The Essence of Great Street Food [split from L.A.]
One note about real street food, it is made by a vendor(chef) who may make ONE dish, or one type of food only for many years. And this is probably with intense competition making the same dish, to a very discerning local crowd familiar with that very dish. Cost aside, a restaurant kitchen with non-native(relating to the food) cooks will have a difficult if not impossible task replicating true street foods.
Tamales and atole in the morning in Mexico and Guatemala
Laab and khao niyao in NE Thailand and Laos
Pho for breakfast on the sidewalk in much of Vietnam
Grilled chicken, green papaya salad, khao niyao in NE Thailand & Laos
Flat breads and mutton or goat on the highways outside of Lahore
Banh mi from the little stands next to the ferries in the Mekong Delta
Charcoal grilled whole fish & pandan wrapped rice balls in Mindanao
Chicken piri piri on sticks in remote Mozambique
Steamed filled buns from the big tin container on the back of a bicycle, Hainan
Tacos al pastor at night in Mexico and Guatemala
A plate of sidewalk saise and rice in Tarija, Bolivia
Mondongo at noon in the markets in Mexico.
Balut and chicken feet from the vendiors who come around to the beer joints, Philippines
Grilled rice field rats & sparrows in the rainfed lowland rice areas in Burma
Bread & chicken straight from the tandoor in Cuttack, India
Donar kebab from the stands in Berlin
Fish & chips, boardwalk, Brighton
In southeast Asia, street food rules, as you said, because the hawkers specialize in one dish. I read an article about Singapore about one son who told his father, hey I've been working at your stall for 15 years, why not put me in charge for a few days each week? And the dad replied, maybe after another 5 years you'll have enough experience....
In New York City, the street vendors can be found indoors... they set up ramshackle malls in the most unlikely places, and you can stroll from Guizhou to Tianjin to Canton to Chengdu in about 30 yards. They win the prize, I think, because it is far easier for a talented but poor recent immigrant to set up a stall than set up a full-fledged restaurant. Here's an article by Fuchsia Dunlop:
and here are some of the far more comprehensive Chowhound posts:
An exception to the indoor rule in NYC is Latin American food, e.g. "taco trucks" Here's a Village Voice article on the incredible variety. There are far more comprehensive posts on chowhound but I'm too lazy to find them...
Great point about single vendors executing a single dish perfectly. In Vietnam, one of my favorite restaurants called Quan An Ngon (Saigon and Hanoi locations) actually perfectly executes this street food concept. Inside the restaurant are individual vendors(chefs) strategically located around the perimeter. Both indoor and outdoor seating is available where you can go sit in front of your favorite vendor and order or the servers can bring your items from as many vendors as you wish--all at about 25%-50% above street food prices in a great casual but upscale setting. No motorcylce fumes or small plastic stools!! (not that there's anything wrong with that) :)
When I first heard about Street, I thought about Quan an Ngon. That is the first place I send people when they ask me about places in Vietnam. The food is very good and it is fun to watch people make the food. While I love eating food on the street, there is something to be said for being able to sit down at a real table.
That place is always crowded. It makes sense because often people specialize in one dish and make it really well. I'm excited about the Street, but also concerned that doing Thai, Egyptian, Chinese etc. would be too hard to do.
Now this(Quan an Ngon), seems like a phenomenal concept, I wonder if this could be economically feasible in the U.S., though using different cuisines. Perhaps if table service were eliminated labor costs could be lowered, while allowing interaction between diner and chefs. This is somewhat like a AYCE buffet with different cooking stations, but with food true to the native preparation. I,m not sure the general public would support this, but surely Chowhounds would. I'll start with a bowl of Laksa from the Malay guy, then a banh xeo from the Viet guy, end with a waffle from the Belgian girl. Oh, the possibilities!
I think I went to that restaurant in Saigon about 4 years ago! It was one of the few things that stood out for me in Saigon as I really preferred Hanoi - though, admittedly, it was the tail-end of the trip. I didn't realize they had an outpost in Hanoi as well. Did you eat at Cha Ca la Vong by chance?
You know, everybody here and all the guide books say to go to Cha Ca La Vong. I have to say we were underwhelmed. We did far better food-wise (although not for fish in that style) just picking what smelled good in the street and sitting on the kindergarten stools. Absolutely excellent bun cha on Hang Giay (or maybe Hang Can), about halfway between the lake and the Dong Xuan market, divine pho on Van Mieu across from the Temple of Literature, great banh my bit tet on Hang Bun. Every time we went to some place from the guide books ranged from underwhelming to really disappointing.
Good point. :) I still dream about the down-to-earth, pure, focused street food my dear friend took me to in Hong Kong while we were traveling through Asia. It was like ~ 75 CENTS (less than 1 U.S. Dollar) for each item off the various carts - some items were like the Chinese equivalent of Oden - and they were simply delicious! :)
Or the Atole de Guayaba (Hot Masa Drink with Guava) from the chatty old lady at Breed Street here in East L.A. I seriously still smile every time I think about that drink. :)