London Street Food

Street food is more than just a tasty morsel eaten on the run. It’s great food plus the thrill of the hunt … It’s the absolute bliss of realizing you’ve reached the corner of Broadway and 17th just as the Wafels & Dinges truck has pulled up. If you think ‘bliss’ is laying it on a bit thick, this is because you have not had a dessert waffle

Hungry in London?  we recommend Daddy Donkey Mexican Grill

Gotham GalGotham Girl is back

 

 

 

The world teems with street food. Cities like Bangkok, Jaffa, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City have street food cultures so expansive, so bursting with variety, and so colorful, it’s hard to find the words. Therefore, I won’t. Besides, that is not my brief.

I’m here to look at how New York and London stack up when viewed through the ‘street food culture’ lens. And honestly? They aren’t. Yes, both offer food you can eat on the street so technically speaking, they both have street food but here the similarity ends.

NYC’s street food scene is out on the street, on the move, and now a sizzling presence online. It’s dessert_waffle1evolving so fast that it’s hard to keep up. One day it was just hot dogs in front of midtown office buildings or tourist traps. Suddenly, Mexican food abounded at the Red Hook Ball Fields. Next thing you know, we’re grabbing everything from waffles to dumplings to sopapillas from carts, trucks – even kitted-out bicycles – in almost any neighborhood in town.

London’s street food scene is built around the market stalls and in places where those stalls have traditionally always been found. I’m not saying that you couldn’t grab something fast and extremely yummy during a stroll through London’s markets. Just that in order to find something fast and yummy to eat on that stroll, you may need a market. That’s fine with me. I love those markets. We don’t have as many well-established or robust ones in the U.S. as you have elsewhere in the world and except for a handful of them, we don’t do them as well. Luckily, NYC has the excellent Union Square Green Market, which is always a treat. Therefore, it’s not surprising that I often make time on my trips to get over to at least one or two London markets.

I will now commit tourism sacrilege. I don’t particularly care for Portobello. I was neither overwhelmed nor under-whelmed. I was merely whelmed – by the market generally and by the food stalls there. I told you – sacrilege. On the other hand, I have very fond memories of a savory crepe-type thing enjoyed at Borough Market and a notably delicious falafel during a Sunday wander around Brick Lane. So, kudos on the market stalls for their culinary creations. Let us also acknowledge that there are some food carts in London but they seem to offer mostly roasted nuts, hot dogs and an occasional ice cream. Anything else is a notable exception. Speaking of notable exceptions, I have read about a “burrito mobile” called Daddy Donkey, found mostly in and about Leather Lane Market. They claim authentic Mexican cuisine. Has anyone tried it? I don’t care as much about its authenticity as much as whether it tastes any good. I’d be interested to hear – because the further away I got from Texas in my life, the sadder and sadder the Mexican food offerings seem to get.

So London street food is tasty. Very tasty and offering a variety of culinary choices. It’s very much evolving in that sense but at the same time it feels – too grounded. It just seems lacking in the freewheeling atmosphere that the phrase ‘street food’ seems to evoke here and elsewhere. Some suggested to me that the obstacle is regulatory, that “health and safety” is hampering the development of that kind of street experience in London. What do you all think? It’s all completely personal and very subjective, but the market stall basis of the street food scene in London dampens the experience for me. Your mileage may – and very likely will – vary.

 The boom in food trucks across NYC has resulted in innovative, well pre-prepared and frankly just damned good food that sends people into culinary swoons. And the carts! No, not the hot dog carts you see in TV and movies — though there’s nothing wrong with a dirty dog now and again. No, I mean carts bearing the Indian and Middle Eastern delights, Asian dumplings, Jamaican jerkies, BBQ and Mexican food good enough to make me long for my Texas childhood (and not much can do that). These carts have evolved into “must go” destinations, with massive followings on Twitter and fan pages on Facebook.  

But you know, street food is more than just a tasty morsel eaten on the run.

It’s great food plus the thrill of the hunt. Well, with street food vendors updating locations and specials via twitter it’s not so much hunting as it is tracking. It’s the absolute bliss of realizing you’ve reached the corner of Broadway and 17th just as the Wafels & Dinges truck has pulled up. If you think  ‘bliss’ is laying it on a bit thick, this is because you have not had a dessert waffle from Wafels & Dinges. It’s finding yourself in the cultural and culinary void that is the far west 60s and come across the dumpling truck you fell in love with the week before at Herald Square. That’s the street food scene in New York.

