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One in all San Francisco’s most sought-after burgers returns for Japantown’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Pageant

Billed as one of the largest cultural gatherings of its kind on the West Coast, the 55th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates San Francisco’s Japanese food, music and rich history over two weekends, starting Saturday, April 9 and continuing through April 17.

Each year, tens of thousands of attendees indulge in some of the tastiest street food bites on offer at over a dozen vendor booths, run by various nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area that provide support to Asian communities. (In addition to food booths, many of Japantown’s favorite restaurants will stay open during the festivities.)

One of those booths is Kimochi, Inc., a senior service agency that has operated in Japantown since July 1971. In addition to caring for elders in the community through nutrition, recreation and transportation services, Kimochi is back this year, nourishing festival-goers with its highly sought-after Teri Burger for $8.

Kimochi executive director Steve Ishii, who has worked for the nonprofit for 45 years, told SFGATE that the Teri Burger was created because they wanted to offer something tasty for younger festival attendees, alongside the more traditional foods — such as tamasen and bowls of piping hot udon — sold at other vendor tents.

With the help of a trained chef from Japan who worked for the nonprofit’s nutrition program, Ishii says they developed a homemade teriyaki sauce that many have tried — but failed — to replicate through the years.

“For the two weekends, we generally anticipate around 6,000 burgers for all four days,” Ishii said. “It’s a whole production, but not only for ourselves, but for all of the nonprofits in the community in general. Participating in Cherry Blossom is sometimes our only way of fundraising.”

Kimochi volunteers will grill about 6,000 signature Teri Burgers during this year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

Couresty of Kimochi, Inc.

The festival is one of the biggest opportunities for many participating nonprofits to raise money toward its annual funds, and that’s why attendees will not see any commercial businesses selling food or other items within the festival proper during the celebration.

“I’m not sure of any other festivals that happen in the city where the food vendors are 100% nonprofit groups,” said Bradley Menda, the food bazaar committee co-chair for the Cherry Blossom Festival. “These are all community organizations making or serving specialty items that they’ve been doing for many, many years.”

As one of the busiest food tents each year, Ishii estimates that in one day, he has about 30 to 40 volunteers help at the Kimochi booth, located on Webster and Post streets. Besides the smoky aromas of barbecue patties billowing from Kimochi’s tent, there’s a rotating array of grillmasters flipping burgers and toasting buns. Others form an assembly line to top the sizzling patties with freshly chopped lettuce, tomato, onion and, of course, the secret teriyaki sauce.

“The secret sauce is doused over the meat. Our Teri Burgers are, we call it a sloppy burger, because there’s a lot of the teriyaki sauce that we put on there. That’s historically what everyone has craved,” Ishii said. “We’ve had some people come from Vallejo and just wait for us to start up. They’ll order like 10 to 20 burgers so that they can just take it home and have it amongst the family. So that’s nice, there’s a following for these burgers.”

Takoyaki, deep-fried rounds stuffed with savory octopus meat, are one street food item offered during the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

Takoyaki, deep-fried rounds stuffed with savory octopus meat, are one street food item offered during the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

Courtesy of David Adams

Besides the Teri Burger, festival attendees can expect a variety of sweet and savory eats such as Spam musubi from the Boy Scouts Pack and Troop 58, deep-fried gyoza and Oreos from the Japanese Community Youth Council, shaved ice and fried mochi from Kagami Kai , takoyaki from Soto Mission (Sokoji) and much more, so save room.

“The food, to me, it’s instrumental. The fact that people could either walk around and enjoy the festivities, the arts and crafts, the foods, the stage — it just gives them nourishment to see all of the festival,” Ishii said. “Every festival should have a food area. It’s a nice day and I think a lot of people want to stay and enjoy everything the Cherry Blossom festival brings.”

The 55th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival takes place over two weekends, starting on Saturday, April 9, through April 17 in San Francisco’s Japantown.

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