By Debbie Miller and Loews Magazine Staff
There was once a time when the term “street food” conjured up images of vendors hawking quick, simple snacks to hungry folks who were in a rush to grab a cheap bite. More than just hot dogs and pretzels, the street food scene is now made up of some serious chefs serving savory and sweet creations that are highly sought-after by food fans and fellow chefs alike.
Sold out of fully equipped trucks and portable stands, the best street food is often the hardest to track down. You can scour food blogs or beg your friends to give you the scoop—or you can read on for some of the nation’s top picks of the best eats sold on the streets.
Big Apple Bites
The City that Never Sleeps has been fueled by food served off of carts since its beginnings. Like in many other cities, the relationship between street vendors and the law hasn’t always been harmonious but, in more recent history, New York’s street food culture has been praised for being delicious, innovative and as eclectic as its residents.
Among the seemingly endless businesses whose specialty is good food served right on the street, the bright yellow shirts of The Halal Guys at 53rd and Sixth have become legendary, attracting long lines and spawning many imitators. The guys capitalize on a city specialty—rice platters served with halal meat, whether it’s chicken, beef or lamb.
But New York’s street food scene extends far beyond one intersection. “There’s so many,” says Keith Klein, owner of the Milk Truck, of New York’s street food options. “You can’t go wrong getting a falafel at Taïm (a falafel and smoothie truck) or a waffle at Wafels & Dinges (a popular Belgian food truck). I like the food at the Calexico food cart.” Calexico’s three carts (in the Flatiron District, Soho and Brooklyn Bridge Park) serve what the owners deem “Mexican food cooked by a bunch of gringos from California,” but the food has earned rave reviews and even the highest honor from the “Oscars of street food,” the Vendy Awards, in New York City in 2008, just two years after launching.
And of course, there’s the Milk Truck, a local favorite that can be found rolling around the city hawking a simple American classic: the grilled cheese sandwich. Klein says the most popular items are the classic (aged Wisconsin Gruyere and cultured butter on Balthazar Bakery’s Pullman bread), the bacon cheddar blue (double-smoked bacon, New York cheddar, Wisconsin blue cheese, caramelized onions and spicy pickles on rosemary Pullman bread) and the milkshakes, which are made with custom-blended, small-batch ice cream.
“People don’t view it as street food,” Klein says of the street revolution. “It’s great food that just happens to come out of a mobile kitchen. We have a long tradition of feeding people on the street and the truck scene has expanded that to a wide range of great food from cultures as diverse as New York City.”
Street food is so much a part of Boston’s culture that there’s even a Boston food truck schedule and locator on the city’s website. As you might discover after scanning the list of vendors, the food isn’t limited to one type, but seafood continues to reign supreme in this harbor city.
As a family-owned and family-operated business for four generations, Captain Marden’s Seafoods is one of the largest wholesalers in New England, delivering fresh seafood to approximately 400 restaurants and businesses. Their truck, lovingly referred to as the Cod Squad, is extremely renowned in the region.
“I often wonder—do people realize that the haddock sandwich they love so much is caught, filleted and on their plate within just hours?” says Terri Klippert Beal, the company’s business director. “I do know one thing: When people dine from the Cod Squad, they often call, email, tweet, [post to] Facebook or come back to the truck and tell us, ‘That was the best lobster roll, fish and chips, haddock sandwich, clam chowder, scallop plate … I have ever had! What do you guys do to make it so good?’ My answer? ‘It’s fresh!’ ”
The team members aboard the Cod Squad truck are the purveyors of the seafood, so their lobster rolls use the freshest lobster salad possible, made each morning. “We have the lobster tanks adjacent to our commissary,” Beal explains. “We also use only claw and knuckle meat—which is more tender and very sweet (not chewy)—making the lobster roll even more delectable.”
Diners looking to try something other than seafood are in luck when in Boston: Bon Me is an Asian food truck run by husband and wife duo Patrick Lynch and Ali Fong. Founded in 2010, the truck is the result of the couple’s decision to enter the Boston Food Truck Challenge on whim. They ended up winning.
Now, the couple has three colorful food trucks and one restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., serving bold, fresh and fun Vietnamese cuisine in the form of sandwiches, rice bowls, noodle salads and house-made drinks and desserts.
