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The Crème Brûlée Cart: Street Food Diaries

The Crème Brûlée Cart: Street Food Diaries

Vicki Santillano | Divine Caroline

A crowd is gathered in an alley that grows darker and colder by the minute as the sun departs from San Francisco’s famed Mission neighborhood. Conversations mingle and fill the air alongside smells unfamiliar to most alleys in this city—that is, favorable, delicious smells that awaken appetites and leave the crowd restless and hungry. But they wait patiently in long lines, knowing that the reward—an authentic San Francisco street food experience—is worth the investment.

Curtis (who prefers that we not reveal his last name), a consistent figure in the local street food scene and a member of this alley crowd, owns and operates the Crème Brûlée cart, one of the most popular and famous carts around. For $4, he offers gourmet taste in a portable cup with flavors like Dark Chocolate Chambord, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Orange Creamsicle, White Russian, and the top seller, Lavender. Not only is he a local celebrity, he’s even been covered in the New York Times. So how did a humble food cart rise to such great fame?

The Start of a Street Food Empire

Prior to his street food ventures, Curtis was a carpenter who always wanted to be a chef, but disliked the kitchen confinement. “[I wanted] to make people happy and share in that experience with them, but if you’re in the back of a kitchen, you’re not experiencing that,” he shares. So when he helped his brother, Brian, put together his street food cart—the Magic Curry Kart, another SF institution—Curtis decided to start one of his own.

Curtis and Brian became part of the street food night scene in the Mission district, a cultural hotspot with a heavy amount of foot traffic. The timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks to a tanking economy, many people were out of work and looking for inventive ways to make money. And even those still lucky enough to have jobs struggled to put food on the table, let alone enjoy a meal on the town. Enter street food nights, where people gather and enjoy a cheap meal; it’s socializing without the usual hefty price tag. “I think one effect of a down economy is you have more of a sense of community,” Curtis says. “They’re attracted to having a culinary experience that’s more interactive.”