★ ★ In a small service alley off of Mission Street in San Francisco, a rotating collection of food trucks gather at midday. Today, three of them are parked in tandem down the dead-end street. Ebbett’s Good To Go is serving cuban sandwiches near the dumpsters at the back of the alley. Up front, the exuberantly decorated Chairman Bao is making a brisk business of selling steamed buns at $4.50 a pop. Between them sits the elusive Doc’s of the Bay, an all-American comfort food station on wheels praised for its fried chicken, house made ketchup, and of course its hamburger.
Two alleys over the pavement reeks of urine and ammonia and the air is hazy with cheap weed and thick with the self-loathing scent of the smoke-break-cigarette. Here the aroma of frying onions, ground beef, and cheese mingles with exhaust from the trio of generators that reverberate in the narrow void of this unplanned space. The smoke from Doc’s grill hangs low in the air, a colloid of carbon and grease too heavy to escape the high walls of this urban canyon and too savorous to cause us to retreat instead. Quite literally, it is suspenseful.
The smokey, steamy, fume-filled air is anticipatory—each scent a promise of a flavor to come. When our names are called over the cycling generators and sizzling fat we seize our burgers eagerly. The first bite of Doc’s Classic Burger is unforgettable. Through the toasted bun, warm melted cheese and cold ripe tomato arises a distinctive mushroomy flavor. That is, the flavor is distinctly fungal. It tastes at first like the rich, earthy flavor of a woodland mushroom, an artifact—I presume—of a well-seasoned grill. I’m not certain that I like the flavor, but I’m attracted to the idea that this patty contains the secret history of its predecessors in its crispy edges. Nathan is similarly confronted and asks, “Does this taste…musty to you?”
As soon as he says this, I realize that it is indeed an unsettling mustiness swirling through my nose and clinging unpleasantly to my tongue. It’s not the flavor of woodland mushrooms, nor truffles, nor anything that belongs in a kitchen. It is exactly the flavor of your favorite childhood book, pulled from a box in the basement to reveal a cover blooming with moldy spores. Each bite offers no relief, just as each turn of the page confirms that your childhood storybook is beyond redemption.
I may have been convinced that it was a flavor too subtle or refined or new for my palate to identify. I could have been told (and I may have believed) that it was an acquired taste that I would come to appreciate. Once labeled “musty” however, those options were closed to me. The label—not I—was in control of the experience.