There may be no better way to gather insight into a nation’s or region’s cuisine than by sampling what vendors offer at stands, carts, and trucks along streets and in other public places.
From Mexican tacos and Vietnamese pho to Turkish kebaps and American hot dogs, street food is typically quick, tasty chow at reasonable prices. While much of it is handheld for eating on the go, some can be served in a bowl or other container.
During the past decade, a wide range of international street foods have burst onto the scene, thanks to creative chefs and entrepreneurs in restaurants, food trucks, and carts.
Food trucks and carts provide operators a less costly entry to the restaurant industry and became popular options in the wake of the Great Recession, when access to capital tightened. As those operators become successful, gaining both experience and revenue, they often launch brick-and-mortar versions of their rolling diners. Some have become chains.
“These global street-food concepts have translated really well to brick and mortar, especially to quick service and fast casual,” says Stephen Dutton, consumer foodservice analyst with Euromonitor, an independent provider of strategic market research.
Much of the attention on street food in America has been on the thousands of food trucks that popped up nationwide. They’re found parked along curbs, in empty lots, at corporate centers, and at fairs and catered events.
“Because the cost is significantly lower than brick and mortar, you can do things differently,” says Ross Resnick, founder of Roaming Hunger, which helps consumers find any of the 8,300 trucks in its network, or to book them for catering. “It gives you the opportunity to take more risk or have more menu flexibility.”
Many budding restaurateurs have used trucks to gauge how well their street-food presentation—including authenticity and fusion creativity—would go over with consumers, and whether changes would be required to appeal to American tastes.
“I do know a ton of trucks that started out more authentic and crept a little toward the middle over time,” Resnick says. “It really is about finding an audience.”
Dutton also says food trucks are a great format for experimentation, but not if operators want to grow quickly and build revenue. For that, a food truck’s limited menu and changing location doesn’t hold a candle to a permanent location, he says.
The role of tacos in the street-food universe cannot be denied. The Mexican item that features a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling—typically meat, cheese, and produce—has become an integral part of American culture. Numerous quick serves have incorporated the product in their names, including Taco Bell, Taco John’s, and Del Taco. The largest individual food-truck category in Roaming Hunger’s network features tacos.
Los Angeles chef Roy Choi and his Kogi food truck’s fusion Korean tacos provided a gourmet halo to the food-truck industry, which previously had been known primarily for taco trucks and other mobile food vehicles often found around blue-collar work sites. Kogi’s tacos melded Mexican-style tortillas with Korean barbecue and kimchi.
That inspired others to try their own version of Korean tacos and street food. Phillip Lee spent months perfecting his recipes before his Kimchi Taco Truck hit the streets in New York in 2011. He has since opened two Kimchi Grill fast-casual locations.
“I was actually thinking, before that whole [Kogi] success, about introducing Korean food to the masses,” he says. “What they did with tacos and Korean food provided a guide.”
The signature Korean BBQ Short Rib Taco has a pear kimchi. Other tacos include seared pork, spicy chicken, fried fish, and tofu edamame falafel—the latter a take on a Middle Eastern street food—with various toppings. All are also available in a burrito or bowl. An example of a Korean street food at Kimchi Grill is the spicy Korean rice gnocchi, which are rice cakes. Here, however, they’re topped with queso.
Many Asian cultures have a noodle soup dish, and food truck Pho-King Awesome offers its own version of pho, which is very close to the Cambodian version of the dish. Jason Hong and his wife and co-owner, Chanda, are second-generation Asian-Americans from Taiwan and Cambodia, respectively. They decided after their honeymoon in Taiwan to bring Asian soul food to the mainstream in the U.S.
“What we are doing isn’t super authentic, but the base is Asian,” Hong says. Among his menu’s street-food influences are beef skewers, egg rolls, and the spicy Asian taco, which has seasoned stir-fried chicken topped with green chile, cilantro, onions, and lime.
San Diego’s The Taco Stand seeks to replicate the atmosphere of Tijuana taco stands.
“We grew up going to the taco stands on the corners and the streets there,” says co-owner Julian Hakim. “We basically decided to re-create that environment we know so well.” That includes a replica of a taco stand inside the stores.
The three-unit chain features seven taco varieties, including char-grilled carne asada and cactus. The most popular one, Hakim says, is the al pastor, which features pineapple and marinated pork cooked on a vertical rotisserie.
A number of other Latin American and South American street foods have found their way to American eateries, including empanadas. The crescent-shaped pastry typically has a savory filling, and those are the most popular types at 5411 Empanadas. The company, which has seven units in Chicago and one in Miami, was started by three friends from Buenos Aires; 5411 is the international dialing code for the city.
“They’re not just street food for us in Argentina,” says Nicholas Ibarzabal, one of the owners. “They’re Sunday dinner and for gathering with friends.”
Of the menu’s 15 baked empanadas, most are savory, including traditional items like beef or sweet corn. The most popular one, however, is bacon, dates, and goat cheese. “It’s something we based on American culture that combined with ours,” Ibarzabal says.
