World's Most Delicious Street Foods 2010
Street food is going gourmet. From New York to Saigon, here are the can’t-miss options.
It’s 3 a.m. You’re walking home from a night out with friends when something stops you: the irresistible smell of spicy fried meat and onions emanating from a brightly lit kebab truck parked by the side of the road. This is no hot dog cart. It’s a little slice of heaven.
As any late-night reveler or hungry commuter will tell you, there’s nothing quite like the (cheap) culinary thrill of lining up at a food cart or stall as a sidewalk maestro rustles up something steaming and delicious to go. And as street food undergoes something of a renaissance, especially in the U.S., it’s possible to unearth amazing roadside finds that are worth a detour.
Street food has a long history—in Pompeii, you’ll find remains of snack shops with painted menu items on the walls. Today, it’s extremely popular: the U.N. estimates that some 2.5 billion people eat street food every day.
It seems that number is only growing. In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland, OR, street food has risen to the level of cult obsession, revered by the world’s greatest chefs and blogged about by devotees as they track the location of their favorite trucks on Twitter. New York even has the Vendy Awards, an annual competition for the best street food vendor.
And this street food is—in some cases—incredibly good. The best street food is not just a hasty snack, but a slice of the culture from which it originates. Take, for example, pho, the deliciously herbaceous noodle broth found all over Vietnam. “The street-side stalls in Hanoi are amazing,” enthuses David Myers of California restaurants Comme Ça, Sona, and Pizzeria Ortica. “The clean, light, and pure flavors remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Erica Wides, a chef-instructor at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education who’s also known as Chef Smartypants, explains why Asia is the source of so much beloved street food—some of which has made the transition into fine dining. “A lot of street foods originate in cultures with open-air dining, like Southeast Asia’s night markets,” she says. “It becomes a social activity for people, to shop, snack, and catch up. In Japan, sushi was originally a fast food snack for fishmongers, an easy, portable snack they could finish in a few bites.”
But street foods respect no boundaries, crossing continents and borders with impunity. How else to explain the proliferation of ethnic food carts in Portland, OR, for instance, where the number of carts is estimated to be around 550 by foodcartsportland.com, a site dedicated to the city’s street food culture. Famished pavement pounders can savor everything from Peruvian snacks to Korean kimchi to delicate onigiri, nori-wrapped rice balls with pickled fillings from Todbott’s Triangles, a cart on Alberta Street with a devoted following.
While many of the world’s best street foods originated many oceans away, you don’t need a passport to try all of them. Here’s the inside scoop on the best spots around the globe to get your fast food fix. So hit the street and start snacking.
Fish Tacos, Juanita’s Taco Shop, San Diego
Fish taco aficionados—and California has legion—love to debate the finer points of what goes into the perfect version of their favorite street snack. Deep-fried or grilled fish fillet? Salsa or white sauce? The addition of guacamole: tantamount to heresy? There is, however, one area of consensus: some of the finest fish tacos come from this humble shop-window on North Coast Highway in Encinitas. The tacos at Juanita’s will keep purists happy—they conform to the version first introduced to Baja in the 1970s. Battered and deep-fried fish, shredded lettuce, salsa fresca, and lime, all in sight of the beach and under two bucks. Gnarly.
Pani Puri, Mumbai, India
Australian restaurateur, chef, and global traveler Christine Manfield confesses to being addicted to pani puri, the Mumbai street food she describes as “small puffs with spicy chickpeas spooned into the hollow and dressed with tamarind yogurt and mint—the best snack imaginable.” Also known as gol gappa, these fried semolina pastries are traditionally eaten one at a time from a street stall, in a single gulp. It’s not unusual to see a crowd of people jostling around a popular panipuriwallah on the streets of Mumbai, eager for their next fix.
Poutine, The Blue Chip Truck, Toronto
Much like hockey, Canada’s favorite street food can be incomprehensible to outsiders. French fries topped with cheese curds and smothered in gravy…really? Yet poutine, which originated in Quebec before spreading around the country, remains the most beloved of late-night traditions, and non-Canadian skeptics are often turned into true believers once they sample the greasy, gooey delight. Torontonians swear by a blue truck called Mr. Tasty Fries parked on Nathan Phillips Square. Why? It’s all about the skin-on fries, genuine cheese curds (which make a desirable squeaking sound when you bite into them), and the tasty but not-too-salty beef gravy.
