New eatery pops up in S.F. with Old World offerings

San Francisco’s Mission District is home to a wealth of culinary traditions. There’s a taqueria on almost every corner, restaurants that feature food from Peru, Colombia and El Salvador, and a Senegalese spot that was so popular the owners created a nearby offshoot.

And now, on Wednesday nights, there’s also brisket, borscht, chicken schnitzel, house-made kreplach, pierogies, matzah ball soup, chopped liver, whitefish salad, salt-brined pickles and other assorted Eastern European and Jewish fare being sold out of 24th Street’s La Victoria Bakery and Café — that is, until it runs out.

Doesn’t sound familiar? The Old World Food Truck won’t stay under the radar for long.

Kenny Hockert photo/emma silvers

“That’s it for pierogies tonight,” announces Kenny Hockert — the chef, owner and brains behind the pop-up eatery — from his post at the stove on a recent Wednesday evening. Since September, he’s been serving a different menu weekly out of the bakery’s space from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. (The “truck” part of the name is a misnomer for now, though Hockert does have a vehicle and hopes to have it rigged for cooking by February.)

Hockert will break a bit from the once-a-week schedule to host four Chanukah-inspired meals on Tuesday, Dec. 20 and Wednesday, Dec. 21. At two seatings each night, there will be latkes, pickles, corned beef, matzah ball soup and more, followed by traditional Chanukah fun.

A New York native who moved to San Francisco about five years ago, Hockert is out to prove it’s possible to merge two cuisines that are seemingly worlds apart: hearty Jewish and Eastern European fare — including influences from Poland, Russia, Hungary and Ukraine — and the health-oriented and environmentally conscious tenets of California dining.

The combination, which the restaurant’s logo bills as “East European and Jewish Soul Food,” reflects the chef’s own upbringing and career path.

“My mother was born in Poland before World War II, and her family were refugees in Russia, Siberia, all these different camps because of religious persecution,” explains Hockert, as he expertly flips a piece of chicken schnitzel cooking in shmaltz. (“This is chicken-on-chicken crime,” he jokes.)

His mother’s family finally settled in Queens, where Hockert fondly recalls dinners of kosher rotisserie chicken, rice and mushrooms, blintzes and pickled herring, a cuisine that “definitely made a big impression on me,” he says.

Hockert studied culinary arts at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, then honed his talents in some of the city’s most acclaimed kitchens, including Heartbeat in the W New York hotel, and Savoy, one of the pioneers of New York’s slow food movement. In 2006, he moved west, spending his springs and summers in Alaska as the chef for upscale lodges, and his falls and winters in San Francisco, working for caterers and various eateries.

This year, at 38, he decided it was finally time to strike out on his own. He settled in San Francisco and began serving dinners out of La Victoria three months ago, varying the theme each week, and promoting the meals on Facebook and Twitter.

Pierogies of different fillings are almost a mainstay, as is some kind of chicken soup, but specialties abound.

November’s “Fall Tasting of Eastern Europe” meal took diners to Ukraine with vareniki (squash and herb dumplings) with fried leeks and caraway sour cream; Poland for salt-brined cabbage leaves stuffed with wild mushrooms and rice in tomato sauce; Russia for spiced oxtails over buckwheat with roasted root vegetables; and Lithuana with Baltic-style doughnuts stuffed with vanilla poppy seed custard.

Hockert says the clientele inside La Victoria tonight reflects an average evening: lots of young couples, a few with children. He gets some repeat customers; others happen to be walking by and see his chalkboard sign out front.

While he borrows heavily from the Ashkenazi cooking tradition, Hockert isn’t making kosher food, and certainly not every Old World Food Truck enthusiast is Jewish. Still, he says, the response from the local Jewish community has been overwhelming, just as it was for Wise Sons Deli.

“I almost wasn’t ready for it,” he says. “But I’m starting to understand. I’m from New York, so I’m used to everything being Jewish. It’s different here …But I’ve found that means that people are really eager and ready for it.”

In addition to getting the truck started, Hockert hopes to organize more events that incorporate music and other participatory elements. “As we get going, I would love to have klezmer bands come out, have storytellers, things for kids,” he says, ladling out a hearty serving of deep red borscht.

“I went to Hebrew school and everything as a child, and a big part of my family back east is Orthodox. But for me, being Jewish was more of an ethnic thing and a cultural thing. Now I want to be part of the preservation of that culture.”

Old World Food Truck, pop-up Chanukah dinner and party, 5:30 and 8:15 p.m. on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21. $40 (ages 13 and under, 5:30 p.m. seating only, $20). La Victoria Bakery and Café, 2937 24th St., S.F.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.