With food trucks springing up across the U.S. like so many mushrooms, it seems the culture of street food is finally finding its place in the national psyche. Some, like Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck (a Korean-Mexican hybrid that I promise tastes approximately a million times better than you might think) in LA, have garnered critical acclaim, with Choi recently being named one of 2010’s “Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine. Others, like Portland’s Garden State, have earned widespread press for the utter deliciousness with which local ingredients are transformed into versions of Italian street food like arrancini, or chickpea fritters. In fact, Portland is unofficially the food cart capital of the nation.
But U.S. street food is like the United States itself: a melting pot. Our street food culture- aside from hot dog vendors and Manhattan food carts dispensing coffee and breakfast sandwiches to office workers and the hungover-is primarily based upon inspired reproductions or adaptations of foreign street foods.
In honor of our country’s fledgling, on-the-fly food culture, here’s a list, in no particular order, of some of the best overseas street snacks. Totally subjective and dependent upon the individual vendor, mind you, but the following are regional specialties you don’t want to miss, should you find yourself in the vicinity.
1. Tacos de anything
Who doesn’t love a great taco? And by taco, I mean soft corn tortilla, no bigger than a softball in diameter, piled with juicy bits of carne asada, carnitas, adovada, cabeza, lengua, or pescado. Bonus points for bowls of freshly made salsas and other condiments like escabeche, guacamole, limes, radishes, chopped onion, and cilantro.
2. Elotes/choclo con queso
Depending upon where you are in Latin America, you’ll find corn on the cob sold in a variety of permutations. Elotes are a beloved Mexican street food: boiled or grilled corn slathered with mayo, chile powder, and lime juice (you may instead find fresh kernels cut into plastic cups and mixed with same). Choclo con queso is found in parts of South America, like Peru and Ecuador. The deceptively simple pairing of chewy, boiled native corn (a world apart from our overly-sweet hybrids), served with a generous slice of handmade queso fresco is proof that two ingredients can still equal nirvana.
3. Dumplings from almost anywhere
Korean yakimandu, Russian pelmeni, Polish pierogis, Nepalese momos, Chinese bao; all delicious. Doughy dumpling relatives include Vietnamese bahn cuon (rice noodle sheets filled with ground pork, mushrooms, and shrimp), or Cantonese cheung fun (same, only filled with whole, peeled shrimp, and chopped scallion).
These flat, crispy/chewy Malaysian pancakes are found in various countries with a significant Muslim population. There are many different types, ranging from roti canai, a tissue-thin version served with a side of curry, to thicker, more doughy variations. In Southern Thailand, you’ll often find sweet roti filled with sliced banana and drizzled with condensed milk. Singaporean hawker centers are a great place to find a wide selection.
These bite-size, salty, crispy, tangy snacks are traditionally indigenous to Northern India; the southern states have their own version, known as tiffin. Chaat is generally vegetarian, because vendors lack refrigeration; look for bites such as pani puri and bhel puri. These puffed, hollow rice crisps come with spiced potatoes, chickpeas, and condiments such as yogurt, chutney or spiced waters.
Most of Latin America has empanadas in some form: fried or baked dough stuffed with meat and other savory or, occasionally, sweet fillings. Argentina, however, is the undisputed king, wherein entire towns or provinces are famed for their empanadas. Salta, considered to be the empanada epicenter, produces varieties that reflect the arid region’s climate. Baked empanadas de choclo, a savory, hominy-like corn filling, or charqui, an air-dried beef softened by the steam from the baking process, make for exceptionally flavorful pastries. In Tucuman, empanadas are such a point of pride that they get their own Fiesta Nacional de la Empanada.
8. Kebabs, satay, yakitori, or other versions of meat-on-a-stick
‘Nuff said. [Ed's note: Just ask @MikeSowden]
Done right, few things are more nourishing, or nurturing, than a giant bowl of fragrant beef broth loaded with rice noodles, tender bits of meat, slices of chile, and herbs. Traditionally, pho (pronounced “fuh”) is from Hanoi, but you’ll find variations, including a version made with chicken, throughout Vietnam.