In many ways, a culture is defined by the food it serves on its streets. Witness Singapore's steaming hawker centers filled with fiery chili crab and decadent laksa; the vendors in Bangkok peddling crispy crickets and fried tarantulas; spicy tripe sandwiches sold in Florence, Italy; currywurst sausages devoured by hungry Germans in Berlin; and the chaat (snacks) served at carts across India that are as varied as the country itself.
The United States has its own street food, too. For decades, Americans have walked up to a New York pushcart for a hot dog smothered in sauerkraut or ordered a Philadelphia soft pretzel topped with piquant yellow mustard.
But street food in this country has evolved. Today, it's about more than just dogs and dough (although there are still plenty of those). It's currently undergoing a renaissance that often borrows heavily from its global counterparts. Vendor carts across the country are filling the air with exotic scents and filling patrons' stomachs with creative, gourmet treats at sometimes shockingly affordable prices. After all, with no rent to pay, no waiters to hire and no fancy white tablecloths to launder, street vendors can focus all their attention on what really matters -- good, fast, affordable food.
So grab your napkin and sense of adventure. We're off to snack, sip and savor some of the best street food across America.
Street food is so prevalent in the progressive West Coast city of Portland that there's even a bicycle service that will deliver food from a list of vendors straight to your door (Portland Pedal Power). In fact, Portland took the No. 1 spot in a CNN list of the best street food in the world in 2010 [source: Robertson-Textor].
With more than 200 carts operating at any given time, it might seem like a daunting task to find just the right mobile meal, but fortunately, many of these carts are gathered in clusters throughout the city -- especially along the main routes of Southwest Alder and Washington streets [source: Portland Architecture].
At SW Alder and 9th you'll find Nong's Khao Man, which serves only one dish -- Khao Man Gai, the Thai equivalent of Hainanese chicken rice. Nong uses free-range chicken and local ingredients to make his dish, which he serves up to many a happy Portlander in butcher paper for just $6. Nong's global neighbors include Ziba's Pitas, which prepares delicious Bosnian food; Altengartz German Bratwurst, which keeps things simple with all-natural, hormone-free pork sausages; and Tito's 2, where $1.50 tacos make it hard to stop at just one.
Another major culinary cluster in Portland is along "Food Cart Alley" between Stark and Oak Streets on 5th Avenue. Here, the Brunch Box elevates the burger to high art. And "elevates" is the right word, as the creations are super-thick -- like the Slaughterhouse IV, complete with a beef patty, turkey patty, bacon, egg, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and grilled onions. It's definitely enough food to fuel your search for a dessert cart!
San Francisco, Calif.
As a testament to its ever-growing street food scene, San Francisco hosts an annual Street Food Festival. A simple list of the participants rings a (lunch) bell loud and clear: Street food in San Fran is all about global gastronomy.
Curry Up Now, which bills itself as San Fran's first mobile Indian food truck, has been able to add three more trucks. While it focuses on traditional Indian treats like kathi rolls and chicken tikka masala, its approach is 100 percent modern. Curry Up Now is one of the many food trucks divulging daily locations via a blog as well as through Facebook and Twitter.
Other "multiculti" street eats in San Francisco include Hapa, which tweets the daily locations where you can find Pulutan (traditional Filipino small plates) and the Mexican-themed El Huarache Loco that serves huaraches and mixiotes on Saturdays at Alemany Farmers Market. Speaking of farmers markets, the one held at the Ferry Building has numerous street-eat-styled stalls like Delica, a Japanese deli and sushi bar, and Cowgirl Sidekick, a cheese and dairy bar (Ferry Building Marketplace).
Los Angeles, Calif.
Thanks to Kogi Korean BBQ, Los Angeles often gets the credit for sparking the nationwide food truck craze. Started in November 2008, Kogi was the brainchild of Mark Manguera, who had the idea of combining Korean barbecue with a taco. Almost three years later, Kogi is operating five trucks.
But perhaps more revolutionary than the cultural food combination was Kogi's use of Twitter to announce its roving location. This idea brought people to neighborhoods they might never have visited before. It's been a true moveable feast (sometimes accompanied by deejays) ever since, and the Twitter truck craze has quickly spread across the country.
Kogi is in good company in LA. Great Balls on Tires offers Indian meatballs on rice; The Flying Pig specializes in pork belly buns and duck tacos; The Frysmith focuses on habanero chicken chili fries; Antojitos Carmen whips up mini squash blossom quesadillas; and Streets of Thailand serves its "legendary" Thai iced tea to wash it all down. Need something sweet after all that? How about a slice of buttermilk coconut pie and a rosemary almond cookie from Vici Victual?