Pinchos—food cooked or served on a spike, which is pincho in Spanish—are the main ingredients at the fittingly named Pincho Factory, which has seven Florida locations.
“Our inspiration is primarily the Caribbean,” says Nedal Ahmad, cofounder and chief executive officer. “It’s our interpretation. On street corners, it’s just meat on a stick. We do that on our platters, but we also have the meat in pita wraps, rice bowls, and salads.”
There are three open-flame cooked proteins—steak, chicken, and shrimp—and seven sauces. Pincho Factory also serves burgers and chicken sandwiches, and one of each uses a side dish, fried plantains, as the bun. “Each country has its own fried plantain sandwich,” Ahmad says. “Ours just happens to have a hamburger [or chicken patty].”
Food cooked on a stick is called a kebab in some countries, while in others, a kebab or kebap refers to layers of meat stacked on a vertical rotating spit, as in Greek gyros or Middle East shawarma. In Germany, the döner kebap introduced by Turkish immigrants in the 1970s is incredibly popular.
The Turkish kebap is the signature item at Austin, Texas–based VERTS Mediterranean Grill. It’s called a pita at the fast-casual chain because Americans recognize that term.
“We elevated it beyond the lower-quality German style by nodding to the Turkish one,” says Jason Donoho, culinary director. “Ours uses spices and yogurt that are more Mediterranean and natural than the European ones.” The cuts of meat are also better, he adds.
VERTS’ proteins include beef, chicken, and falafel meatballs, as well as a beef/lamb mixture. All are available as pitas, wraps, salads, and rice bowls. There are 16 toppings and seven sauces.
Another European street food is the piadina or piada, which is a filled Italian flatbread sold at kiosks. It has become the namesake item at Piada Italian Street Food, a Columbus, Ohio–based chain with nearly three dozen units in seven states.
The piadina is “true Italian street food,” says Matt Harding, the company’s director of culinary. “It’s traditionally thin bread with some greens, maybe red pepper, and inexpensive cured meats. It is ordinary people’s food.”
The versions at Piada, which also serves pasta bowls and salads, are decidedly more upscale, he says. The sandwiches include better sauces, greens, and cheese; proteins like calamari, chicken, steak, and Italian sausage are extra.
A wide range of Indian street foods dot the menu at Curry Up Now, which has grown from a single food truck in 2009 to include five trucks and four restaurants in and around San Francisco. At the same time, it has incorporated other street food like the burrito as a carrier.
“People in this country understand burritos,” says Akash Kapoor, chief executive. “We Americanize the outside, but Indianize the inside.” Fillings include chicken or paneer tikka masala, butter chicken, and samosa. Curry Up Now also has kati rolls, made with pan-fried, egg-washed flatbread, sliced onions, chutney, and a protein.
The restaurants feature a larger menu than the trucks, as well as more Indian street foods, including vada pav, which are mashed potato fritters on Amul buttered buns with garlic chutney. Still, tikka masala burritos are by far the most popular item. “As much as I have tried to give plenty of variety, the tikka masala pays the mortgage,” Kapoor says.
World Street Kitchen is another operation that began as a food truck and expanded into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The brand focuses on global street foods.
“I am a fan of international street food,” says owner and chef Sameh Wadi. “I grew up eating street foods in the Middle East, and it’s the type of food people eat in the rest of the world.”
One popular platform at World Street Kitchen is the Yum Yum Bowl, which has steamed rice, soft-cooked egg, peanuts, a secret sauce, and a choice of styles like Korean barbecued beef short ribs and kimchi or caramelized lamb belly and pickled cucumbers. Another platform is the Bangkok Burrito with fried rice, the secret sauce, and a protein.
Also popular are tacos with proteins like caramelized lamb belly or beef shawarma and a biscuit sandwich with Moroccan fried chicken, carrots, preserved lemon salad, and spicy Feta spread. “We’re combining everything to make American food,” Wadi says.
Heritage Eats in Napa, California, is another restaurant inspired by global street foods. At the same time, it focuses on using locally sourced and heritage proteins, such as Berkshire pork from Niman Ranch and akaushi beef from Beeman Family Ranch.
“What we are trying to do is bring street food—food of the people—that is prepared quickly, with a lot of creativity, and with a lot of flavor,” says Benedict Koenig, founder and owner of Heritage Eats. “Our food has an opinion. It has complexity.”
Koenig shies away from using the term fusion, but there are plenty of street-food combinations, like the Jamaican Bao, which is jerk chicken with two steamed baos, cabbage slaw, Asian pickled vegetables, and habanero sauce. The Tikka Masala Wrap is another East-meets-West entrée, with yogurt-marinated chicken cooked with tomato, coriander, and spices and wrapped in a tortilla with rice, greens, and veggies.
“We want to keep things simple, focus on flavor, and provide nourishment for guests on the go,” Koenig says.