The Bay Area prides itself on being in the vanguard of food revolutions. Farm-to-table fanatics owe a debt to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Grass-feeding groupies can thank Bolinas’ Niman Ranch. Pop-up populists point to Mission Chinese as an example of how a theme night can become a nationwide phenomenon.
So as Don Bugito’s moth-larvae tacos and chocolate-covered crickets gain traction in San Francisco, a taste for insects might spread much further.
“People are ready for this,” says Monica Martinez, whose “pre-Hispanic snackeria” business specializes in insect-based delicacies and educating the public about the environmental benefits of chowing down on crawly critters. “Especially in the Bay Area.”
Insects are already eaten in other parts of world. In Asia, deep-fried grasshoppers or bamboo worms are considered eminently munchable. In Mexico, the Aztecs dined on insects. Ant eggs, called escamoles, are still a pricey delicacy.
“This is something that’s really sort of normal for people who grew up in Mexico,” says Leticia Landa of La Cocina, the Mission-based incubator for food entrepreneurs that helped Martinez make Don Bugito a reality. “I think Americans, or people who don’t grow up eating insects, are kind of horrified at first but then get intrigued.”
High-protein, low-fat crickets, mealworms and wax-moth larvae are the stars of Martinez’s menu. Don Bugito — which premiered at one of La Cocina’s street food festivals — has done pop-up nights at restaurants and is available for catering.
Since the birth of her first child, Martinez has been focusing on her line of packaged snacks such as chili-lime crickets and toffee mealworms, which are available online as well as at the Ferry Building’s La Cocina stall or the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
The seasoned crickets are particularly popular.
“We cook them to be really crispy and crunchy,” says Martinez, a native of Mexico City. People say they resemble potato chips.
“They’re great with beer,” Landa says.
Martinez’s insects — she prefers not to use the less appetizing-sounding “bugs” — are raised on a diet of bran and veggies. Martinez buys them live (“I like to see that they are healthy”) from operations that grow them as feed for poultry or pigs and, increasingly, humans.
Part of the mission for Martinez, who follows a mostly vegetarian diet, is to educate the public about the environmental benefits of eating insects, which require less resources to grow compared to protein sources such as cattle.
“You have to educate people to introduce a new item,” says Martinez, whose business will be profiled on the new PBS series “Food Forward” next month. “Once you start telling them how clean it is, compared to cattle farming or a poultry farm, they like it.”
Other Bay Area businesses are also trying to prove that excellent eats can come with an exoskeleton.
La Oaxaqueña Bakery on Mission Street is famous for tacos made of chapulines — Oaxacan-style roasted crickets. The City’s Health Department banned the many-legged tacos in 2011 since the eatery’s source in Mexico wasn’t FDA-approved. A recent phone call in Spanish confirmed they’re not currently on the menu, but a worker promised they’d be back pronto.
San Francisco’s Bitty Foods is slow-roasting and milling crickets to make a high-protein flour fit for paleo eaters or low-carb devotees. Its 20-ounce bags of bug flour go for $20 a pop on Bitty Foods’ website, with bags of chocolate-chip-cricket cookies selling for $10. In Oakland, Tiny Farms is trying to win hearts, minds and taste buds with its sustainably and locally grown insects.
For Martinez, the flavor of properly cooked larvae is her proof of concept.
“Clean them, freeze them and toast them. When they turn orange, they are ready,” Martinez advises. “They go really well with a fresh tortilla and guacamole!”
Where: Ferry Building Farmers Market, 1 Ferry Building Plaza, S.F.
When: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays
Where: KQED (Ch. 30)
When: 11 p.m. Sept. 4 and 5:30 a.m. Sept. 5