How a grandmother’s secret recipe inspired this SF food truck’s sell-out menu

For decades, Elly Greenfield’s cousins back in Singapore kept those handwritten ingredients close — until one day, when Greenfield revealed she was opening her own satay business, she was let in on the family secret.

“When I started making it, I started crying like, ‘Oh my god, this is so her!’” Greenfield said. “I cried. I had to call my cousin, and I said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it! This tastes like grandma’s recipe. This tastes like grandma’s food.’”

Along with her husband, David Greenfield, Elly is the co-owner of Satay by the Bay, San Francisco’s only Singaporean-Malay food truck, serving home-cooked dishes inspired by recipes from her mother, Yahtimah, and paternal grandmother, Fatimah. About five days a week, Elly serves her customers food rooted in Southeast Asian flavors with plenty of blended onions, garlic, ginger and dried chilis at its foundation.

Satay by the Bay owners Elly and David Greenfield hold their signature chicken satay and Singapore chilli crab sandwich in front of their food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

At the truck, which can be found weekly at the new Presidio Tunnel Tops park, and regularly at Off the Grid’s Fort Mason Center and Menlo Park locations, customers choose from a concentrated menu that often sells out. It features halal chicken satay skewers, spicy chili crab or chicken satay sandwiches, loaded Dutch fries and tahu goreng, a delicious crispy tofu bowl with fresh bean sprouts, carrots and cucumbers topped with Elly’s show-stopping peanut sauce.

“All of it. The color. The smell. It feels kind of haunted. It just brought back all my memories because my grandmother used to cook every weekend for a party of people,” she said. “The grandkids would be at the house playing, and I would see her in the kitchen.”

Thick as molasses and studded with chunky peanuts, the sauce hits all the right notes in a rhythm of sweet, spicy, sour, salty with a hint of zest and a lip-smacking satisfaction that makes every bite better than the last.

Satay by the Bay's homemade peanut sauce. The truck is San Francisco's only Singaporean Halal food truck run at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
Satay by the Bay’s homemade peanut sauce. The truck is San Francisco’s only Singaporean Halal food truck run at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

An employee spoons out servings of Satay by the Bay's homemade peanut sauce. The truck is San Francisco's only Singaporean Halal food truck run at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
An employee spoons out servings of Satay by the Bay’s homemade peanut sauce. The truck is San Francisco’s only Singaporean Halal food truck run at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Satay by the Bay’s signature peanut sauce. (Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

The demand for Elly’s peanut sauce among customers has increased so much, in fact, that David and Elly have doubled the amount of granulated peanuts they purchase per week from 30 to 60 pounds.

“When the truck is busy, I can feel my mom’s energy. I can feel my grandmother’s energy,” Elly said. “My oldest daughter, who’s a nurse, helps in the truck sometimes. She would tell me, too, ‘Mom, when you’re busy, when I see you work, when I see you cook, it’s like I’m seeing grandma.’”

‘Whenever I miss home, that’s what I eat’

One lesson David said the two learned quickly in 2020 when Satay by the Bay first rolled out to various bars and the outlets in Livermore, is that a successful food truck does not need a restaurant-sized menu. Instead, they decided to focus on a few staple dishes, many of which require up to 12 hours of prep work, including the hottest-selling menu item, the chicken satay.

“You pick a couple of things you do well and just do it, and everybody just loves the chicken,” David said. “All of this stuff that we’re creating: the satay, the marinade and the peanut sauce, is all very labor intensive. There’s a lot of work that has to be done in the background. The skewering process is just so tedious.”

Satay by the Bay sells thousands of skewers in any given week, with 500 of those flying out the window every time they visit Presidio Tunnel Tops.

Satay by the Bay co-owner Elly Greenfield prepares to grill some chicken satay in her food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
Satay by the Bay co-owner Elly Greenfield prepares to grill some chicken satay in her food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“We have two of my staff, plus me. So we’ll be skewering about 2,000 and it takes us about 12 hours,” Elly said. “We will cut six cases [of chicken] that will take us about two hours and we marinate and we skewer right away. Then, we put it in the freezer so they will marinate much better.”

