t offering runners beer as they customarily did.  It’s always something to look forward to when complete strangers offer you alcoholic beverages.  After seeing them for several years on the course, I finally took them up on their offer a couple years ago and grabbed a beer from them.  It was the best decision I’ve made during a race.  I didn’t feel anything for the next half mile and I was smiling a hell of a lot more after that.  This year they had a sign that said “Sorry, no beer.  Cops busted us.”  Fuck.  You.  Terrorists.

With my one sure shot of getting a beer vanishing, I really didn’t care anymore for the rest of the race.  When I got to Stow Lake, the police cruiser sweeping the course was right on my tail.  It passed me once I got onto JFK Dr., but I got a second wind while running down Haight and passed it.  I had a good quarter mile lead.  I thought I was in the clear.  For the record, it’s not fun running from a cop car.  And it’s even more demoralizing when it’s only going about 5mph.

By the time I made it to Potrero Hill, I was gassed and my feet were really nagging me.  The cop car passed me and I never saw it again.  SFPD asked runners who were behind the cruiser to run on the sidewalk because they were ready to open up the streets.  This actually didn’t bother me one bit.  I was disappointed, but I wasn’t upset at all.  I was disappointed because it was the first time that I had been swept.

From mile 20 to mile 23 I felt that I was still in pretty good shape.  Yes my feet hurt like hell and I was slower than molasses, but I wasn’t in any major pain.  The last 5k however was excruciating.  This is my least favorite part of the course: the Dogpatch.  Course support usually wanes here and spectators are scarce.  Even worse, I hate how hipsters gawk at me with their  glasses while having brunch curbside.  The least you can do is clap or raise a glass to us you assholes.

The last mile of The San Francisco Marathon is always the longest.  It never fails.  It seems to go on forever and ever.  I had no incentive for running out the last mile.  I knew the beer garden was out of beer by that time, so I really didn’t want to push myself.  I did however already pay for my registration.  All I was doing was getting my money’s worth and taking in the sights.  I was born and raised in the Bay Area, and yet the views never get old.  I took my time and I crossed the finish line with dignity.

I didn’t care that I finished with one of my slowest times for a full marathon- 6:19, and I didn’t care that I got swept.  I did care that for the seventh straight year I failed to redeem my post-race drink ticket.  I vow next year to finish fast enough to finally hand that beer ticket over for a nice cold one.  If it takes a PR for me to do it, then so be it.  I will be healthier.  I will be fitter.  I will be faster.  I will be better.  Training for SFM 2014 starts now.  I want my fucking beer.      

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Bison Brewing Co. Hop Cuvee paired with 2013 San Francisco Marathon finishers medal.

Cheers,

Francis

 

 

#Nguyening: Little Green Cyclo

At the Marina Green on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

At the Marina Green on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes you get a feeling when you know you’re going to have a good meal.  I don’t know what it is or how exactly to describe it.  It may be just a gut feeling I suppose.  That was exactly how I felt when I walked up to Little Green Cyclo for the first time.  I was attracted to the pandan green colored truck, silhouettes of the Bay Area skyline, and a beautiful collage of the streets of Vietnam.  I must admit it’s my favorite looking truck.  If I were to design a wrap for a food truck myself it would likely look very similar to that.  I think their green takeout box logo is super cute too.

What I especially like is that right by the collage is a statement of what they’re all about.  LGC “strives to source ingredients from local and organic farms,” and “use only reusable, recyclable or compostable products.”  In addition, “a percentage of proceeds are donated to a different charity each month and make drop-offs at local food banks.”  I hadn’t even tasted their food yet, but I already knew that I would feel good about eating it.

After browsing the menu I decided on the truffle oil garlic noodles with lemongrass grilled pork.  Monica was at the service window, greeted me with a smile, and happily took my order.  I could hardly wait for the garlic noodles to be ready.  The aroma wafting from the truck was intoxicating.  And by the way, it’s a bad idea to stand and wait by the rear vents of a food truck when you’re hungry.  It’s just torture smelling all that goodness and not being able to do anything about it.   Lesson learned.

