Asian street food might be one of the best-known types of street food in the U.S. thanks to the prevalence of family owned restaurants around the country and prominent Asian neighborhoods in urban markets. Aside from Asian Box, fast casuals like San Francisco Indian concept CurryUpNow and Star Ginger, from fine-dining chef Mai Pham, are shopping traditional Asian street foods via brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“They’re inexpensive foods, but they’re very delicious, and they’re very craveable,” Pham says. “It’s easy, it’s very accessible, it’s easy to get to, and it’s very affordable. So a lot of the traditional Asian food cultures started out that way, out on the streets.”
Even established fast casual Mama Fu’s added street food to its menu when it developed an Asian Street Food category for its Black Market menu, available only to loyalty club members, last year.
“Being Asian to begin with, a lot of the street food is such a big [part] of the countries we serve the cuisine of, especially Vietnam and Thailand,” says Randy Murphy, Mama Fu’s CEO. “For our brand specifically, it was a great fit. You take that great fit with the segment, along with the ability to easily test it and get good feedback before you commit to putting it on the core menu, and it ended up being a perfect situation for us.”
But the fast-casual industry is lending credence to several other street foods from around the world. Berlin-inspired kebabs are VERTS’ specialty, while more traditional Turkish kebabs are taking off in Middle Eastern concepts like Chicago’s Naf Naf Grill. Falafel, another traditionally Middle Eastern street food, is getting some European flair at Washington, D.C.–based Amsterdam Falafelshop. Puesto Mexican Street Food is serving small-bite tacos, tostadas, and bowls influenced by south-of-the-border cuisine in its San Diego–area restaurants, and Pie Face in New York City is introducing Americans to Australia’s popular meat pies, traditionally a street food in the Land Down Under.
Piada Italian Street Food, a Columbus, Ohio–based brand with 20-plus units in the Midwest, made Italy’s street culture the soul of its concept. Founder and CEO Chris Doody says street-food culture in Italy is less about street-side vendors and more about the lifestyle of sidewalk cafés and their grab-and-go options.
“Street food is like a coffee shop, it’s like what Howard Schultz did with Starbucks: He brought the authentic café from Italy to the United States, but he really reinvented it for this country with macchiatos and lattes and cappuccinos and all these flavored coffee drinks,” Doody says. “His techniques were authentic and his beans were authentic, and what he’s done is about an experience. That’s what Piada is doing with Italian food.”
Piada’s menu is designed around three options: pasta bowls, salad bowls, and the piada, which is a thin-crust dough baked on a stone grill and then rolled up like a burrito. Special chef’s creations are available for each option, or customers can create their own, choosing from among seven grilled items, six sauces, six dressings, and 16 toppings.
For David Choi, choosing one culture’s street food to highlight in a fast-casual setting was too limiting. Instead, he gathered street foods from all over the world in his D.C.-based G Street Food, which has two locations and a third on the way. The concept serves up everything from banh mis, quesadillas, and curries to falafel, Cubanos, and hallal.
“The ability to play around with your menu and introduce, literally, regions and regions of flavors and the countless number of dishes you can come up with when it comes to street food, I think gives you huge potential in offering specials and getting your customers and clients constantly engaged and coming to your restaurant the next day,” Choi says.
Chef John Csukor, president and CEO of culinary and marketing agency KOR Food Innovation, says he expects street foods that haven’t already made inroads in the U.S. to soon do so. He sees doner kebabs, like those served at VERTS, to be among the next big things in U.S. foodservice, while Indonesian satays and Liège waffles from Belgium are dishes that he believes would perform very strongly here.
“That’s one that I’m dying to see hit the states, because I think people would just crush it here,” he says of the Liège waffle. “It’s not a ton of food, it’s something about the size of the palm of your hand or even a little smaller. But it’s so warm and delightful and crazy smelling. You can smell a Liège from like three blocks away.”
Csukor adds that street foods from around the world have huge potential in the U.S. because American consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity, flavor, affordability, small portions, and convenience, characteristics that street foods have in spades. In addition, as more people become comfortable with bold, ethnic flavors, street foods give operators a chance to try new things, which could even include fusing different cuisines into one item.
Another big advantage to doing street food in a fast-casual concept, he says, is that it creates a fun, engaging customer experience that he calls “eatertainment.”
“Street food delivery methods are usually very playful and whimsical. It’s something like a piece of paper, it could be a tin can, it could be something as simple as a piece of newspaper, as fish goes in the U.K.,” he says. “It’s something on a stick, it’s something that’s easily grabbed and walked away with. So I see that whimsy making its way into the ‘eatertainment’ portion of what we try to do in U.S. restaurants.”
The Hartman Group’s Abbott says the smaller portion sizes of street foods make them attractive to U.S. operators because of consumers’ evolving eating habits, which includes a move away from the traditional three-meals-a-day format.
“This is where playful small portions fits perfectly into the way American consumers are wanting to eat these days,” she says. “They’re looking more for the dayparts, where it’s not just breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’re looking at different times of the day, whether it’s earlier than lunch, or the two o’clock hour, or four o’clock, where they want to have a couple snacks.”
Of course, once street foods make their way into the fast-casual brick-and-mortar setting, they are decidedly less “street” than the meals that inspired them. And operators interviewed for this story have differing opinions on how to communicate the street-food origins of their menu offerings; Asian Box and VERTS each included the term street food in their original branding but have since pulled back from it, whereas Piada and G Street Food incorporated the term into their names.
“As we go into other markets, we talk about if we put ‘street food’ on the sign, is anybody going to know what that means? Is that a national thing?” Asian Box’s Klein says. “So we tried to stay away from using the moniker of ‘street food.’ I also think it’s a little arrogant to use, because once you’re in a brick and mortar, come on, you’ve taken a different turn. You’re not a street stall; you’re not in Singapore; you’re not in Malaysia; you’re not in Vietnam or Bangkok.”
But in today’s food environment, one in which thousands of food trucks roam America’s streets and the foods of other cultures are splashed across the Travel Channel and Food Network, some believe that sharing a global street-food story with customers comes with a certain je ne sais quoi, an attractiveness that becomes part of a brand’s culture.
“Five to 10 years ago, ‘street food’ probably had more of a lower-cost, lower-quality type connotation to it,” Mama Fu’s Murphy says. “It’s really changed over the last five, six, seven years, and now it’s more that consumers want those flavors, want that credible experience, handmade roots. So I think that’s what’s driving it.”