Kebabs, Xinjiang Kebabs, New York
It’s a strong-willed pedestrian who can resist the countless Middle Eastern food trucks that line New York’s avenues. Everyone has a favorite—chef Mathieu Palombino, chef/owner of New York’s Motorino pizzeria, talks about a mystery pita cart on Canal Street whose secret spice for chicken “is out of this world”—but the one to beat is, surprisingly enough, a Chinese cart on Division Street. Zak Pelaccio, of Fatty Crab fame, loves the “lamb seasoned with cumin and chili,” but the beef and chicken versions also get glowing reviews on the city’s food blogs. Not to mention the kebabs are recession-proof: just $1 a skewer.
Meat Pie with Peas, Harry’s Café de Wheels, Sydney
The best part about parochial street food traditions is that they generally have to be experienced to be believed (or appreciated). Such is the case with the meat pie topped with mushy peas at Australia’s most famous food cart, Harry’s Café de Wheels. More of an institution than a truck, Harry’s has been serving Australia’s signature snack food at Woolloomooloo naval dockyard on Sydney’s waterfront since the 1930s. The pie itself? A crisp pastry shell encasing 98 percent lean beef mixed with seasonings and piled with mashed-up green peas and a dollop of ketchup (both optional, of course). After a night on the town, it’s strangely delicious.
Empanadas, South America
Puffy, flaky hot pastries filled with piping-hot cheese or meat…what’s not to love? These South American staples don’t exactly qualify as diet food—we’ve heard them lovingly referred to by some South American natives as “fat bombs”—but they certainly rank highly in the deliciousness stakes. Find them street-side everywhere from Santiago to Buenos Aires.
Frittelle di Baccalà, Rome
Chef Jesse Schenker had an epiphany on the streets of Rome: after sampling frittelle di baccalà (deep-fried cod fritters), he put a version on the menu at his Manhattan restaurant, Recette. Baccalà, salt-cured cod, was a staple in Italian kitchens in the cash-strapped years after World War II and is undergoing a renaissance in cities from Rome to Sicily. This golden fried snack packs a can’t-eat-just-one flavor punch; salty, delicately fishy, and crunchy, it’s Italy’s second-best portable snack.
Takoyaki, Osaka, Japan
“I love takoyaki,” rhapsodizes California chef and restaurateur David Myers of these octopus pancakes cooked in a round cast-iron mold, a popular street snack in Japan. “They’re delicious and distinctly Japanese, with an amazing smell, texture, and rich flavor.” Chunks of octopus are combined with green onions, pickled ginger, and batter, then cooked and drizzled with mayonnaise. If you can’t make it to the source, Osaka, New York takoyaki followers rave about Otafuku on the Lower East Side.
There are few things as comforting as a steaming bowl of aromatic pho, the all-purpose Vietnamese noodle soup consumed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner from Hanoi to Saigon. Made with rice noodles and fragrant broth (usually beef or chicken, but sometimes vegetable), pho is often hawked by street-corner vendors and devoured on the spot by customers seated on tiny stools, who add their own accompaniments to the soup: bean sprouts, herbs, lime, and chile.
Ramen, Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
Forget the sad dried version you subsisted on during college—we’re talking about the real thing. “The street-side ramen at the Tsukiji fish market is the best in world,” says California chef and restaurateur David Myers. “It’s literally six stools on the sidewalk. The noodles and broth warm you up and are so satisfying at 5 a.m., especially after a late night out.” There are as many iterations of this famous soup (which originated in China) as there are ramen vendors in Japan. It’s hot, it’s nourishing, and best of all, you can slurp with impunity.
Onigiri, Todbott’s Triangles Food Cart, Portland, OR
Not all street food needs to be served with a dollop of guilt—some food carts actually dispense low-cal, nutritious fare, like these Japanese-inspired nori-wrapped rice triangles filled with pickles, fish, tofu, and other good-for-you delights. This cart, on Alberta Street (Portland’s restaurant row), replaces the traditional white steamed rice with brown and offers fillings like kombu (kelp), tempeh, and home-pickled vegetables.
Asian Dumplings, Rickshaw Dumpling Truck, New York
Kenny Lao, Anita Lo, and David Weber’s Flatiron homage to the humble dumpling, Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, was so popular with New Yorkers it spawned a truck, which rumbles around the city meeting curbside demand (check its Twitter page for location updates). Choose from pork and chive, chicken and Thai basil, or vegetarian-friendly edamame, half a dozen for a wallet-friendly $6. If you can’t get to the famous Nanxiang Dumpling House in Shanghai, this is your next best bet.