After a few minutes, my patience was rewarded.  The lemongrass pork was flavorful and nicely grilled, and the green onion added a freshness to the dish.  The noodles were hands down some of the best that I’ve had.  I absolutely loved the texture of the noodle- chewy, a little firm, with some nice crispy caramelized bits.  I knew that I would be addicted to them from that point on.  Whether I get the pork, five spice chicken, lemongrass tofu, or shaking beef, the main event is and always will be the noodle.  I don’t think I ordered anything else for my first few visits except the garlic noodles.  In fact, the garlic noodles were once briefly taken off the menu to give Chef Quynh a break.  I was so worried about the hiatus that I visited LGC during their lunch and dinner shifts on the same day… on several occasions, just to get my garlic noodle fix.

Five spice grilled chicken with garlic noodles and shut eyes wide- a mix of Vietnamese iced coffee and Thai iced tea.

Five spice grilled chicken with garlic noodles and shut eyes wide- a mix of Vietnamese iced coffee and Thai iced tea.

Lemongrass tofu garlic noodles, and a special Lunar New Year lixi. Chuc mung nam moi!

Lemongrass tofu garlic noodles, and a special Lunar New Year lixi. Chuc mung nam moi!

Although I am absolutely in love with the garlic noodles, my usual go-to menu item is the banh mi.  I am a runner after all and I need to be watching what I eat.  I could probably get away with just eating garlic noodles if I were constantly in marathon training.  Unfortunately that’s not the case, so LGC’s banh mi sandwiches are the perfect lunchtime staple for me.  The sandwiches are very generous, but don’t weigh me down after having one.  The bread has a nice crispy exterior while maintaining a soft pillowly interior that soaks up the juices from the protein of your choice,  while the pickled vegetables balance out the rich, savory meat (or tofu).  My personal favorite is the lemongrass tofu with pâté and egg.  The pâté itself is another product of theirs that I absolutely crave.  Yet another one that has become a recent favorite is the steak and egg banh mi- Niman Ranch shaking beef with a fried egg.  You can’t really go wrong with adding an egg to anything.

Tofu banh mi with pâté and egg, and side of sweet potato tater tots.

Tofu banh mi with pâté and egg, and side of sweet potato tater tots.

Steak and egg banh mi.

Steak and egg banh mi.

Organic chicken liver pâté.

Organic chicken liver pâté.

It’s funny that I order banh mi the majority of the time I visit LGC but I almost always forget to request for no jalapeños.  I swear they seem to pick the spiciest ones on the planet.  The first time I had a banh mi my mouth was on fire.  You would think I had learned my lesson from that.  Nope.  Monica always seems to remember to ask me, “no jalapeños right?”  even though forget myself.  It’s the little things that make a big difference.

There was also one time when the egg on my banh mi was mistakenly left off.  The next time Quynh saw me she offered to put an egg on anything I wanted, whatever it was.  So she ended up topping off my tofu garlic noodles with a fried egg.  I’m just glad she also didn’t put an egg in my lemonade… I wouldn’t put it past her.  On another occasion, I stopped by the truck and Quynh was at the service window, while Monica was off doing something else.  Quynh is NEVER at the service window- she’s always cooking.  She is the chef after all.  Quynh looked rather uncomfortable and I felt kind of bad.  It’s always nice to see her but I could tell she wasn’t particularly enjoying working the window.  “I don’t like it… I don’t want to talk to people,” she said, and hung her head.  I couldn’t help but smile and laugh a little at her expense.  She’s too fun not to tease a little.  I did tip extra on that visit just for her trouble.

Garlic noodles with tamarind tofu and fried egg.

Garlic noodles with lemongrass tofu and fried egg.

