Sure, the main attraction at a music festival is generally the music -- and this year's Outside Lands, with headliners Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Lionel Richie, promises plenty. But let's be real, this is San Francisco. Food -- from corn dogs to a gourmet five-course feast -- is nearly always going to edge its way to center stage. Outside Lands, now in its eighth year, is probably the best example of this: What began as a few Willy Wonka-esque areas devoted to chocolate, beer and bacon has grown over the past few years into a full-blown smorgasbord of culinary hedonism: Liquid nitrogen-dipped ice cream tacos? A thin-crust pizza the size of your torso? Fresh Maine lobster roll and a $25 pour of sauvignon blanc? Right this way.
We here at Bay Area Bites sacrificed our stomachs on the first day of the fest to try as many options as possible -- with an emphasis on the newcomers. It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. Here's the best of the best.
Best way to fight the cold (or a hangover): Itani Ramen, $13
New to the festival this year, this Oakland ramen shop is the brainchild of chef/namesake Kyle Itani, who happily explained how he had rigged his usual ramen recipe for a festival environment: by portioning out individual servings of fresh noodles, shocking them in ice water, and packaging them with toppings -- corn, green onion, nori -- before adding them to one of two broths, steaming behind him in 12-quart pots. The buttery shoyu (pork broth) option comes with chicken soboro (savory ground chicken), bamboo shoots, and bean sprouts; it was perfectly rich without being overwhelming salty. The veggie option was a thinner yet smokier miso broth, with a generous serving of spinach and the addition of chili oil. Only thing missing? No marinated soft-boiled eggs. Itani said they were working on it.
Best deli sandwich: Split Pea Seduction Rotisserie-Grilled Puerto Rican Pork, $14
You can generally tell you're in for a good sandwich when you got to a stand by following your nose. This sandwich called to us from the fragrantly smoking rotisserie pit directly adjacent to the stand, and the finished product did not disappoint -- arugula, heirloom tomato slices, and a swipe of citrusy mayo across a chewy french roll from local Panorama bakery. Other options include a shaken stone fruit salad and, obviously, generous portions of hot split pea soup. Overall, one of the few places I actually saw green things on a menu.
Best family business that's also churning out great munchies: The Farmer's Wife Gravenstein Apple and Wildflower Honey Grilled Cheese Sandwich, $12
Another local favorite making its Outside Lands debut, this award-winning sandwich stand has become a well-loved staple at farmer's markets around Sonoma County on the strength of its simple pairings of apples, cheeses and meats. It helps that purveyor Kendra Kolling -- who notes with a smile that she can't reveal her secret and almost upsettingly satisfying three-cheese blend; even her employees don't know it -- is actually a farmer's wife: Husband Paul Kolling is the owner of Nana Mae's Organics and the grandson of Nana Mae herself. The apple farm the couple runs in Sebastopol makes them the fourth generation of a farming family; their daughters, who were dunking apples in high-quality caramel nearby, are the fifth. As for the sandwiches: This is stoner food done right. I was surprisingly satisfied by the most simple option, a sliced Gravenstein, perfectly melted cheese and a smear of clover flower honey on a thick slight of toasted organic sourdough, though Kolling also boasts award-winning chorizo and other carnivorous additions.
Best use of liquid nitrogen: Rocko's Ice Cream Tacos, $7
Back for their second year, this food truck serves up the ice cream creations of your childhood dreams. Pick a house-made ice cream flavor -- I went with salted caramel, which was refreshingly not overly sweet -- and the almost too-eager employees at Rocko's will scoop it lovingly into a small waffle taco shell, then dunk it in the dip of your choosing (I went dark chocolate). Then you can opt for a superfluous-seeming sprinkling of nuts or pretzels, and the whole thing is topped off by a blast of liquid nitrogen. For the price, it's a whole lot of youthful fantasy wrapped in a literal chocolate shell. Wish we could pair it with warmer weather, but: This is Outside Lands, friends. No such luck.
Best veggie haven: Bini's Kitchen Veggie Momos (Nepalese Dumplings), $12 for combo plate
Yet another newcomer to OSL, this longtime favorite at Off the Grid nights had a serious line every time I walked by it, for good reason: Serving up perfectly chewy, savory dumplings (stuffed with either veggies or turkey) topped with creamy tomato-cilantro sauce in generous portions provides a welcome respite from some of the more precious culinary experiences available at Outside Lands: It's homey, solid grub. The veggie dumplings and combination chicken-and-curried rice plate didn't disappoint either.
Best late-night sugar boost: Charles Chocolates Hot Chocolate with Homemade Marshmallows, $7
When you've reached the point in the evening when only a superhuman combination of sugar and a hit of caffeine will keep you going, don't mess with success: Charles Chocolates' crazy-indulgent cup of hot cocoa can feel like actual medicine, with the added bonus of being a hot thing to hold when you can't feel your hands anymore (love you, San Francisco summer!). If you'd rather take said medication in solid form, their fudge brownies never hurt anyone.
Best splurge: Woodhouse Fish Co. Lobster Roll, $22
Long gone are the days when "festival food" meant fried things on sticks -- and it seems the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. If you're going to be annoyed every time you see a gourmet, exorbitant charcuterie plate and wine pairing at Outside Lands, you should probably just stay home. That said, of the indulgences that the $15-and-up category has to offer, the lobster roll from SF's own Woodhouse was the closest thing to self-justifying. Fresh-tasting Maine lobster meat mingled with a light lemon aioli, chives, and a surprising crunch of celery, all stuffed into a thick slab of Texas toast cooked on the griddle with clarified butter. One complaint: For how hyped this year's new "Outside Clams" area was in press materials, I was expecting a sign, at least. Just look for Wine Lands, and then follow the sound of people happily slurping barbecued oysters nearby.
Best antidote for one many cocktails: Spicy Pie, any kind of slice, $7
Don't get me wrong, we were stoked to see Mozzeria -- the wood-fired Neopolitan pizza that's been winning San Francisco over since 2011 -- making its first festival appearance. But when it comes to balancing out a night of questionable choices before you begin the trek home, there's really nothing like a giant, perfectly foldable slice of pizza from the veterans at Spicy Pie. Cheese, jalapeno-and-pepperoni, you can't go wrong. Do note: a strong urge to nap may follow immediately after.