My conclusion is that ‘street food’ in The Big Smoke means something very different than ‘street food’ means in NYC. My other conclusion is that I’m starving so I’m gonna check Twitter and find some lunch.

42 thoughts on “London Street Food”

  1. I was in Manilla with one of HM’s ships in the 60’s, and the usual routine for a run ashore was flitting from bar to bar,interspersed with protein stops at the street Satay vendors, (pork on a stick dipped in peanut oil and nuts then bbq’ed) imagine the surprise when on our third morning in town the local English language newspaper had the headline “Satay vendors selling Dogmeat !!!”.
    “Jack” was not in the least bit concerned he had eaten dog, but “come on we paid for Pork !!”

  2. Thousands of black cabs emitting illegal levels of pollution – and hundreds with brake problems – are being allowed on London’s streets as a result of Boris Johnson “cosying up” to the taxi trade, it was claimed today.

    He accused the Mayor of scrapping the time-consuming inspections – which have been replaced by simpler on-road checks – as “pay-back” for drivers handing out an estimated seven million taxi receipts bearing the “Back Boris” campaign logo during last year’s mayoral campaign.

    It reminds one of that developer who gave Boris Johnson free office space for the campaign: what happens when he comes along with a planning application?

    Stinks.

  3. @Ray Veysey: my brother lived in Japan for a while and said at some point he just stopped asking what he was being given because otherwise, he’d have likely “overthought” himself to starvation 🙂

  4. @Ray Veysey: my brother lived in Japan for a while and said at some point he just stopped asking what he was being given because otherwise, he’d have likely “overthought” himself to starvation 🙂
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  5. Where can we get dessert waffles in London? anyone know? Perhaps McDonalds ought to start a new trend

  6. I want that waffle and I want it now?

    Btw Gotham Girl how do you go about eating all that deliciously creamy mound without getting half of it on your face or dripping on your clothes? there must be a technique to eating a knickerbocker topped waffle

  7. “street food culture lens”? Ooooo! Whose still suffering from jet lag then? Gotham Girl should be sent to bed without her supper and Perhaps Pseud’s Corner should be alerted

  8. I don’t just think the obstacle in London is elfensafety but a combination of it’s genuine need and extortionate prices. I wouldn’t be surprised if London is 2nd only to St Marks Sq! So it’s as well to find out, from a native, the static venues for good food in London. They are there.

    Having said that I was ushered, excitement all round, to an ice-cream shop that also sold sandwiches and drinks, in Oxford. Can’t think of the name but it’s near Christchurch. The drinks were sublime but my most solid memory of such culinary delights is thinking HOW MUCH?!! I save up for a coffee when I go to London.

    A journalist who loathes me, and who works in London, once advised me to get a sandwich and go walk in the park when I was there. I have to say that this was excellent advice and Boots is very handy for this pleasure, for pleasure it is. And Boots is right by the tube in Kensington. Of course I run the risk of him riding by on his bycycle with lance and shield but as the muppet usually runs away screaming at the mere prospect of my saying ‘Hello’ then I feel in no danger. Boris certainly wouldn’t run away, bless him, he doesn’t do such things, and I would hope that Boris says something in the future about our quite excellent parks.

    In Vienna I didn’t notice street food but there was relatively near access to green spaces. In Austin, Texas I didn’t notice green anything except bits of guacamole. But I have to say that I love the access we have in London to big open spaces and nourishing landscape in a big city. The parks really are lovely, and I hope Gotham Girl compares the parks in both cities. We have quite a few in London, as well as the river and canals.

  9. @circus monkey: yes, I saw that after I sent it along. I can only say it is due to the fact that my normal set of “extra eyes” is on jury duty. No excuse. Just an explanation. Mea culpa and I promise to do better (and make sure she isn’t dispensing justice) next time.

  10. @Ali: um, you do get half of it on you. Then you sigh with resignation and make a mental note to bring a bib with you whenever you go out in the future.

  11. @Philipa: I am in total agreement with you on the excellence of London parks. I think I am right in saying that footprint-wise, the size and number of parks within London make it one of the greenest mega-cities on earth.

    Austin? You’re right again – very little green about Austin. Don’t get me wrong. I spent a good portion of my school days making weekend runs to Austin – if only for the food and the music (and the bat colony under the Congress Bridge). But green space is not its strong point. And that’s too bad because I think green would go well with the delicate pink of the state capitol building.

