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
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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
evolving 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.