Assertive flavors, approachability and wallet-friendly prices grant global street food a warm reception on American menus.
This article first appeared in the 1 January 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
"Not everyone travels to these countries, and even if they do, some people are too nervous to eat on the streets," says Los Angeles chef Susan Feniger, who built her latest restaurant, Street, around paani puri and other global street fare. "What we're trying to do is let people experience foods they might not experience on their own."
Feniger is just one of many chefs spreading the street-food gospel. In the past year, street food has been a rising star across foodservice, moving from neighborhood ethnic restaurants and counters to more-mainstream concepts such as Philadelphia's Kong, which serves Chinese specialties including pork buns and lamb dumplings; Denver-based chain Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, a fast-casual concept built around Mediterranean street staples such as falafel, pita and laffa bread; and the upcoming INC. Street Food in Roswell, Ga., where Latin-inspired menu choices will range from tamales to pupusas.
Though the recipes may be more refined, what restaurant versions of street food share with the traditional fare cooked and served outdoors by individual vendors are fast, simple preparations; no-frills presentations that usually don't require a knife and fork; and-especially important in the current economic environment-low prices. These go a long way in explaining street food's appeal for consumers.
"People are looking for value, but the formula for value isn't just that it's less expensive, but also something intriguing," says Kong Chef-owner Michael O'Halloran. "Anybody who's been to a country with a large tradition of street food is amazed at how good it is and how cheap it is, and that general aesthetic is what restaurants are trying to capture."
A FULL PLATE
For diners, immediacy is another central part of street food's charm, says Mark Furstenberg, the chef and baker who created the menu for five-month-old G Street Food in Washington, D.C. (he recently left the concept).
"There is a real separation between [the diner] and the kitchen in a traditional restaurant," he says, noting that fast-casual concepts such as G Street Food can more easily replicate street food's interactive nature than sit-down restaurants can. "There's no barrier. People look immediately across the counter and see food being prepared."
Though street food often is presented small-plate-style at restaurants, most of Furstenberg's globe-trotting menu is shaped around meals rather than snacks. He reimagined the French chickpea-flour crÁªpes called socca precisely so they would make a more-substantial lunch.
"When socca is eaten in Nice or Liguria, it's sprinkled with a little olive oil or black pepper and that's it," Furstenberg says. To bulk up the recipe, he created a topping inspired by the North African stew called harira, with chickpeas, lentils, rice and tomato seasoned with cumin, turmeric, coriander, Marash pepper (Turkish red-pepper flakes) and other spices.
Another lunch-friendly choice at G Street Food is lahmajun, which Furstenberg describes as a Middle Eastern pizza. The thin-crusted flatbread is topped with ground lamb cooked with pomegranate molasses, cumin, coriander, garlic, onion and tomato paste.
NEW TAKES ON TRADITION
Like Furstenberg's recipes at G Street Food, many chefs' street-food offerings include both authentic and reinterpreted dishes tailored to their own-and customers'-tastes. The Latin American corn cakes at Caracas Arepa Bar in Manhattan and Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, come with a much greater variety of fillings than typically would be offered on the streets of Venezuela.
At the restaurant, classic combinations such as La PabellÁ³n (shredded beef, black beans, queso fresco and sweet plantains) are menued alongside nontraditional choices such as Los Muchachos (grilled chorizo, queso fresco, jalapeÁ±os and sautéed peppers).
All are tucked inside arepas made from a simple dough of corn flour, canola oil, water and salt. Although street vendors usually grill the palm-size cakes, resulting in a chewier texture, at Caracas Arepa Bar, they're griddled and then baked in the oven-more similar to how they would be prepared in a Venezuelan home. The result is a crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside finish that co-owner Maribel Araujo says is more appealing to American palates.
"Arepas are great for a city like New York because they're very flexible," she says. "You can get them as takeout and they can be a full meal inside a pocket, or you can bring a group of friends and have a nice, shared, family-style dinner."
At Street, many recipes are refined versions of standard street fare. For example, the potatoes in Feniger's paani puri are seasoned with a more-complex spice blend-curry leaves, cumin, black mustard seeds, coriander and other ingredients-than many Indian vendors might use. Accompaniments to her dish include two house-made sauces: one a smooth blend of tamarind, mint and cilantro with serrano chiles, ginger and seasonings, and the other a purée of dates, tamarind, cumin and garlic sparked with a spicy Indian chile called reshampatti. The dish is garnished with sprouted mung beans.
A particularly popular dish at Street is Feniger's rendition of Kaya Toast, a Singaporean specialty. A thick, silky custard made from coconut milk, sugar and eggs cooked with pandan (an herbaceous plant common to Southeast Asia) leaves is spread over buttered toast, which comes with a soft-fried egg and dark soy sauce for dipping.
"You have sweetness, saltiness and savoriness, so it's a very sensual dish," she says.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
The growth of Latin influences in the United States and the demand for more-accessible dining options helped shape the concept for INC. Street Food, a soon-to-open full-service restaurant in Roswell, Ga. Nothing on Latin street-food-focused the menu will cost more than $15, says Richard Wilt, executive chef and partner.
