Bringing the Street Inside: Street Food in Restaurants

by Katherine Martinelli with Amanda McDougall
Antoinette Bruno
December 2009

Street food is taking the US by storm, but it’s not just on the streets anymore. While food trucks are bringing high end cuisine to the streets (see our Food Trucks feature) more and more restaurants are bringing street food indoors.

Some chefs are doing this literally, with physical street carts in their restaurants. At New York’s Vermilion, Rohini Dey and Chef Maneet Chauhan have added a cart to their more casual lounge/bar area, where guests can snack on classic Indian street food like chaat and pani puri while sipping Indian-inspired cocktails (like the über-savory pani puri cocktail).

“Very few of the people who dine with us will actually make it to India, Jackson Heights, or Devon to try these” says Dey, a fact which Vermilion works to its advantage. In fact they’ve so successfully translated this Indian street food concept that Dey and Chef Maneet Chauhan are able to take chaat even further upscale with fine dining experiences centered around the traditionally casual snacks. “We've served chaat in very high end settings,” says Dey, such as Chef's Night Out with Bon Appetit and the James Beard Foundation. “People love them!”

In Chicago, 2008 Rising Star Chef Kristine Subido recently opened a street cart inside her restaurant, WAVE, for a very practical purpose: to sidestep the city’s tight vendor laws. For a food truck to operate in Chicago the food must be pre-cooked, so Subido just put the cart inside and it has met with great success.

Countless other chefs are influenced by street food from around the world. Chef Susan Feniger recently opened Street in downtown Los Angeles with the single-minded intent to bring the street foods she’s tasted to her diners. In her words: “Street is like a trip around the food stands in the world under one roof.”

At La Verdad, Chef Ken Oringer’s Boston taqueria, Chef Brian Roche prepares Mexican street food like tacos and grilled corn. And 2009 Boston Rising Star Joanne Chang read about Roy Choi’s Korean tacos in LA and decided to create her own version at her hip Boston Asian fusion restaurant, Myers + Chang.

Chef Patricia Yeo recently returned to the US after a year traveling through Asia to open Ginger Park in Boston. Her entire menu, which changes daily, is inspired by Asian street food from China, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, and other countries. In preparation she spent time working with street food vendors to learn their crafts—from pulling noodles to making dumplings. The Dan Dan noodles, for example, are a classic Chinese street dish named for the poles on which the vendors carry their goods (the equipment goes on one end of the pole and the food on the other).

Also influenced by Asian street cuisine are a slew of sandwiches—from the hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese bahn mi to Chef Ratha Chau’s modernized Cambodian num pang (the word for sandwiches in his native tongue and the name of his tiny restaurant) to 2009 NY Rising Star Chef Angelo Sosa’s Xie Xie.

With a world of street food available, there’s no shortage of sandwiches, tacos, noodles, and other tasty bits for inspiration.