Quynh also consistently changes up the menu and adds specials often depending on what’s in season.  Consequently, I must get my hands on whatever new dishes they have available.  A few of my favorites include the tamarind prawns, Dungeness crab, soft shell crab, and duck confit, which are served in a variety of ways.

Garlic noodles with tamarind prawns.

Garlic noodles with tamarind prawns.

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Duck leg confit over garlic and vermicelli noodles and salad.

Duck confit spring rolls. And yes, that is two orders because they're that good.

Duck confit spring rolls. And yes, that is two orders because they’re that good.

Surf and turf garlic noodles.  Tamarind tofu substituted for shaking beef.

Surf and turf garlic noodles. Lemongrass tofu substituted for shaking beef.

Soft shell crab spring rolls.

Soft shell crab spring rolls.

Soft shell crab banh mi.

Soft shell crab banh mi.

Dungeness crab garlic noodles.

Salt & pepper Dungeness crab garlic noodles.

I absolutely love the Dungeness crab garlic noodles that they serve.  As you can see it is a generous portion and they are literally finger licking good.  It’s also a dish that is best enjoyed in private, away from the prying eyes of others.  Trust me, it’s not pretty.  I was quite surprised that LGC even put the dish on the menu.  If you’ve ever prepared crab you know what I’m talking about- it is very labor intensive.  I asked Monica about it and she said that she picks up the crab herself in the morning when they do put in on the menu. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.  And I tip my cap to the entire crew for taking the time to prep all that delicious crab.  It is totally worth every bite.

As much as I like those Dungeness crab garlic noodles, I have to admit that my favorite menu item is their duck confit spring rolls.  It’s not on the menu all the time, but when it is available I stock up.  In fact, my friend Joanne got the chance to interview Monica when LGC took top honors during the 2011 Eater’s Choice Awards.  Monica herself said it was the single menu item she would suggest customers to try.  I couldn’t agree more.  The tender salty duck is balanced well with the crisp veggies and soft noodles.  It’s fresh, rich, savory, and refreshing all at once- simply delectable.  And by the way, those are my duck confit spring rolls that Jo took a picture of in the SF Station article.  You’re welcome Joanne.

Little Green Cyclo founders Sue Pham, Quynh Nguyen, and Monica Wong take first place in the 2011 Eater's Choice Awards.

Little Green Cyclo founders Sue Pham, Quynh Nguyen, and Monica Wong take first place in the 2011 Eater’s Choice Awards.

I have a little confession here too.  I didn’t cast my initial vote for Little Green Cyclo for the Eater’s Choice awards.  My initial vote went to another truck.  However, when I passed by LGC once voting was open for the contest, Monica kindly asked me to vote for them and handed me a promotional card for the event.   So I cast another vote for them.  What can I say?  I can’t say no to Monica.  I’m loyal, but I’m fair.

Asides from the duck confit, Dungeness crab, soft shell crab, and tamarind prawns, there are a myriad of other specials that Quynh cooks up.

Fresh papaya salad with Niman Ranch grilled beef.

Fresh papaya salad with Niman Ranch grilled beef.

Thit kho- carmelized pork belly with egg, served with salad and rice noodles.

Thit kho- carmelized pork belly with egg, served with salad and rice noodles.

Hot soup sith Dungeness crab, tiger prawns, and rice noodles.

Hot soup with Dungeness crab, tiger prawns, and rice noodles.

Veggie special: shiitake mushrooms and bean sprouts over vermicelli rice noodles.

Veggie special: shiitake mushrooms and bean sprouts over vermicelli rice noodles, topped with crushed peanut.

Banh mi with organic king trumpet mushrooms and bell peppers.

Banh mi with organic king trumpet mushrooms and bell peppers.

Banh mi chả lụa (Vietnamese pork roll) with egg.

Banh mi chả lụa- pork roll.

Fresh grilled corn with spicy garlic sauce.