  12. Is Boris Johnson being paid by the BBC to appear in Eastenders?

    Let’s not forget that on 15 May 2008 it was reported Boris Johnson will return to the Daily Telegraph – where he is expected to earn about £250000 a year for his weekly column.

    He’s a very, very rich man. And of course he was a silver spoon to start with.

  13. Don Market – I don’t quite think Boz had a silver spoon, he’s not had Cameron’s advantages. But he was an excellent MP and is a popular Mayor. As for writing in the Telegraph, I don’t see anything wrong with earning an honest wage. Rather that than spending his leisure time filling in expense claims for duck houses and fridge magnets. And he does use that position to promote London. Gains all round I think!

  14. philipa: “Rather that than spending his leisure time filling in expense claims for duck houses and fridge magnets.”

    He did claim for a Remembrance Day wreath though. He claimed it was a mistake. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It’s not the kind of mistake I would every make.

  15. Ah yes, the full story is here. I would believe it was a mistake and I’m given to not-as-occasional-as-I’d-like mistakes myself, being entirely human. Don Market you are obviously a vulcan. Live long and prosper.

  16. “Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s plan to replace bendy buses with Routemasters is misdirected and prohibitively expensive, a report has suggested.

    The report for the RAC Foundation said the bendy bus could carry people in larger numbers and quicker.”

    what do you make of that? One might conclude that the mayor is too spineless to decide which way to lead the city, and that he swings around on little whims.

  17. I must say that on the whole I agree with your views about London street food. Nigel Slater, in his book “Eating For England”, noted that the British are seemingly incapable of dealing with street food, in that they cannot feel comfortable walking and eating at the same time. I think he hit the nail on the head. In my almost 20 years in London I have rarely seen people eating and walking at the same time. I have, however, frequently seen people eating and stumbling at the same time.
    This is because my only real experience of people procuring and ingesting anything from a cart on the street i London also involves said people being rather schnockered and encountering a burger cart on their way out of a nightclub. I should point out here that by “people”, I also mean “me.”
    I for one have never actually witnessed anyone buying either honey roasted peanuts or regular roasted chestnuts from a street vendor in London, but I have have witnessed many buying a hamburger with exra fried onions at 3am.

  18. Hi Gotham Girl and Boris!

    I work for Daddy Donkey and we’d love to send you both some lunch so you can see and taste the amazing Mexican street food everyone’s been talking about! If you get in touch with me I will arrange for Daddy D to deliver you some delicious burritos and tacos next week for lunch.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

    Libby

  19. Hope you take Libby up on her offer and report back, Mel.

    Re:(static) London Street Food; see article here (copied below):

    We start with two dishes advertised as “street food”, a sure way to excite smart foodies. Diana has spaghetti and mullet bottarga frittata, a beautiful golden compound patted together to look like edible potato cake. I’m just about to steal my first mouthful when she shrieks: ”Yuck!” She has found a stray hair, which earns the dish an instant red card A complimentary replacement is summoned but Diana remains repulsed even before the next offering: focaccia with lung and thin strips of spleen simmered in lard and topped with smoked ricotta. Yes, this is the least alluring dish ever, so I have to order it.

    I’d love to report it confounds expectations, but in truth I’d find the spleen of Peter Hitchens or Dennis Skinner more palatable. I once tasted this dish in a Palermo market but was blissfully ignorant of its contents, which made it almost edible. Sicilians ate this before they were made rich by EU grants. But why should we eat it? The bread is greasy, the lung fatty and unappealing.

    Our pudding is sanguinaccio, a dish normally served during lent. This could be mistaken for a superior dark chocolate orange spread, but is in fact a sweet pâté of pig’s blood scattered with candied fruit, a carnivorous finale that’s unlikely to seduce delicate constitutions. No matter how thinly you coat it on bread, its initially soft taste grows so strong and meaty you half believe it will stay with you for 40 days.

    there is much to admire here, such as friendly staff, bargain prices and the anarchy to order as you please. Bocca di Lupo; Lunch for two: £48 including service.

    Hmm, think I’ll stick to Boots. I couldn’t face anything less appealing than those mens spleens with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Apparently the cafe in the British Library is nice.

  20. @Libby: I think delivering to NYC might be a logistical problem 🙂 But next time I am in London, I will definitely come and try it out. Patrick, you will come too as an objective witness and second opinion.

  21. Food carts and street vendors make a city/ town lively and they should be encouraged rather than restricted, limited or completely banned.

    Unfortunately, in this nanny state of a country under Labour rule, red tape, bureaucracy, health & safety & hygiene nonsense have been strangling not only our big businesses but also our corner shops, hampering efficiency.