Street food in Los Angeles even has its own app, fittingly named: Los Angeles Street Food. It's available at the iTunes store for $1.99 and will guide you to magical meals that cost little more than that all across the City of Angels.
Each year thousands of visitors descend upon Austin for the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, and most of them are hungry -- especially after dancing the days and nights away. To help those visitors find Austin's best food trucks, the Web site and app Foodspotting stepped up to the plate. In 2011, the food-finding company held its Street Food Festival in conjunction with SXSW to highlight Austin's many food truck vendors.
Missed the festival and can't make it next year? Not to worry.
You can find the participants all across town in a city that's like one giant festival for street vendors. Along Came a Slider is at 3600 S. Lamar St., and it serves up creatively named dishes like the Mother Shucker (sweet corn fritter, mayo, parmesan cheese, ancho chili powder, tortilla crisps) and the Wired and Drunk Pig (pecan coffee-rubbed pork shoulder, Texas pinot noir barbecue sauce, jalapeno slaw).
Boomerangs brings the cuisine of Down Under to 3110 Guadalupe with flaky "pies" filled with everything from steak and mushrooms to tofu and veggies. And what would street food in Texas be without barbecue? That's exactly what you'll find at the old yellow school bus at E. 6th and Waller (or wherever its Twitter feed says it is) known as Old School BBQ & Grill. Equally old school is neighboring Jucky J's Chicken and Waffles.
Kansas City, Mo.
Another well-attended music festival turns the spotlight on street food: Bonnaroo. And even though that giant jam is held in Tennessee, vendors drive their vans and Airstream trailers in from Florida, the Carolinas -- even as far as Kansas City.
Representing the Midwestern city was Good You, a "mobile organic eatery" that is getting a reputation for having KC's best burgers. When it's not keeping concert-goers well-fueled, Good You is doing the same around its hometown, with daily locations broadcast on its Web site.
Kansas City may have been a little slow to get in on the mobile food craze, but now that the town has embraced it, the scene is really starting to roll. Good You has some good company in vendors like The Magical Meatball Tour, which raised more than $10,000 for its venture on startup-funding site Kickstarter and serves up gourmet meatballs (they tweet their locations).
Port Fonda (20th and Main Streets) lets you take away drool-worthy tacos or reserve the only table inside the 1973 Airstream trailer. And Indios Carbonsitos on the Kansas side of the city at 10th and Orville serves authentic (and authentically delicious) Mexican food. According to the owner of Indios: "One day I had a crazy idea. Why not go out and get a food truck and make people happy on a daily basis?" Judging by the steadily climbing number of food trucks in the city, he's not the only one with the idea.
Minneapolis has not been a city with a reputation for street food, primarily due to heavy city regulation of the industry. However, in 2010, the city passed a street food expansion act that has allowed more mobile food vending in the city's downtown district. Vendors have been quick to jump on the wagon -- or cart, as the case may be.
Chef Shack was one of the first new vendors to set up since the law changed and was soon voted by USA Today as one of the "10 Great Places to Flag Down a Fabulous Feast" [source: USA Today]. Not only does Chef Shack serve up mouth-watering locally sourced food like watermelon gazpacho and Indian-spiced organic minidonuts, but also, its food truck serves as a party on wheels, complete with DJ and a go-go dancer on the roof. Chef Shack typically sets up at the city's various farmers markets, like the ones at Fulton City or Mill City.
The She Royal Deli brings the colors of global cuisine (think Indian samosas and Greek gyros) to a plain white truck parked at 7th Street and Nicollet Avenue, while the Magic Bus Café is a bright purple, 1978 converted Chevy school bus that serves split and fried hot dogs with toppings like psychedelic curry relish. The Magic Bus Café takes an interesting turn when it comes to street food, as patrons are welcome to dine onboard at a handful of tables. Look for the bus at farmers markets and special events throughout the city.
It doesn't get much more "street" than Chicago's Tamale Lady -- a dedicated vendor who peddles tamales from a white cooler on the side of the road in the city's Pilsen neighborhood at the corner of Damen and 21st Place. She's equally famous for her champurrado (Mexican style hot chocolate), which can come in handy, since she sets up shop in any weather, all year long.
