My foodie friends used to be horrified by my penchant for street snacks. For years it created a significant rift between us. While they spent their weekends at farmers’ markets, taking knife-skills classes at the Culinary Institute, and trying to snag a table at Wylie Dufresne’s latest chic eatery, I was scarfing down empanadas at random Brooklyn intersections and scouring parking lots for new taco trucks.
This past Saturday, we finally broke bread at the same metaphorical dining table. The source of our new common ground? A one-day street-food extravaganza hosted by New York magazine’s food blog, Grub Street.
Apart from the fact that all were cooking and serving at outdoor stalls, the 45 vendors at the Grub Street Food Festival had little else in common with the purveyors of dirty-water hotdogs and used-grease doughnuts that once typified New York City street food. Rather, these mobile-stove chefs (set up at the corner of Hester and Essex Streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) are flag-bearers for what is increasingly known as farm-to-truck cuisine: sophisticated fare made with artisanal, often locally sourced ingredients. And sold on the street, of course.
It’s a movement with roots on the West Coast—where farmers’ markets and tamale carts found symbiosis years ago—but which has recently reached critical mass. This new popularity is partly due to shows like The Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network, and partly to larger cultural factors like the economy—which has left many looking to spend $5, not $25, on a good lunch.
“The recession is part of it,” said Daniel Maurer, Grub Street’s editor. “But social media has also played a role. Before, restaurants were made and broken by critics… But now, more and more, talented chefs are doing the sort of populist, irresistible grub that they know will get people tweeting and blogging.”
Indeed, Twitter was alive with on-the-spot enthusiastic reviews. I would’ve joined in—if I had a Twitter account. Bacon Marmalade’s pumpernickel rounds slathered with smoky, meaty spread (spiked with guajillo, aleppo, and dundicut peppers) definitely deserved an ode. I could've devoted rhyming couplets to Arancini Brothers’ fried risotto balls (stuffed with roasted pumpkin and mascarpone) and An Choi’s fish-shaped rice pancakes (filled with jammy sweet-plum paste). And the perfectly light, effervescent quince and hibiscus sodas from P&H—along with icy avocado and cucumber paletas (Mexican popsicles) from New Yorkina—were worthy of 140-character raves.
But one vendor deserved more praise than could fit in a single tweet: Mile End, selling Montreal-Jewish-deli-style smoked brisket sandwiches by way of its local Brooklyn outpost. Though the festival ostensibly started at 10 a.m., crowds of hungry carnivores were circling the Mile End booth for more than an hour before the chefs finally pulled a mighty hunk of steaming meat out from a pot and onto a cutting board. By the time they’d cut the first slice, a 20-person line had formed.
The man in front of me gushed, “My God, I’ve been waiting all morning for this.” He was a student at the Institute of Culinary Education, and his cravings for Mile End sandwiches were so severe that he’d “dreamed about them.”
Finally, I was handed my creation: a heap of succulent fatty meat smeared with housemade mustard and balanced precariously between two scraps of rye bread. (That's it, shown at the top of this post.) Taking my first bite felt like a minor miracle. Not only was I immediately, ravenously hungry again—even after gorging myself for the past two hours—I also finally knew where to take my foodie friends to dinner.
Guest blogger Sarah Gold is a freelance writer-editor and frequent contributor to TravelandLeisure.com.