My love of street food is no secret. I sometimes feel that many chefs who run entire restaurants should spend time manning a street food cart so they can understand freshness, flavor, and most of all focus. Of course, for most people, living in the United States means (to borrow a phrase) no street food for you. In Seattle there’s a hot dog/polish sausage cart near one of the movie theaters downtown. And that’s pretty much it. (As with many food-related quests) when it comes to street food in the United States, Manhattan is pretty much your only real choice.
The choices have gotten more and more ethnic over the years. But given the melting pot nature of the United States everything ultimately originates from somewhere else. The basics are well represented – pretzels, soft ice cream, etc. And luckily so is grilled meat on a stick. Frankly I don’t think a city is a real place unless you are always five minutes from grilled meat on a stick. And in general the meat you’re eating is juicy, seasoned nicely, and has just enough charring so that you get that nice grilled essence as you tear off a hunk of flesh with your teeth. Mmmmmmm, carnivorous.
The street fairs on weekends are also excellent sources of street food. baklavah, enormous sausages, griddle cakes, arepas, and falafel to name a few. The challenge is really not to eat too much so you can try everything. Or you could just move to New York City and not worry about only having access to this cornucopia a couple of times a year.
While this is certainly not an exhaustive survey, you can’t talk about street food in New York without mentioning pizza. Now it’s true that pizza is not offered in the actual street. But I still consider it “street food”. Here’s why: 1) it’s available on almost every street corner, 2) it’s available from many many multiples of vendors, 3) there’s an agreed upon format for the offering. And of course, the pizza on your average New York street corner is better than the best pizza in most other American (and non US) cities combined. It’s cheap, it’s good, it’s available everywhere from everyone. That’s street food to me.
Note to mayors of cities other than New York in the United States. It’s time to invest in a real street food culture in your city. And I don’t mean the clean manufactured “street food” in your waterfront tourist trap. I mean carts and stalls that locals eat from. It makes a city a place you want to live.