Although they recently purchased a custom-built skewer machine, which David said helped speed up the process, Elly said marinating the halal chicken thighs still takes 24 hours. This technique ensures her special blend of spices, which includes lemongrass powder, turmeric, coriander, fennel and cumin, among others, will fully absorb into the meat.

Once the thighs are coated in Elly’s fragrant mixture, she weaves the marinated strips onto bamboo skewers, creating a nice, even wave along the stick. When they’re ready to hit the grill the following day, Elly sears each skewer to juicy perfection before plating it with a side of steamed rice and a fresh cucumber and red onion salad — along with a small paper cup of her delectably thick peanut sauce.

Satay by the Bay's chicken satay, served with rice, cucumber, and their homemade peanut sauce at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF's only Singaporean Halal food truck.
Satay by the Bay’s chicken satay, served with rice, cucumber, and their homemade peanut sauce at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF’s only Singaporean Halal food truck.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

When you order the satay plate, not only are the skewers incredibly tender and well-seasoned with plenty of crispy-charred edges, but it’s a genuinely comforting plate of food for $13.

“You can’t go into another restaurant around here and find the same style peanut sauce that Elly makes,” David said. “But you can’t compare one to the other and say one’s better. They’re all made up differently. And they’re all wonderful. But as far as Elly’s ethnicity, there’s just nothing else like it around here. She’s got something that nobody else has.”

Satay by the Bay's Singapore chilli crab sandwich, with real crab meat, homemade sweet chilli sauce, mayo, cucumber, jalape–o, cilantro, and fried onion on a toasted roll at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF's only Singaporean Halal food truck.
Satay by the Bay’s Singapore chilli crab sandwich, with real crab meat, homemade sweet chilli sauce, mayo, cucumber, jalape–o, cilantro, and fried onion on a toasted roll at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF’s only Singaporean Halal food truck.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Another customer favorite is the chili crab sandwich served on locally baked Dutch crunch bread from Moulin Boulangerie. It’s packed with ample crab meat, jalapeños, cilantro, cucumber, sweet chili sauce, a bit of mayo and fried onions. But for Elly’s oldest daughter, Masturah Galdamez, there’s one sandwich on the truck she feels represents the best of both worlds.

“My favorite is always going to be the satay sandwich. Back home, we don’t have that, and the satay sandwich reminds me of San Francisco and Singapore mixed together,” Galdamez said. “It’s Westernized plus the Malay, so I feel like that’s me right now because I’ve lived in San Francisco for 20-something years and the satay, and everything else in it, it just hits home. Whenever I miss home, that’s what I eat.”

‘I want to be seen’

Growing up in Singapore, Elly recalls her mother Yatimah was always in the kitchen. Whether at home making dishes for her family, or during her time spent as a dedicated cooking teacher, she had a passion for creating home-cooked meals.

So it was only natural for Yatimah to pass those recipes and techniques along to her cooking assistant Elly who, as a teenager, would often accompany her mother inside the classroom and help with everything from chopping to sauteing and even baking.

“Even when she retired, she picked up a part-time job as a cook in a cafeteria. She was so happy,” Elly said. “She called me on the phone once and was stirring some sauces while making some curry puffs.”

Satay by the Bay's dutch fries, french fries topped with peanut sauce and mayonnaise, at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF's only Singaporean Halal food truck.
Satay by the Bay’s dutch fries, french fries topped with peanut sauce and mayonnaise, at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF’s only Singaporean Halal food truck.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Satay by the Bay's chilli crab fries, with real crab meat, homemade sweet and spicy chilli sauce served on french fries at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF's only Singaporean Halal food truck.
Satay by the Bay’s chilli crab fries, with real crab meat, homemade sweet and spicy chilli sauce served on french fries at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.The food truck, run by couple Elly and David Greenfield, is SF’s only Singaporean Halal food truck.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Satay by the Bay’s dutch fries and chili crab fries. (Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

A few years ago, Elly’s mother suffered a stroke and lost the ability to do what she loved most: cooking for others. By that time, Elly had been living in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and was working as a successful insurance agent. Then, in December 2019, Elly said she had an epiphany.

