Street food elevates Point Reyes culture

10/09/2014

An obvious measure of a society’s sophistication is the quality and availability of its street food. Many people will remember their delight during their first trip to Paris, when they discovered ubiquitous open-air stands selling crepes. The decline of culture in that great city can be measured by the shrinking number of stalls featuring this delicacy. 

Other places can also boast of distinctive street food. Wikipedia informs us that such offerings have existed since ancient times in many celebrated societies; it was available in ancient Greece, and “…(e)vidence of a large number of street food vendors [was] discovered during the excavation of Pompeii… In ancient China, where street foods generally catered to the poor, wealthy residents would send servants to buy street foods and bring meals back for their masters to eat in their homes.” There is a report that from the late 1300s in Cairo, “people carried picnic cloths made of raw hide to spread on the streets and eat their meals of lamb kebabs, rice and fritters… Street food also existed in Renaissance Turkey and Aztec marketplaces where vendors sold almost 50 types of tamales (with ingredients that ranged from the meat of turkey, rabbit, gopher, frog, and fish to fruits, eggs, and maize flowers), as well as insects and stews.” 

Street food has existed in this country since the colonial period. The list of American street foods includes French fries and the hot dog, not a sophisticated comestible but one with universal appeal. And of course there were the ubiquitous Good Humor trucks and carts, which have disappeared for the most part.

The growing sophistication of Point Reyes Station is heralded by more and more delectable foods on the street. The most recent addition to the trend has been the appearance of a gelato cart in front of Toby’s Feed Barn. (It has not yet reached its full potential by regularly including chocolate among its choice of flavors; although chocolate is sometimes available, the stand’s proprietor is not fully satisfied with what he has produced, and is ambivalent about including it in his offerings.) 

The tables and benches scattered around the parking lot in front of the barn have made Toby’s a de facto community center where talk is plentiful alongside coffee and pastries from the coffee cart. It can be argued that Toby’s is West Marin’s answer to the Paris café. Farther down Main Street, the Palace Market, bowing to the community’s western heritage, sets up a tent in its parking lot on weekends to offer barbeque ribs, corn on the cob and other delights cooked on charcoal grills. Oysters are also on its menu.

Some efforts have been less successful than those at Toby’s and the Palace Market. It has been a while since a chuck wagon that offered Chinese food was parked on the street next to the Old Western Saloon. It struggled but could not make a go of it. The chuck wagon left a void, and it showed that Point Reyes Station has not yet reached its full flowering as a center for haute street cuisine. This unfortunate episode did demonstrate something else, however: West Mariners have a refined palate and will not buy something simply because it is easily available on the street. 

Then there is the Bovine Bakery, which sells its goods indoors but whose customers line the sidewalk in front consuming an abundant selection of oversized pastries and pizza slices. (It is not true that the motivation for upgrading the nearby Town Commons was solely meant to provide comfortable outdoor space to consume the Bovine’s delights, even though it may seem that way.) 

Take out, a near relative of street food, also deserves recognition. Both the Palace Market and Whale of a Deli have offerings that can be eaten on the street, consumed at a picnic in the park, or taken home. Perry’s in nearby Inverness Park has raised the bar with its recently remodeled serving area, chef and full-course meals that many people take home for dinner.

Clearly the ambience in West Marin is changing. Having already achieved the highest praise as a place to enjoy the outdoors in its widespread parks, the area is adding culinary delights to its reputation, both at its restaurants (more to be said about them another time) and at street food and takeout venues. 

Since nothing, good or bad, goes unchallenged in West Marin, it is no surprise that the growth of street food offerings has not been universally appreciated. At a recent Point Reyes Station Village Association meeting, some regulars raised objections to the expansion of street vendors. The complaint was that if these activities were not prohibited or regulated, the word would spread and before long vendors from outside West Marin would flock to downtown, hawking cheap goods. Only time will tell whether or not these fears are warranted. For now, there are good eats to be found on the streets of Point Reyes and a sense of camaraderie that accompanies their enjoyment.