It’s 3 a.m. You’re walking home from a night out with friends when something stops you: the irresistible smell of spicy fried meat and onions emanating from a brightly lit kebab truck parked by the side of the road. This is no hot dog cart. It’s a little slice of heaven.
As any late-night reveler or hungry commuter will tell you, there’s nothing quite like the (cheap) culinary thrill of lining up at a food cart or stall as a sidewalk maestro rustles up something steaming and delicious to go. And as street food undergoes something of a renaissance, especially in the U.S., it’s possible to unearth amazing roadside finds that are worth a detour.
Street food has a long history — in Pompeii, you’ll find remains of snack shops with painted menu items on the walls. Today, it’s extremely popular: the U.N. estimates that some 2.5 billion people eat street food every day.
It seems that number is only growing. In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., street food has risen to the level of cult obsession, revered by the world’s greatest chefs and blogged about by devotees as they track the location of their favorite trucks on Twitter. New York even has the Vendy Awards, an annual competition for the best street food vendor.
And this street food is — in some cases — incredibly good. The best street food is not just a hasty snack, but a slice of the culture from which it originates. Take, for example, pho, the deliciously herbaceous noodle broth found all over Vietnam. “The street-side stalls in Hanoi are amazing,” enthuses David Myers of California restaurants Comme Ça, Sona, and Pizzeria Ortica. “The clean, light, and pure flavors remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Erica Wides, a chef-instructor at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education who’s also known as Chef Smartypants, explains why Asia is the source of so much beloved street food — some of which has made the transition into fine dining. “A lot of street foods originate in cultures with open-air dining, like Southeast Asia’s night markets,” she says. “It becomes a social activity for people, to shop, snack, and catch up. In Japan, sushi was originally a fast food snack for fishmongers, an easy, portable snack they could finish in a few bites.”
But street foods respect no boundaries, crossing continents and borders with impunity. How else to explain the proliferation of ethnic food carts in Portland, Ore., for instance, where the number of carts is estimated to be around 550 by foodcartsportland.com, a site dedicated to the city’s street food culture. Famished pavement pounders can savor everything from Peruvian snacks to Korean kimchi to delicate onigiri, nori-wrapped rice balls with pickled fillings from Todbott’s Triangles, a cart on Alberta Street with a devoted following.
While many of the world’s best street foods originated many oceans away, you don’t need a passport to try all of them. Here’s the inside scoop on the best spots around the globe to get your fast food fix. So hit the street and start snacking.