    Can anybody explain to us why, under Labour EU nonsensical health & safety & hygiene rule, a container of sugar sachets in a work canteen MUST have a sticky label with an expiry date for the SUGAR on it?

    Why does a police man MUST be trained and certified how to use a 6 foot tall ladder at work before he is allowed to use it?

    Sadly, living under Labour’s nanny state, I have been brainwashed gradually. Now, whenever I look at a food cart either here or abroad, I think dirty. Help!

  22. I really like Gotham Girl’s writing style and my favourite phrase of this post is:

    >I was merely whelmed

    Tonight I am whelmed – its going to be a busy week ahead but tonight I am merely whelmed…

    Thanks for the phrase Gotham Girl!

  23. @Mel: I’d love to take complete credit for it but I must confess that I pinched it years ago, having been OVERwhelmed by its usefulness. I don’t know if Rob invented it or pinched it in his turn but where ever he is now – thanks, Rob.

  24. @Ali: You can tell tyrant Labour is dying:

    ( 9 / June / 09 ) Labour Food and Farming Secretary Hilary Benn proudly advised British people to use their nose to smell food, like in the old days, to see if the food is still OK to eat rather bin them. He also proudly announced that sell-by dates would be scrapped to stop food waste. ( AFTER years of Labour patronising nonsensical Health and Hygiene regulations!!! )

    Under Labour’s tyrant-nanny direction, people have lost their common sense. They just rely on sell-by dates. So many times I have seen in well-know big supermarkets sealed packs of raw meats which look grey and slimy with several days before the sell-by dates on them and some shoppers still bought them because they just rely on the sell-by dates.

    Under Labour’s health & hygiene regulations, people still suffer from tummy aches at home and at work and more are killed by MRSA in hospitals.

    ( 30/ Sept/ 09 ) Labour Health Secretary Andy Burham proudly announced: ” Parking charges for in-patients will be scrapped at a cost of £140million a year – with the cash coming from CUTTING BUREAUCRACY ” (!!!)

    It was the Labour government who proudly created these bureaucracy and red tape in the first place.

    The next new government will have a huge task to do as this country will go back to basics and common sense. That day will be greeted like being liberated from nonsensical communism & socialism and arrogant tyrannies.

  25. @Bach: sell by dates are misleading and cause a lot of wastage: my children refuse to eat a perfectly good yoghurt if it is a day overdue when it is perfectly good to eat! Thinking about it yoghurt would be a great healthy street food/drink to market. Street food doesn’t have sell by dates! and long may that last – a vote to commonsense

  26. My wife and I yesterday did one of the organised tours of The Palace of Westminster, kindly arranged for us by Melissa (editor here) – big thanks! Highly recommended tour it’s quite breathtaking the architectural detail. We sometimes forget our history – so finely preserved there. Humbled. One memory was seeing Oliver Cromwell’s signature approving the beheading of Charles I. Enjoyed the Henry XIII portraits & his wives. Loved the Maggie statue too.

    Afterwards Melissa, we’ve never seen each other before, met us as planned (X-files spookiness that she approached me amongst hundreds of people & asked if I was Wayne) and was unexpectedly carrying two bags of ‘Daddy Donkey – kick-ass mexican grill’ food for lunch. We then headed for Portcullis House restaurant area – not a place us ordinary folk get to see (saw Michael Howard and Sir Peter Viggers of duck-gate fame there). Anyway, what a find! Their menu says “you’ll never forget your first time” – could not agree more about the food.

    I had the Steak Daddy D Burrito consisting of grilled scotch steak marinated in smokey chipotle adobo(?), tortilla, coriander lime rice, black beans (utterly yummy), salsa, lettuce, cheese & sour cream. I’m no food critic, but could not recommend more highly. At £5.75 it’s almost a nice sized lunch for 2 people, in my case I re-wrapped the foil and saved for later!

    The meat and vegetarian Tacos had an equally interesting combination of nutritious tastes.

    The accompanying Corn tortilla chips & sauces were very more-ish! Also loved the clever resealable brown paper bag they came in – don’t throw it away as it’s perfect for a sandwich wrapper! Check their website out http://www.daddydonkey.co.uk/

  27. There is no street food “scene” in London precisely because of the prohibitive street vending laws. Just endless grey……

    Can you imagine setting up a food stall outside the royal exchange to cater to busy city workers? You’d get coshed by the special activities unit of the city of london police no doubt.

Comments are closed.