With her three children now grown, and some giving birth to their own little ones, she wanted to spend more time with her family, but she also felt as if some invisible force was luring her toward the kitchen.

“I felt spiritually that I was pushed into it. I just felt like I had to do this for my mom. I want to continue my mother’s legacy with my paternal grandmother’s peanut sauce,” she said. “My mom is still alive. She is very proud and she knows what I’m doing. Sometimes, I will facetime her and I will show her my truck and what I’m cooking. She feels good about it. Spiritually, I can see that she’s very happy and very honored that I’m honoring her.”

On a recent Saturday at the Presidio, a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge was the afternoon’s background as David took order after order from a long line of customers. As a storied Bay Area music promoter and vinyl enthusiast, known as DJ Sid Presley, flyers for Satay by the Bay’s upcoming events and David’s music gigs neatly decorate the side of the truck.

Articles about Satay by the Bay and concerts promoted by David Greenfield are attached to the side of their food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
Articles about Satay by the Bay and concerts promoted by David Greenfield are attached to the side of their food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Every second Sunday of the month, they host Surf N’ Satay at Alpha Acid Brewing in Belmont, an event that perfectly blends their interests. Most of all, David and Elly enjoy their time outdoors together, sharing their family’s recipes and culture with the Bay Area, inspired by the sights and sounds of the food hawkers of Singapore.

“I want to be out there. I want to be where the people are and I want to create the Singaporean spirit of being in a hawker center, where it’s outdoors, where it’s happy, where it’s happening,” Elly said. “Not necessarily at a sitdown restaurant and being so rigid. I told David, ‘If I am going to have a food business, that is what I want. I want to be seen.'”

Inside the food truck, the sounds of a sizzling grill are accompanied by steady puffs of smoke that billowed from the rooftop. As the welcome aroma of grilled chicken continued to entice hungry passerby, I noticed the black and white photographs on the truck.

“There’s a picture of a couple on the outside of my truck and the lady that’s sitting in that picture is actually my grandmother,” Elly said. “At least she will be able to spiritually be there and see the crowd because she is pasted right on the truck.”

David Greenfield points out the photo of his wife Elly's grandparents reproduced on the side of their Satay by the Bay food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The Singaporean Halal food truck run by husband and wife couple Elly and David Greenfield.
David Greenfield points out the photo of his wife Elly’s grandparents reproduced on the side of their Satay by the Bay food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The Singaporean Halal food truck run by husband and wife couple Elly and David Greenfield.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A photo of Elly Greenfield's grandparents is reproduced on the side of Satay by the Bay food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The Singaporean Halal food truck run by husband and wife couple Elly and David Greenfield.
A photo of Elly Greenfield’s grandparents is reproduced on the side of Satay by the Bay food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022. The Singaporean Halal food truck run by husband and wife couple Elly and David Greenfield.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


A photo of Elly’s grandparents on the side of their food truck. (Douglas Zimmerman / SFGATE)

As David placed another ticket in the window and a steady stream of orders were fulfilled, Elly and her youngest daughter, Suraya, seemed to be in a groove. For Elly, food is as much about the experience of feeding people as it is seeing the look of satisfaction on her customers’ faces as they bite into something new and delicious.

“If I see a lot of people out there, I think about my mom. I’m doing this for her and I feel good,” Elly said. “It made my dream come true to continue her legacy, and I think I fulfilled my grandmother’s spirit. I want to make her peanut sauce famous.”

Satay by the Bay owners Elly and David Greenfield hold their chill crab fries and dutch fries in front of their food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.
Satay by the Bay owners Elly and David Greenfield hold their chill crab fries and dutch fries in front of their food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif. on Aug. 19, 2022.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Visit Satay by the Bay weekly at the Presidio Tunnel Tops park, 210 Lincoln Blvd., San Francisco. Open Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information on upcoming events, follow Satay by the Bay on Instagram.