The best street food

Street cooks are magicians: With little more than a cart and a griddle, mortar, or deep-fryer, they conjure up not just a delicious snack or meal but the very essence of a place. Bite into a banh mi—the classic Vietnamese sandwich of grilled pork and pickled vegetables encased in a French baguette—and you taste Saigon: traditional Asia tinged with European colonialism. What better proves the culinary genius of Tuscany than the elevation of a humble ingredient like tripe into a swoon-worthy snack? To sample merguez sausage in Marrakesh’s central square is to join a daily ritual that has persisted for centuries.

Who are the best street cooks? Here are some of the suggestions:

Los Angeles

At the start of this year, the big thing in L.A. was Kogi BBQ, chef Roy Choi’s Korean-style taco truck that pioneered the innovation of tweeting its location to loyal customers. What’s the latest craze? Twittering vans that mimic the Kogi model. Drive through the mid-Wilshire business district during lunch time, and it’s like an international food bazaar—on wheels. There’s ban mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), dosas, barbecue, Peruvian stir fry, bao (Chinese pork buns), and sushi. The trend is partly fed by the blogosphere, where a new mobile vendor can get wall-to-wall coverage of its clever new idea. Rarely mentioned is the fact that what most have to offer falls somewhere between better-than-a-roach-coach-tuna-sandwich and still in the beta testing phase. Below, in no particular order, are some newcomers, some always-reliable vendors, and a handful of esteemed taco trucks.

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Belgians go through an average of 250 pounds of potatoes a year—per person—and they’re passionate (some would say vehement) about the merits of their favorite friterie or, in Flemish, frituur. But Friterie Antoine gets a thumbs-up from almost everybody. It’s a little pavilion in the corner of a parking lot in the center of Brussels with red granite counters and wrought-iron fritesholders bolted to the walls. This place is not only at the top of the heap, but it’s also a rare exception to the rule that framed newspaper photos of famous patrons (Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger, among others) mean second-rate food. Most Belgians eat their frites with mayonnaise, but the chef here shows off with a sauce menu running from Brazil (ketchup with pineapple) and Andalouse (tomato paste, chopped onion, lemon juice, red pepper, and mayonnaise) to Chinoise Piquante and classics like carbonnade (Flemish beer sauce).

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New York City

From Melanie Griffith’s scrappy businesswoman in Working Girl, who falls for Harrison Ford because he eats a hot dog as messily as anyone else, to Mickey Rourke’s small-time shyster in The Pope of Greenwich Village, who calls a crony a “wackadoo” for ordering from a cart, people in this city have strong opinions about street food—as fundamental and occasionally controversial an aspect of New York life as Woody Allen or the Yankees. In the October issue of Gourmet, some of our favorite chefs revealed their go-to street-food vendors. Here are eight more that are sure to dazzle locals and visitors alike.

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Normally a sane driver, at least by Turkish standards, Ihsan abruptly jerked the wheel to the right and swerved across three lanes of traffic on the busy Bosporus highway. I was seized by the sudden, horrible fear that I was about to die, not for love or patriotism or even money, but for a kebab. And a trash kebab, at that.

It’s not as if we hadn’t already had kebabs. Lots of kebabs. Really great kebabs. And even this skewered plenitude was only the beginning of what we had eaten on the streets of this always surprising city. In fact, the variety and quality of the food there echoes the magnificence of Istanbul’s not-so-distant Ottoman past, when eating was such an obsession that many of the 1,300 cooks in Topkapi Palace spent their entire professional lives perfecting a single dish.

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South Asia

Wander just about any Asian city (or village of notable size) and you’re bound to find a decent meal, sidewalk-style. The trouble often lies in locating great food away from the tourist masses. Here are eight Asian spots the locals love just as much as visitors.

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I have trouble taking sausage seriously as a food. I mean, no matter how full I am, I always feel like I can eat another sausage or two. But good God, did I put down a lot of currywurst in Berlin.

Berliners love this stuff, and it’s easy to see its charms: sweet, spicy, and greasy. And, with some guidance and a bottomless appetite for sausage, I certainly found surprising nuances from shop to shop. Here are a few of my more notable findings.

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Ultra-heavy veal dishes and big pots of rich fondue may be the Swiss city’s quintessential foods, but you can still get a taste of the local cuisine without having to sit down or pronounce the city’s signature dish: Zürigschnätzlets (finely sliced veal with mushrooms in a cream sauce).

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Next time you travel – try out the local street food too and let us know your experience.

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