“Lunch lines are long,” says Jennifer Ngo, Bon Me’s marketing specialist. “But Bon Me prides itself on serving a tasty, healthy lunch as quickly as possible to help their busy customers get back to their busy lives, with orders being completed within minutes of being placed.”
According to Ngo, the most popular option for a Bon Me first-timer is the sandwich stuffed with Chinese barbecue pork. Pair it with a refreshing Thai basil limeade, and lunch comes in at an affordable $9.
More Than Peaches
Atlanta’s street food industry is booming. Thanks to collective lobbying by food truck owners and their supporters, the city has loosened restrictions that prevented trucks from selling their goods and truck numbers have grown exponentially since they first appeared on Atlanta streets in 2009.
Along with quantitative growth, the scene is also showing signs of maturity through new, more sophisticated dishes. “The food is becoming more and more gourmet as traditional restaurateurs have discovered that it is often more cost-effective to have a truck than a building that just sits there waiting for customers,” says Charlotte Swafford, the resident baker aboard the Southern Komfort (SoKo) Food truck.
Swafford also notes that, in the beginning, local restaurant owners lobbied hard for street vendors to be licensed out of their area for fear that it would ruin their business. Now, those restaurant owners have discovered that the trucks bring business to the area as a whole, and the brick-and-mortar bars and restaurants often see additional business from the food truck overflow.
The SoKo Food truck churns out down-home dishes with a healthy twist: The truck uses an air fryer to get that traditional crunch you’d expect in fries and chips, but nothing is fried in oil. The Texas brisket and traditional barbecue pulled pork are both standouts, but the truck is also known for its side dishes. “People say our spicy mac and cheese is downright addicting, and our new fried mac and cheese bites are fun and really in demand,” Swafford says. “People in the area drive long distances for our chicken salad. We make it fresh every day, and everyone loves it because it is filled with big chunks of white meat, it’s gluten-free and it isn’t drowning in mayonnaise like some salads are.”
The SoKo Food truck is just one of the vendors that make up the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, an organization started by the owner of ice cream and sorbet truck Westside Creamery, Greg Smith. The coalition continues to support the street food movement in the city by campaigning for safe, affordable and legal access to street food through mobilizing street vendors, lobbying, fostering positive relationships with brick-and-mortar businesses and creating awareness of street vendors’ widespread positive economic impacts.
LA Street Fare
Los Angeles residents are no strangers to street food. Similarly to New York, the city has had its fair share of differences with street vendors. Fortunately for foodies, LA was one of the earliest counties in the country to embrace food trucks and is currently looking at ways to legalize other forms of street vending. Chef Roy Choi introduced the Kogi BBQ truck in 2008, garnering national attention and helping to pave the way for a slew of trucks selling all varieties of food. Now, the LA street food scene has gained so much traction that it has a well-established festival, LA Street Food Fest, which takes place this year on June 28 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
“The popularity of Roy Choi’s Kogi truck put a spotlight on LA’s street food, and it really exploded from there,” says Shawna Dawson, who co-founded the festival with fellow Angeleno Sonja Rasula. Dawson explains that they started the festival in order to create a community platform to support independent small business owners as well as local charities. The event hosts a variety of mandatory meetings for vendors that cover topics like marketing techniques and sustainable business models. Dawson says, “For us, every event is an opportunity to do a little good and make this amazing city we call home a little better.”
A couple of the most popular vendors at the festival are the Grilled Cheese Truck, famous for its cheesy mac and rib made with sharp cheddar, barbecued pork and caramelized onions; and the Beignet Truck, which serves the classic French pastry along with fresh coffee or hot chocolate. Dawson’s personal picks for LA street food include repeat LA Street Food Fest award winner Mariscos Jalisco, a truck that can be found regularly on Olympic Boulevard serving fresh shrimp tacos. For those with a sweet tooth, she recommends the Fluff Ice truck. “Their rose milk tea fluff topped with lychee jelly is refreshing and unique, and so light there’s still room for more dessert when you’re done,” she explains.
Dawson adds, “From the thousands of ‘loncheras’ (the Spanish word for ‘lunchbox,’ the term is also used to describe food trucks) operating here for decades to the little taco tables that disappear as quickly as they come on the scene, to the myriad new school trucks you can follow online, there’s a little something for everyone.” L