Street Food Minus the Street

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Food trucks were the darlings of the food world in 2009.

Take the recessionary economy. Add in the food savvy to swap withered hot dogs for trendy dishes like red velvet cupcakes or the Asian-fusion of Korean tacos. Give it a boost of tech savvy with Twittered locations and daily specials. And that’s how street food grew into a full-fledged culinary phenomenon.

Street food has the intrinsic charm of a communal, democratic experience. It’s cheap and casual with no dress code or reservations required. It is also hurried and messy. Instead of a maitre d’ to seat you, you have to cop a squat on a bench or curb. There are squirt bottle condiments, flimsy plastic cutlery, and the ambiance of the streets, with its attendant bus fumes, car alarms, and weather.

Ultimately, street food proved to be a little too street for many of us.

That’s why this year’s trend is the gentrification of street food.

Chicago celebrity chef-restaurateur-author Rick Bayless opened Xoco, based on the hot chocolate and churro stands of Mexico. Across town at WAVE, the sleek Mediterranean restaurant located in the W Hotel on Lakeshore Drive, a rustic, wooden food cart was rather incongruously constructed in the dining room for a street food-themed dinner every Wednesday night. And while we’re talking incongruity, there’s Raleigh’s upscale buku: Global Street Food, complete with plush banquettes, glitzy water wall, and the ‘In Off the Street’ menu with entree prices nudging the $30 mark.

Another tack is taken by Atlanta’s Autentico INC Street Food. Walls are decorated with faux graffiti, the kitchen is set inside the facade of a food truck, and servers circulate with their Southern accents and uniform knapsacks. Autentico it ain’t.

Hollywood is a city that knows a thing or two about the suspension of disbelief, which comes in handy at Street, the latest from celebrity chef and Food Network personality Susan Feniger. The menu is like a United Nations of global street foods, commingling Japanese sashimi, Ukranian dumplings, Syrian lamb meatballs, Brazilian pea fritters, Italian sheep milk cheese dumplingsā€” and those are just the appetizers. Try and match a bottle of wine to that!

The cooking at some of these places is very good. And the menus are undoubtedly backed by research and efforts to procure authentic ingredients. Even so, the trend smacks of a pandering inauthenticity; a dumbing down of both food and experience. For its adherents, street food can only be fully embraced and appreciated in its truest form. Take it out of its natural habitat and you strip it of its cultural power and integrity. What you end up with is something that’s about as street as a Big Mac.

Street food constitutes up to 40% of the daily diet for urban dwellers in the developing world.

Hit the streets with food truck tracker Mobile Cravings to learn about the mobile culinary options in more than a dozen U.S. cities.

The eight-part Al Jazeera seriesĀ Street Food explores the essence of a region’s distinctiveness and culture through its food. The series visits the food carts and market stalls of Penang, San Sebastian, New York City, London, Nairobi, Beijing, Cairo and Jerusalem.

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