That will buy diners updated and traditional approaches to dishes such as pupusas, Salvadoran stuffed corn cakes that Wilt makes with masa harina, lard, water and sea salt. For the filling, Oaxaca cheese is mixed with chicken braised with chipotle paste, adobo powder, onion, garlic and cilantro. A topping of potato-based salsa dressed with lemon juice and olive oil lends a bright counterpoint.
At Chinese-centric Kong, prices range from $5 to $16 for dishes O'Halloran says are loosely inspired by the street foods he enjoys in Hong Kong.
One such invention is Stir-Fried Egg, an omelet-like starter priced at $8, featuring lap cheong, a dried Chinese pork sausage. The diced sausage is rendered in a hot wok and then tossed with sliced asparagus and jumbo-lump crab. Lightly beaten eggs and cooked jasmine rice are stirred in, and the pan is removed from heat to allow the eggs to set. Scraped into a small bowl, the stir-fried egg is finished with green onions and spicy sriracha sauce.
For Chinese Bacon, a $7 shareable plate, O'Halloran cures slabs of pork belly with Chinese five-spice powder, salt and brown sugar for five days and then smokes them. To serve, the bacon is grilled, glazed with honey-chile sauce and sprinkled with spiced, toasted peanuts. It comes with butter lettuce leaves for wrapping.
"Our food is quick; it's flavorful; it's economical; and it's [served] in a convivial atmosphere," O'Halloran says.
TRYING IT ON FOR SIZE
Eateries not built around street food are dabbling in the trendy fare as well. The "Indian street snacks" menu at Indique Heights, a contemporary Indian restaurant in Chevy Chase, Md., includes kathi rolls (think Indian burritos) and dosas (rice-and-lentil crÁªpes), while a recent Thai street-food promotion at Asia Nine Bar & Lounge in Washington, D.C., featured adventurous dishes such as Jelly Fish Salad and Takoyaki (octopus balls).
Campuses too, are embracing street food's portable, affordable format. Among them is the University of Houston, an Aramark Corp. account where Vietnamese pho and Indian onion fritters called bhajis are among rotating menu options at the Moody Towers residence hall.
Even mainstream chains such as Orlando-based Olive Garden are getting in on the act. The Italian concept recently debuted Lasagna Fritti, an appetizer of fried, Parmesan-crusted squares of pasta layered with ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. The recipe was inspired by the street foods of Italy's Veneto region, says Marie Grimm, director of culinary operations for the casual-dining chain. "It's shareable; it's a little indulgent; and you can translate it [to the restaurants] with quality ingredients," she says.
WAVE, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant inside the W Chicago-Lakeshore hotel, offers a special street-food menu every Wednesday night, with a different country featured each week. Among the recipes Executive Chef Kristine Subido will prepare in the coming months are bourekas- Israeli puff pastries typically filled with cheese, potatoes, spinach or minced meat.
In her rendition, layers of freshly made phyllo dough will be topped with sautéed spinach mixed with mint, parsley and fontina cheese and then folded into triangles and baked. To order, the cook will cut a slit in one side of the pastry and fill each boureka with sliced tomatoes and hard-cooked eggs. Tahini sauce will be served on the side.
Other choices on the Israel-themed street-food menu will include mini lamb kefta burgers, falafel pockets with roasted-eggplant salsa and house-made chips with lemon hummus.
"You get three choices for $10, and that includes a cocktail [or a beer]," Subido says. "That's a steal. You can't not try it."
BRINGING IN THE OUTSIDE
Although restaurants can't quite recreate the sights, smells and sounds of the street-food experience, some operators are taking creative measures to capture more of its inherent charms through interactive, themed dining-room designs and food-delivery systems.
Wave at the W Chicago-Lakeshore hotel is designing a street-vendor-style cart from which dishes from its Wednesday night street-food menus will be served in the lobby. Currently, the restaurant uses a table decorated in the style of the country featured that week. Customers fill out their orders on paper tickets and hand them to the chef. Most of the preparation is done ahead of service in the main kitchen-making broth for Vietnamese pho, for example-but the recipes are finished at the table, which has an oven and flat-top grill. Garnishes such as pickled vegetables, cilantro, peanuts and sauces are added in front of customers.
Other restaurants have incorporated the street-food theme into their regular dining spaces. Kong in Philadelphia utilizes design elements such as exposed brick, light fixtures that look like birdcages, artwork replicating Chinese graffiti and closely spaced, rough-hewn wood tables, all meant to evoke the markets of Hong Kong.
At INC. Street Food in Roswell, Ga., the wall of the open kitchen that faces the dining room is built to look a food cart. "We're trying to create an urban street-food scene where you can see the food being prepared," says Partner Richard Wilt. "The kitchen looks like a big trailer going through the restaurant."