Fresh grilled corn with spicy garlic sauce and green onion.

Chicken salad and Mary's Free Range Fried Chicken crusted w/Vietnamese rice flakes over a pandan waffle

Chicken salad and Mary’s Free Range Fried Chicken crusted w/Vietnamese rice flakes over a pandan waffle

Lemongrass Marin Sunfarms grassfed beef burger with tamarind bbq sauce and pickled carrots & daikon.

Lemongrass Marin Sunfarms grassfed beef burger with tamarind bbq sauce and pickled carrots & daikon.

The pandan waffle is one of the tastiest bites on the truck and it’s a must-get whenever it makes an appearance on the menu.  It has a nice crisp exterior and pillowy interior, as a waffle should have.  It’s absolutely amazing when paired with Mary’s fried chicken- LGC’s version of chicken and waffles.  As much as I love the pandan waffle, it’s the burger I’m crazy about.  They had it as a special for the 4th of July and I went all the way out to Berkeley to get it.  It’s a classic burger with with a Vietnamese flare, sort of like an all-American hamburger meets banh mi- unforgettable.  I need to somehow convince Quynh to make them again.  And sadly, there were other specials that I missed out on…

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Bo kho. Niman Ranch Angus beef stew with carrots and daikon over rice. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

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Live butter lettuce cups with microgreens. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

Vietnamese risotto balls.

Vietnamese risotto balls. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

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Sticky rice with shrimp, Vietnamese sausage & shrimp chips. Available only for one day: day 1 of 2012 Eat Real Festival. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

I know I make a big deal about the specials, but the rest of LGC’s  regular menu is pretty tasty in it’s own right.

Tofu salad box.  Beignets for dessert.

Tofu salad box. Beignets for dessert.

Coconut rice box with shaking beef.

Coconut rice box with shaking beef.

Sweet potato tater tots, tossed with mint, sea salt, and fresh pepper.  Crispy on the outside and light and delicate on the inside.  I love these so much.

Sweet potato tater tots- tossed with mint, sea salt, and fresh pepper. Crispy on the outside and light and delicate on the inside. I love these so much.

And let’s not forget about dessert…

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Basil cookies with chocolate.

Coconut and lychee panna cotta.

Coconut and lychee panna cotta.

Panna cotta with mixed berry compote and coconut.

Panna cotta with mixed berry compote and toasted coconut.

Bread pudding with tropical fruits, topped with lavender chocolate.

Bread pudding with tropical fruits, and lavender chocolate drizzle.

Tapioca and corn with coconut sauce, topped with sesame seeds.

Tapioca and corn with coconut sauce, topped with sesame seeds.

If by any chance you’re not able to try anything from the truck, they have recently started bottling their sauces and other products, which are available at Gluten Free Grocery.  I know I need to make a visit myself just for the pâté.  Their banh mi sandwiches can also be found there.  It would be hard to believe how one wouldn’t be able to catch at least one of their services since LGC consistently has two lunch services plus dinner service on the same day throughout much of the week.  All this is made possible with the addition of their second truck, which debuted in September 2012.

During one of their first services with LGC II at SoMa StrEat Food Park, Monica and Quynh were kind enough to let me have a peek at the interior of the new truck.  The space is quite impressive- it’s more like a commercial kitchen on wheels than a normal food truck.  It comes equipped with a 2-door stand up refrigerator, freezer, six burners, sandwich station, public address system… bunk beds, and a ping pong table.  The exterior of LGC II has a similar wrap and design as the original truck, and I was honored to have one of my own pictures displayed on the collage by the service and pick-up windows.

One of LGC II's first services, at SoMa Street Food Park.  El Sur could probably fit inside.

One of LGC II’s first services, at SoMa Street Food Park. El Sur could probably fit inside.

Monica in the foreground, Quynh in the background- overseeing dinner service.

Monica in the foreground, Quynh in the background- overseeing dinner service.

