|RIGHT SIZE: Tandoori Nights and its sister spot, Agni Lounge, menu street-inspired dishes like Jhing Til Tinka (skewered shrimp) mainly as bar fare.|
CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Floyd Cardoz enjoyed frankies as a kid.
|Vibrato's BBQ braised short rib skewers|
|TASTES: At New York's Rain, Steamed Chicken Sisho is one of many Thai street foods; Border Grill puts Mexican Panucho on a sampler plate.|
|SPICY: Peruvian-inspired ceviche from Ciudad.|
FANCY POPS: David Burke's cheesecake pops and minibar's cotton candy foie gras play up the fun factor.
Who knew, when we were kids, that someday we would crave those fun foods that we associated with summer? Those sloppy hot dogs, the funnel cakes, the falafel sandwiches or fish tacos or pakoras or whatever it is we grew up with—or didn't, but wish we had. Today, global street foods have transcended the wheeled carts and makeshift grills on the sidewalk and landed on the menus of some of the country's finest restaurants. They tap into a little secret that many chefs have known for years: In places like Singapore or Thailand or Mexico or even New York, you take to the streets if you want to find the real food, the purest tastes. Now some clever chefs are sharing those tastes with the rest of us—and we are happily scarfing them down.
That experience heavily influenced Feniger's first joint venture with Mary Sue Milliken, City Cafè, which morphed into CITY Restaurant and featured eclectic, carefully crafted dishes from Thailand, India and Mexico, scattered with accents from the Mediterranean and their own mothers' recipes. The pair opened
Border Grill, an upscale "taco stand" that menued authentic home cooking and street foods of Mexico, then Ciudad, which covered the entire Latin landscape, and finally a second Border Grill in Las Vegas.
While many restaurants confine street food to bar food or appetizers, Border Grill spices up its whole menu with items elevated from Latin city streets.
Having that classical training and experience working in prestigious restaurants equipped Feniger to raise the bar on the foods she loved from the streets. She can taste a dish and figure out which meat is used and how it would be improved with a different cut. Panucho, served at Border Grill on a combination plate, started out in at a Mexican produce market, where it was a fried puffed-up tortilla filled with black beans, turkey and avocado. "We played around with it, and we do a handmade tortilla, black beans, roasted red salsa, chicken thighs that we put a dry citrus rub on, pickled onions and mashed avocado," Feniger says.
A trip to Thailand inspired the menu at Rain in New York. Executive chef Gypsy Gifford had heard about a great restaurant in Bangkok's Chinatown district and set out to find it. Suddenly, at the spot she was told to visit, a vendor appeared with a grill and steamer cart and started cooking up a storm: grilled whole river shrimp, steamed bass in a soy broth and more. At openair markets in Chiang Mai, she sampled curry from open pots using sticky rice to scoop it up. "I was sort of shocked because of the way we learned to cook and treat food here," recalls Gifford, a Culinary Institute of America grad. But the flavors made an impression—and she brought them back to Rain, which features a pan-Asian menu. They're included on a "Street Foods of Thailand" menu that includes a variety of $5 dishes such as fried shrimp wontons, Thai crab cake with watercress and spicy Japanese mayonnaise and green curry mussels with sticky rice, kaffir lime leaf and red chilis.
Deconstructing Street Favorites
Floyd Cardoz, executive chef and partner at New York's highly regarded Tabla, didn't have to travel to find inspiration for Bread Bar, a casual offshoot of his signature restaurant. His approach to these traditional dishes from his childhood is to mimic
the flavors, but make them a bit more accessible to his American audience. "We try to stay away from ingredients that are not so common for most people, and we try to keep it very seasonal. Also, we make it easy to eat."
Cardoz took frankies, a dish consisting of grilled meat wrapped in flat bread, commonly found on Bombay streets, and upgraded the filling to pork confit, chicken, seasonal vegetables and veal. It's served sandwich-style because that's how Americans prefer to eat such a dish.
At Tandoori Nights in Arlington, VA, owner Anil Miglani added a number of street foods to the menu at adjoining Agni Lounge, reasoning that, since they were finger foods, they were perfect to accompany drinks. In the streets of India, an item like pana puri might be served in a crude paper carrier; at Tandoori nights, three are artfully plated with sauce.
