Ft. Mason is a hub of infinite activity, and year after year we find ourselves here for the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon. We’re doing a “staycation” weekend for our fifth time at the Salon, checking into the Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf and touring the City through food. Fitting that our last stop this weekend would be at Ft. Mason, so was our first one for Off the Grid.
We’ve been to enough Off the Grids (like this one, this one, this one, and this one, twice), so many of the trucks here this night we have seen before. But, with a space as big as the parking lot at Ft. Mason, there were over two times as many vendors here as any of the OTGs we’ve been to before, so we found plenty of delights from trucks (and canopies!) that were totally new to us.
At our previous OTGs we had never seen canopies, but they were aplenty here. Fritas Shack was the first of the non- truck food stands that caught our eye for their lamb tacos. The two deep fried taco shells were super crispy and very reminiscent of Jack In The Box tacos, but with luxurious and luscious lamb. With very few, simple ingredients (onions, cilantro, cotija cheese), the meat was allowed to shine. It had been braised and then pulled, so it had a smoother, more delicate texture than any chewier meat you’d find in almost any other taco.
While ordering, waiting for, and eating our lamb tacos, we surveyed Bok Ssam next door and we couldn’t resit their version of chicken and waffles with coleslaw. The chicken was all thigh meat with a supremely crunchy batter, drizzled with a lightly sweet and salty soy glaze. Backed by traditional buttermilk waffles but with a hint of vanilla, the flavors of the chicken, its batter, and its glaze melded so well with the vinegar-based coleslaw. The freshness of the coleslaw lightened up what had the potential of being a heavy dish.
Drewski’s had been on our radar before, so this time we didn’t let it blip by. Zach’s kicking himself just a little for not trying them out before today, because “hands down, (this is) the best fried mac I’ve had so far. There’s a lot that have good flavor but they’re really greasy, or the ones that aren’t greasy are super dry in the center.” The trio of deep fried mac and cheese balls with smoky bacon and a proprietary spicy sauce was served so piping hot, we had to crack them and let the heat ascend into the rapidly darkening night sky. Proportionately, the ratio of breading to macaroni center was on point. The glue holding together the macaroni center was creamy and cheesy, not at all dried out from the frying process. We didn’t catch what made the sauce spicy but Zach suspects it was chipotle; it was creamy but it packed a bunch that sneaked up on us.
Because Zach can’t resist a tagline like “Eggs On Everythang!” we tried the sliders from Hula Truck. The Twin Peaks sliders, made of succulent Kalua pork and each with its own fried egg, were served on Hawaiian rolls with “Bacon JAMMMM and our special Hula sauce.” It’s quick and easy, simple, Hawaiian comfort food, so if the ingredients sound appealing to you, then you won’t be disappointed.
Dessert came in two rounds tonight, the first from 3-Sum Eats. As a special for St. Patrick’s Day only four day’s away, the truck was making whiskey espresso whoopie pies as big as teacup saucers. The cookies’ texture was somewhat cake-like with chocolate morsels scattered throughout to give something to chew on. Between the two cookies, the buttercream filling was smooth and rich. This treat is suitable for children despite the name – the whiskey flavor translated into a muted smokiness to highlight the dark coffee and chocolate. We weren’t about to dissect the whoopie pie just to pinpoint where precisely the whiskey and espresso laid among the cookies and the filling, so taking it bite by bite as a whole, it was overall a delightful goodie.
For the coup de grâce with a little je nais se quoi made à la minute, we had foie gras and raspberry cotton candy – an avant-garde and risqué pairing of haute cuisine by Sugar & Spun, whose owners love to experiment with molecular gastronomy. The tangy tart and sweetness of the raspberry cotton candy base would have been overwhelming on its own without the salty foie gras to balance it, and all at a fair price. The foie gras had been freeze-dried, powdered, and liberally shaken onto the mounds and mounds of cotton candy. Combining sweet, savory, tangy, and tart, with the richness of foie gras and the sprightliness of raspberry, this is something to put on a bucket list. To eat this, one must be wary of the weather: wind can transfer the foie gras from the fairy floss to your clothes, and the humidity will make the fluffy clouds shrink after not too long.
We must admit, we were a little daunted by coming to Ft. Mason on a Friday night. We had only ever been before arriving on a Sunday morning, early enough to find very close parking and also in broad daylight. But parking is vast and you’ll no doubt find some, just as long as you’re ready, willing, and able to amble next to an expansive view encompassing a myriad of boats with bosky hills in the horizon. There are broad walking areas, public restrooms, and multiple driveways, so non-locals should have no issues going on a foodie adventure any time there is one at Ft. Mason.
When you break out the deep fryer and lots of oil for only one item, it almost feels bad to put everything away again. All that oil, work, and cleaning for just one item. If you already have your fryer out because you were preparing avocado egg rolls or hushpuppies, you might as well keep up the steam and make another party pleaser. Just about everyone loves mac ‘n cheese, so expect these bites to disappear as quickly as they fry! Just don’t share this with your pets – nutmeg is toxic for animals.
48 oz. of peanut oil
4 cups of panko crumbs
3 cups plus 2 tbs. of all-purpose flour
10 oz. of dry elbow macaroni
10 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese
1 pint of half-and-half
6 tbs. of butter
1/3 cup of buttermilk
1/2 tsp. of ground white pepper
1/4 tsp. of ground nutmeg
A few pinches of salt and pepper
Fill a large pot with water to boil, and make it salty “like the sea” (adding about 3 tbs.). Boil the pasta for 1 minute below the recommended time on the packaging. Drain and set aside.
