As the number of people traveling for food experiences continues to rise, so do food and travel blogs devoted to guiding them. In fact, the astronomical growth of city food guides over the last decade means hungry travelers are left drowning in the giant, festering pool of bogus advice crowding the internet. So how does one cut through all the muck? Who can we trust?
Thankfully, a new breed of guide is emerging to save these hungry, wandering souls. Emerging from deep in the Himalayan foothills, an entire community is packing up their yaks and descending on a city near you. They are the food Sherpas—recently profiled in the New York Times—and they’re here to stay.
The influx of Sherpas into cities comes as the result of a few environmental and cultural factors. For hundreds of years, sherpas have been guiding and shouldering climbers’ backbreaking loads up the world’s most treacherous mountains, forever condemned to anonymity while climbers bathe in global fame. Finally fed up, the Himalayan Sherpa Union has collectively decided to finally abandon the mountains for more rewarding work. Since the decision was made, the death toll of “wimpy American” climbers has skyrocketed beyond our capacity to statistically analyze.
“Most climbers I lead spend the whole time crying,” said Ang Pem-ba, a former lead sherpa on the famously harrowing mountain K2. “Plus, I love the artisan pickling culture, and we never get that in Nepal.”
Seeking the promised land of artisan pickles, Pem-ba moved to San Francisco three months ago. He soon learned that navigating the city’s food culture was, for him, almost second nature.
“As a Sherpa, you’re trained to seek out the most fruitful, hospitable situations as a survival strategy,” he said. As it turns out, discovering special food in the shadowy crooks of an urban landscape requires the same exact skill set.
Soon, the hobby became a business. Tourists to the area can hire Ang Pem-ba for a weeklong excursion into the city’s culinary scene, but Pem-ba’s tours are a far cry from the norm. Instead of the typical five-restaurant minicrawl, or the themed tour through an ethnic neighborhood, Pem-ba takes his clients on week-long epic treks through the entire city.
The fact that he can shoulder the entire crew’s packs and set up camp in the parks at night is a kind of rustic draw for clientele, who yearn as much for authenticity in their lives as they do in their food.
“I give them a chance to confront the elements and their own animalistic desires for a sublime meal. Really, when you get down to it, it’s a totally primal experience. I take them to food that helps them survive physically, as well as emotionally,” said Pem-ba.
When asked about the first stops on the tour typically are, he tells us it depends very much upon who is on the tour.
“If I have three waifish city girls from New York on my tour, I’ll take them straight to the Saison bar menu. This way, they lose most of their money without actually receiving enough food to make it through the night. For some of them, it’s the closest to death they’ll ever come,” said Pem-ba.
Now, why would a tour guide subject guests to the dire and despairing comfort of poverty and starvation?
“You have to kick them off the pedestals they’ve built for themselves before they can realize what’s important,” he said.
And what’s important? “Comfort. Comfort and love,” said Pem-ba. That’s what he learned growing up, that is the secret recipe to surviving on the mountain, he tells us. So where, pray tell, does a food Sherpa lead his starving, ditzy, and recently poor guests in San Francisco?
“Straight to Nopa. For brunch. The folks are so nice sometimes they let us actually set up camp outside the door. Otherwise we camp on the roof of Popeye’s across the street,” he said.
Pem-ba talks about Nopa as a veritable religious experience in a world of depravity and materialism.
“I take people who have never been touched by the Divine, starve them for a bit, and then I take them to Nopa in the morning and give them the custard French toast. By the second bite, the look on their face is the look of a pilgrim rescued from three months in the desert by a waterfall of holy water. It’s the custard. The custard French toast is going to save humanity,” said Pem-ba.
Indeed, the clients agree.
“Oh. My. God. Seriously. After two days wandering in the pandhandle, just when I thought I would die, Ang Pem-ba used the stars to guide us out and the next thing I knew I was sitting down to a plate of Nopa’s braised butterbeans and I thought, well, fuck. This is what matters. The next day I broke up with my bastard boyfriend, quit my shitty job, and now I’m gonna be a yoga teacher. Pem-ba showed me how to be alive. Life comes into focus when you’re almost dead,” said Tracy Aldrin, a recent guest on Ang Pem-ba’s “Ripe and Rustic San Francisco” tour.
Nopa’s butterbeans are another mainstay on Pem-ba’s tours. He maintains that, for the price, the beans are the most soulful distillation of happiness one can find in the food world. Other Sherpas lead hungry troops to the Marina and Pacific Heights for other overpriced, undernourishing experiences, ending with a heartwarming, life-affirming stop into such upscale comfort food spots like Brenda’s Soul Food in the Tenderloin and carnitas burritos from El Farolito in the Mission. Also on the menu? Shulzie’s Bread Pudding.
Although more and more Sherpas are entering the same trade, Pem-ba said there’s no competition. “We all come from the same place, and we just want to make people happy. And in San Francisco, that’s what food is for,” he said, polishing off the last bit of beef tartare on koji toast from Bar Tartine.
Pem-ba and the food Sherpas are not yet online, but reservations can be made by visiting his hammock behind the ruddy boulder on the top of Twin Peaks.