The Brown Bag Lunch Truck (check its Twitter and Facebook pages for locations) might not yet be as famous as the Tamale Lady, but it does serve some famous Chicago cuisine: barbecue. Here, the signature smoky, tangy meat has an Asian twist with a green mango slaw that's slathered atop. Haute Sausage (see Web site for locations) is another vendor that takes something very Chicago -- sausages -- and adds a global flair by topping them with ingredients like masala and pickled mango chutney or roasted eggplant and zucchini.
The Slide Ride (which also tweets location) serves gourmet sliders out of a bright pink truck. Options include the chicken pesto (chicken pesto, prosciutto and melted provolone on ciabatta), the mini pork banh mi (spicy pork, pickled carrots, daikon radish slaw with cilantro and siracha mayo) and the Southwestern (black bean patty, pickled onions and tomatillo salsa).
Rather than having its patrons hunt for the grub, the 3J's food truck takes a unique approach. It circles around Chicago's Loop during lunch and with a simple phone call, appears at the corner of your choice. It's a good bet when you're in the mood for hearty fare like barbecue chicken and mac and cheese.
New Haven, Conn.
In the Northeast, New Haven is something of a legend when it comes to street food. This is due almost single-handedly to the presence of a United Nations-like collection of food trucks along Cedar Street -- just opposite the Yale School of Medicine.
Here, hardworking students and medical professionals fuel up with injera (a type of flat bread) from Ethiopia, curry chicken from Malaysia or bibimbap (a combination of rice and meat crowned with an egg) from Korea. The carts are so plentiful that the city of New Haven passed a law requiring them to be at least 15 feet away from one another. Standout bargains include Jon's Lunch, which serves giant sandwiches for the relatively tiny price of $7; Lean's Vietnamese Food Cart, where $5 gets you the richly favored pho (noodle soup); or the Peking Edo carts that dish out Taiwanese-styled fare for about $5.
If the jumble of Cedar Street is too intense, you can find more of the city's approximately 150 food carts along Prospect Street south of Sachem Street[source: New York Times].
Unlike other street food cities that are making things funky and foodie, Philadelphia is all about the rough and tumble. It's a place that keeps street food fairly simple and fairly priced -- something clearly appreciated by the city's students, since most vendors can be found around Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. There's even a Web site that focuses on street food in this area.
Ali Baba is a Mediterranean food truck whose owner is famous for throwing in an extra falafel ball with your order if he gets to know you. Bui's Lunch truck provides students with the Hangover Special (sausage, eggs, ham and cheese boosted by a generous glop of hot sauce). And Honest Tom's Taco Shop gets traffic with $2 vegetarian and $3.50 meat tacos.
One extra-hot truck at the moment is Gigi and Big R's Caribbean Soul Food truck, winner of Philly's annual Vendy Cup -- a street food award tradition that began in the king of all street food cities, as we'll see on the next page.
New York, N.Y.
New York is the undisputed king of American street-food cities. With everything from bargain bags of roasted nuts to Cambodian peppercorn catfish, this city sizzles with an intoxicating mix of mobile food from around the world. As a testament to its love affair with on-the-move cuisine, New York invented the Vendy Awards in 2005 to honor the best-of-the-best street food vendors.
The cart that was crowned 2010 winner was, fittingly, the King of Falafel (he also won the People's Choice award). His savory stuffed pitas and signature chicken and rice dish is on the menu at 30th Street and Broadway in Astoria, Queens.
With 3,000 food carts working the streets of New York, it's patently unfair to single out just one area or cart worthy of attention [source: New York]. Your best bet would be to spend some time at NewYorkStreetFood.com or to check out the Vendy award site. However, one spot that has had street food cred since 1974 is the Red Hook Ball Field in Brooklyn, where dishes like tacos, ceviche and pupusas fill the soccer field with the irresistible smells of pan-Latin cooking.
The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck has people lining up for soft ice cream creations with names like "Bea Arthur" and "Mermaid." Can you imagine Mr. Softee offering toppings that include olive oil and sea salt, wasabi pea dust, Nutella, Trix cereal, cayenne pepper and key lime curd? Check the Truck's Web site for locations.
Guerilla Ice Cream, a 2010 Vendy runner up, creates unique ice cream flavors inspired by political movements. "Red Corridor," named for an Indian region with militant Maoists, is a chai masala ice cream punched up with a topping of almond slivers and candied fennel.
Still not sure what you want? Just start walking. You're bound to bump into something you like.
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