Monica hands off a happy customer her food.

Monica hands a happy customer her food.

Look familiar?  One of my pictures front and center on LGC II's collage, by the service and pick-up windows.

Look familiar? One of my pictures front and center on LGC II’s collage, by the service and pick-up windows.

In addition to their successes of bottling their sauces and launching their second truck, LGC also had a collaboration dinner with TRACE restaurant at the W Hotel.  Executive Chef Paul Piscopo and Chef Quynh served up custom dishes as part of the Local Motion dinner series on February 19, 2013.  It was an intimate multi-course meal including hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

Menu for Local Motion dinner, featuring Little Green Cyclo.

The full menu for the Local Motion dinner.

I had about 3 or 4 pieces of the duck confit spring rolls... before the dinner actually started.  Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

I had about three or four pieces of the duck confit spring rolls… before the dinner actually started. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

Roast pork belly bun bao.  Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

Roast pork belly bun bao. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

Black sesame rice cracker with shrimp & lotus root slaw.  Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

Black sesame rice cracker with shrimp & lotus root slaw. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

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Crispy tofu, ginger, garlic, Thai chili.

Organic chicken liver pâté with pickled kumquat and toasted baguette.  I couldn't put in down.

Organic chicken liver pâté with pickled kumquat and toasted baguette. I couldn’t put the pâté down.

Garlic noodles, Dungeness crab, black garlic.

Garlic noodles, Dungeness crab, black garlic. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

Banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) with shrimp and gem lettuce.

 Banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) with shrimp and gem lettuce.

Trace's sweet potato tater tots with LGC's sauces: pineapple kumquat, spicy mango ketchup, tamarind plum.

Trace’s sweet potato tater tots with trio of sauces: mango mint, roasted tomato ketchup, tamarind plum.

Pork belly dumpling, fried shallot, porcini mushroom broth.

Pork belly dumpling, fried shallot, porcini mushroom broth.

Candied ginger beignet with lime custard and mixed berry compote.  I was eating the berry compote by the spoonful.

Candied ginger beignet with lime custard and mixed berry compote. I was eating the berry compote by the spoonful.

Vietnamese affogato- coconut milk ice cream, dark chocolate and coffee sauce, toasted hazelnuts.  I had 4... Quynh gave me 2.

Vietnamese affogato- coconut milk ice cream, dark chocolate and coffee sauce, toasted hazelnuts. I had four… Quynh gave me two.

All the food was absolutely amazing and delicious.  It was a pleasant change from having LGC’s food out of a compostable container.  I was so glad that LGC had the opportunity to put on this dinner and that Quynh was able to give the food the attention and presentation it so rightly deserves.  It was an evening of good food and good company, and I couldn’t really ask for more.  My friend Jen and I had a wonderful time and were completely stuffed from the onslaught of food and drinks.  It was almost the end of the dinner until either Monica or Quynh finally took a seat and enjoyed themselves.

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The dining table. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

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Chef Quynh with sous chefs Enrique & Atsushi prepping for dinner service. Photo credit: Little Green Cyclo.

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Me with Quynh and Monica.

The dinner was a great success, and it left me hungry for more.  The past two years have brought LGC much success, and I’m excited to see more from them in the future.  I support them because I believe in what they believe in.  They serve excellent food sourced from  fresh, organic, and local ingredients, and are socially responsible and care about the community.  And I’m more than happy to enjoy the delicious Vietnamese street food that they take so much time, effort, care, and attention in preparing.  Cảm ơn bạn.

2013 Sunset Magazine Celebration Weekend.

2013 Sunset Magazine Celebration Weekend.

Stay hungry,

Francis

 

Some places you can catch Little Green Cyclo: Off the Grid, SoMa StrEat Food Park, Hiller Aviation Museum, Truck Stop, Mission Dispatch, SF Gift Center, 8000 Marina Blvd.- Brisbane