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Street food: To preserve and promote

A sampling of Thai street food. (Culinary Institute of America)

After three days of eating street food, I certainly understand the appeal. After meals of salt cod fritters, potato focaccia, lamb kebabs and chili prawns, it’s hard to go back to plain old meat and potatoes.

The flavors excite more than just our palates, however, says Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America, which gathered more than 700 chefs, food manufacturers and writers at the school's Napa campus to explore the glories and potential of street food at its annual Worlds of Flavor conference. Street food embodies two key culinary trends. The first is the embrace of global flavors: the reason you find Thai chicken wraps on the menu at TGI Friday’s alongside the hamburgers and fries. The second is the push for food democracy. Diners now expect almost as much flavor and satisfaction from a salad at Sweetgreen as they do at Citronelle.

But as presenters praised the renaissance of American street food, they also cautioned chefs and restaurateurs on the importance of preserving the spirit of street food. The trendiness of food trucks, such as the Kogi taco trucks in Los Angeles and the Fojol Bros. in Washington (who sell food from the imaginary country of Merlindia), has helped street food “realize its potential as street theater,” said author John T. Edge, who is writing on a book about street food in America. But he warned that the trend also runs the risk of overshadowing street food’s history and the food itself.

“A lot of people see street food as a guerrilla, punk rock act. For many Latinos, if they don’t sell their tacos, they don’t have the rent,” Edge said. “It would be a shame to see street food, honest street food, vernacular street food on which working-class folk depend, lost in the blur of Twitter.”

Restaurateurs that want to serve street food face greater challenges: “The big question hanging over this conference is whether you can bring the street food inside,” said Rick Bayless, who opened Xoco, a Mexican street food restaurant, in Chicago earlier this year.

Before building Xoco, Bayless said he thought hard about how to translate the essence of street food into a restaurant setting. His answer was to make the kitchen, not the dining room, the focus. Cooks frying churros and grinding cacao beans for morning hot chocolate work in front of a plate glass window. The first thing that diners see when they enter the restaurant is the kitchen and an enormous wood-burning oven that turns out tortas, Mexican sandwiches, and empanadas.

“Everything that’s been made is right there and the live fire is right behind it. It gets you in the mood for something big and exciting,” Bayless said.

Corporate and restaurant executives from companies such as McCormick, Frito-Lay, Maggiano’s and Legal Seafood took careful notes. Over the next few years, we’re likely to see some of the humble, global staples turning up on American restaurant menus. Rich Vellante, the executive chef for Legal, said he was particularly intrigued by the flavors and dishes of Peru; no surprise since many showcase seafood. It’s possible, he mused, that some kind of ceviche might end up on the menu at the company’s new restaurant on the Boston waterfront next year.

What street food would you like to see enter the mainstream? What do you think can or should be done to protect street food tradition?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  November 16, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags: Jane Black, conferences, street food  
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