For Katsuya Fukushima, chef at Cafè Atlantico and its companion restaurant-within-a-restaurant, minibar (and an October 2003 RH Rising Star), the challenge was to take something as mundane as New England clam chowder, put it under a microscope and determine how to capture its essence in a dish that probably bears little resemblance to the simple soup that inspired it. Fukushima calls this style of cooking deconstructionism. In "New New England Clam Chowder," as it's described at minibar, potatoes become a hot potato mousse that is aerated and turned into a foamlike liquid and teamed with crispy potatoes, chives are converted to a sophisticated chive oil, clams are briefly poached and their juices combined into a mousse, then all is layered. "As you eat it, you get different spoonfuls, but in the end it tastes like clam chowder," he says.
That same sensibility landed cotton candy-wrapped foie gras, a delicate pastry cone filled with whipped cream cheese with salmon roe (the adult version of a lox and bagel) and miniature Philly cheese steaks made with a cheddar cheese mousse, kobe beef and truffle oil on the minibar menu. The sixseat minibar presents a tasting menu of 30-35 similarly haute but whimsical "bites" that fetches $95 a person. Why go to such lengths to doctor up common favorites? "Sometimes food gets too serious, so we try to bring an element of being a kid again to make it fun," Fukushima says.
Apparently, minibar has succeeded. As a Washington Post reviewer declared, "If Cirque du Soleil served food, this is what it would look and taste like." And the public has responded: It's nearly impossible to snag reservations for one of the two daily seatings at the six-seat minibar.
Some of the most fun street food-inspired items have found their way onto menus of tonier restaurants through a more serendipitous route. David Burke, who created a cheesecake lollipop tree with raspberries and bubble gum whipped cream for New York City's davidburke & donatella, stranded at home with kids one day, started experimenting with some ingredients in his refrigerator and a drawer full of lollipop sticks leftover from a kids' project. His first stab—a puree of smoked salmon and cream chese rolled into balls and stuck on the end of the sticks was (understandably) a flop with the kids, but ended up on the menu; the cheesecake pop, on the other hand, hit the right buttons; he arranged them into a tree and put them on the menu for $15 at the restaurant (they are also available through mail order), with flavors like Cherry Pink Cashmere (half of the pop is tinted pink), dipped in pistachios crunchies and sundried cherries; or ToffeeTop Hat, with a milk chocolate coating dipped in dark chocolate crunchies and ground-up Score candy bars.
While street foods are usually confined to the appetizer or dessert section, or relegated to bar food, uber chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was so taken with the concept that he created a restaurant where they are the menu. Spice Market in New York City presents refined dishes found on street carts all over Asia and encourages guests to order all over the map. Much of it is exotic enough to put off the less-adventuous guest (shrimp in black-pepper sauce with flecks of sun-dried pineapple, fried monkfish with tamarind glaze), but dishes like the Ovaltine kulfi (described as tasting like a Snickers Bar coated with spiced popcorn and fennel seed) and Thai Jewels (bits of water chestnut glazed with tapioca, dyed jewel tones and mixed with palm seeds and slivers of jackfruit and papaya, served with coconut ice) have won many fans.
At heart, Cardoz says the essential appeal of street foods is their accessibility. "They're always very flavorful, and there's no commitment. You can get what you want without having to commit to a four-hour meal. Even if someone has not eaten it before, they're willing to commit to it because of the price." Prices on Bread Bar's small plates menu range from $6-$14.
Cardoz thinks the key to menuing street foods, especially exotic tastes, is to "make them user-friendly. If you want people to try them, they have to be user-friendly." Once they have found a following, you can experiment a bit more.
Gifford agrees that low price points make street food attractive to the uninitiated. And she acknowledges her limitations in attempting to make these foods as authentic as possible. She advises patience: "Find the right product, learn the technique and be true to it." It also helps that Gifford has found three "amazing" Thai women to help in the kitchen with sticky rice dumplings, something that for them is "like making a Christmas cookie to us," she points out.
Feniger is a stickler for authenticity in her dishes and
goes to some length to research them. She recently spent two days doing nothing but eating clayuda, a large fried corn tortilla covered with toppings, pizza-style, in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it originated. Her favorite places were two street stands that were only open between midnight and 5 a.m. "You're walking by and there's a cart, people are standing around and eating. For me, that is where the brilliance of cuisine comes in. I'm not drawn to big, fancy, extravagant French or Italian restaurants. If I found a great, tiny place with a Thai melon salad on the street, it would probably end up being more interesting for me than anything I could find in a fancy restaurant."
Street Food Sampler
Three lobster corn dogs
Koliwada fish (Bombay fisherman-style fish, served with mint chutney)
Cotton candy foie gras
Raj Kachori (chickpea-filled flour patties with tamarind sauce, mint chutney and yogurt)
Roast duck char siu buns with Hoisin sauce
BBQ braised short rib skewers