Shred the cheese; the reason we recommend shredding your own block of cheese is because pre-shredded cheese contains cellulose, a fancy word for sawdust, which keeps the shreds from sticking to each other. Spray a baking dish, approximately 9″x13″. The smaller the pan, the thicker the mac ‘n cheese bites will be.
In a small pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add 2 tbs. of flour and cook for 2-3 minutes. Pour in the half-and-half and add the nutmeg and white pepper. Cook until reaching nappe. Stir in the shredded cheese and cook until completely melted, combined, and smooth.
Stir in the cooked macaroni, coating all the elbows well.
Transfer to the sprayed baking dish and spread out evenly and flat with a spatula. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours until it is fully set.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 375 degrees F. Take the macaroni from the fridge, run a knife along the sides of the dish to separate it from the macaroni, and cut the mass into squares. Remove the squares from the dish, and then cut them into triangles. Set aside, and prepare the batter station: in one bowl put the 3 cups of flour, in another combine the eggs and buttermilk, and put the panko crumbs in the third. Lightly season the flour and the eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper each, and whisk so that it’s evenly dispersed (but not with the same whisk!). Dredge the macaroni triangles first in the flour, shaking off any excess. Dip in the egg mixture, and let drip off any excess. Coat with panko, gently patting so that they stay up. Place the triangles in the hot oil one at a time. Be careful not to overcrowd the fryer too quickly. Fry for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness, until golden brown.
Serve with ranch or marinara.
Entering an opulent room with high ceilings and live jazz played on a baby grand piano, you hope that the food matches the atmosphere. When at least two of the senses are intrigued, the others want to play along. The food on the menu at Picán has flavors that are on par with the visuals and sounds of the restaurant, so tonight our palates were not let down by the soul food with a touch of California heart.
Instead of rolls or a sliced loaf of bread, cornbread is offered. It served well through our meal to sop up the various sauces and dribbles. With honey butter, it could easily be dessert on its own.
Picán has a full bar and is known for boasting a broad bevy of bourbon. Tonight, though, we weren’t inclined to drink alcohol, so our server recommended a non-alcoholic Southern Mule. Akin to a juice cocktail, this was a mix of ginger beer, lemon juice, and pineapple juice. It was tangy and only mildly sweet, and the flavor combination of citrus with ginger was very refreshing.
Zach has had alligator only a few times in his life, and this was his favorite version. August has had her fair share of alligator, and had to agree with him. Fresh fried alligator bites were served over a smear of caper and fennel tartar sauce. The alligator was tender with a nice crunchy breading and great seasoning, and the tartar sauce’s particular herb mix was an excellent complement. On first taste it seemed like a typical tartar sauce, but with the alligator, there was no fooling that there was something special about it. Laid over the top were fried slices of okra, peppers, lemon, and mint leafs. The okra, when fried, turned sweet and lost all sliminess, yet that slime was not replaced with grease; this was not an oily dish. With a medium spicy bite from the peppers, Zach says that “everything was seasoned really well and balanced.”
The soup we ordered was unexpectedly split for us, so what you see here is a mini serving. To be honest, though, the she-crab soup was so rich, that it was the ideal amount to be split like this. Creamy and flavorful like a bisque with an olive oil floater (not traditional dry sherry), the crab taste was briny and permeated the soup. The tablespoon-sized amount of crab meat was tender and delicate, while a kick of cayenne made this warm but not too spicy. Tiny, savory, cornbread madeleines acted as garnish and texture variance, with just a little bit of crunch.
August ordered the fork-tender pork shank. It had a nice crust from searing, with a great caramelized flavor from the Maillard reaction. The demi-glace was savory and light with rich pork and wine flavors and the faintest hint of rosemary. Sprinkled over the top was a gremolata of pecans, bringing an earthy nuttiness to this sumptuous plate.
The pork shank was served with yams as a side. These were cooked just right with the slighted bit of give remaining, not cooked to mush like we’re so accustomed to during the winter holidays. Like the holidays, though, these had a nice array of spices that were reminiscent of the scents of Thanksgiving dinner. The sorghum marshmallow, while new to us, was nonetheless tasty as a sweet highlight for the yams.
Zach’s entree also came with a preset side, but we needed some roughage for our health’s sake so we ordered these collard greens with bits of smoked brisket. Like the yams, these were not cooked to oblivion so there was some texture left. Savory and seasoned with just enough salt, the fact that these weren’t overcooked meant that the vague flavor of raw collards was still there, and was even highlighted by the seasoning. All too often collard greens come out of a can or are fresh but simply overcooked, so we relished in the freshness here offset by the smoky meat.
Zach’s chicken had a crispy breading that was well seasoned, encasing meat that was super flavorful. Brining really does make a difference for chicken, not just turkey on Thanksgiving (if you’d like to learn how to brine chicken, follow this recipe). The drumstick and breast section with rib meat turned out juicy, moist, and not at all greasy. The mac ‘n cheese was creamy and gooey with loads of smoked Gouda cheese. The al dente noodles were nearly swimming in the rich sauce. This is not your typical mac ‘n cheese, but it’s comforting all the same.
Many menu items are identified as vegetarian, vegan, and/or gluten-free, so this is a wonderful place to please any eaters. Server assistant José did a great job at keeping an eye on all the patrons in his section, and we thank him sincerely for his attentiveness. All the tables in our area were visibly happy with their service, and clearly their food.