Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Street Food: Because There’s Nothing Quite Like Meat-On-A-Stick!

Anthony Bourdain’s recent special on No Reservations featuring street food from around the world raises a good point—street food is some of the best food out there! And from kebabs in Greece to corndogs at American county fairs, it seems that the street foods of most cultures involve some array of meat on sticks. There’s just something about a pointed piece of wood or metal impaling various meats that are coated in spices and grilled that makes people stop wherever they are and buy food of unknown origins from strangers.

Cities are definitely the place for street food. Simply taking a stroll down any New York City avenue yields a plethora of scents that titillate the mind and stomach. If Bourdain is correct, and he usually is, then the best way to experience a city is through the food from the street. A New York City hotdog could make any tourist write home to friends and family about how he “really” experienced the Big Apple, not while at the top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, but when he bit into that tube of mystery meat with a squeeze of mustard as he watched a bum doze off by the nearby subway entrance. Ah, the city!

The first step is to get over any fear of what is going on inside those dirty carts. (Note: If you want to get over any qualms regarding where your food comes from or what is in it, just visit China. Seriously, even the most avid ingredient reader cannot decipher the nutritional labels on packaged foods, and once you watch women chopping cabbages on the sidewalk outside a restaurant you often eat at, all your fears will go out the window—especially when you realize that small children urinate and defecate on that same sidewalk.) The second step is, of course, to just try what’s available. Luckily, street food is usually inexpensive, so even a disappointing dish is not too much of a waste.

Despite the lax health codes, the best street food I ever experienced was in Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. It was not meat-on-a-stick, and I can’t identify precisely what the food consisted of or what it was called, but I admit that I’ve dreamt of it more than once. It can best be described as a thin, crepe-like pancake that was savory, salty, and filled with scallions. The batter was spread thin on a hot griddle in large sheets until it sizzled. Then it was flipped, folded, cut, and placed in a plastic bag for easy take away. After one bite I wanted to eat the whole thing—unfortunately, there were two friends with me at the time. What was this mysterious pancake, and will I ever experience it again? I tried a “scallion pancake” at a fusion restaurant, but it was thick, dry, and could not compare to that magical street food moment…

So what about you? Any interesting street food stories out there to share? Any great experiences with meat-on-a-stick or unlicensed food carts?


  1. I have to confess, I usually pick the seasonal ice cream shacks over food from a cart. How about an essay on those ephemeral delights? And no, ice cream trucks don't count! I'm talking about places like Wemple and Edick's (love their chocolate red raspberry!) or the place by the Washington County Fairgrounds that makes incredible honey ice cream.

  2. There's a great article in the new issue of GQ about some of the best street food vendors in the country. I can't find a link to it online but if you are somewhere that sells the magazine, flip to page 34 and check it out. Ranges from gourmet ice cream trucks in Manhattan to Short Rib sliders in Los Angeles.