Forget five star restaurants. Forget four-course meals. Forget silverware -- one of the best ways to get to the heart of a culture's cuisine is through its popular food and snacks. And what better way to try those snacks than from a street vendor? Many travelers are wary of street food and pass it off as a surefire way to catch a stomach bug. But we here at Frommer's are an adventurous and penny-pinching bunch. Put us in Paris, London, Berlin, Bangkok, or Philadelphia, and we'll sniff out the best street treat for our hard-earned vacation dollars. We even seek out street food to save on our dining budget at home in New York City. Read on, and you'll find that street food not only satisfies our stomachs, but is often a key ingredient in our most treasured dining and travel experiences.
For the curious traveler who has never dabbled in street food, here's a bit of advice: If you're a keen observer you'll be able to easily spot the best vendors and possibly dodge that stomach bug. Take a minute to watch the street vendors in a plaza or on a street corner before deciding on what to eat. Is the vendor tending to the food? Is one person handling the food and another the money? Do they keep the food covered? If you answer no to all these questions, you might stake out a different vendor. And don't forget the key to finding the best street food: follow the locals. If they're waiting in line at a ramshackle stand, then they know something you don't know.
Banitsa in Bulgaria
One of the many promises of globalization is that you can get anything from anywhere at anytime, no matter where you are. But the magic of street food is such that it is often so specific to a locale's customs and habits that replicating it elsewhere -- even an adjacent town or country -- can be next to impossible. Such is the truly disappointing case of my favorite street version of Bulgaria's banitsa (or banichka), a pastry stuffed with goat cheese, fried, and served wrapped in paper.
Cooked at home, banitsa can be thicker, almost quiche-like. But my street vendor prepared her version in trays, baked it at home and stacked the trays atop one another for transport, squeezing the thin layers of pastry (which is similar the Greek phyllo dough sold in the U.S.) even thinner. When I or any other customer placed our order, she would slice off a triangle and reheat it on a griddle. They were as a breakfast should be: gentle and flaky, warm, buttery and perfect balance of salty and sweet.
I idealize this banitsa as if there's a standard version of it everywhere, but there isn't. Not only does each Balkan country have their own take on the dish, but within Bulgaria I could only find one place that did it to my liking -- which was most certainly totally ill-informed. My favorite vendor had her griddle set up in Plovdiv, on a side street perpendicular to Maria Louisa Avenue. During months of travel through Bulgaria, she was the only one who did it exactly as I liked it. Not being able to replicate it has, of course, only made the memory of its taste become more intoxicating in my imagination. And I like to think that the richness of this memory is ultimately much more satisfying than being able to conjure it up that same banitsa anytime and anywhere. -- Jason Clampet
Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia
I grew up outside Philadelphia (and have the Phillie Phanatic stuffed animals to prove it), so I've eaten my fair share of cheesesteaks. They are the ultimate street food. Some other snacks are gaining attention in Philly, but let's get real: If you're in town, you want a big greasy bun filled with sizzling chopped-up steak, cheese (American, Provolone, or the esteemed Cheese Whiz), and onions (say "wit" or "witout"). Technically, all the famous cheesesteak spots -- Pat's, and the English-only Geno's -- are delis or storefronts and don't qualify for this column, though you'll probably eat your 'steak on the street. See Richard Rys' definitive cheesesteak diary, "One Man, 50 Cheesesteaks." I can attest that his top pick, Cosmi's Deli, 1501 S. 8th St. (tel. 215/468-6093), is so juicy you'll stain the sidewalk with grease -- and possibly tears of joy.
For the true "street" cheesesteak from a cart, I have to defer to some local bloggers for specific suggestions -- quality from cart to cart is spotty at best. Albert Yee of MessyAndPicky.com picks the stand at 50th St. and Baltimore Ave., out in West Philly: "It's a 'steak on the skinny side, not overstuffed, but with a good amount of juiciness from the oil and steak fat." (Steak fat is a good thing in the world of cheesesteaks.) David Snyder of PhilaFoodie.com goes with Domenic Dooley's cart on 9th between Chestnut and Sansom, in Center City: "In addition to a great steak and lively conversation, Dooley gives you something extra: He often breaks out into song a la Frank Sinatra." Andy Zahn of Philadelphia Magazine recommends Anna's cart at 18th and Chestnut for cheesesteaks and hoogies ("especially the Chicken Italiano"), and John's at 18th and Market for cheesesteaks and chicken cheesesteaks.
Cornish Pasty in London, England
The best thing to happen to London in the past seven years is not the Eye, aka the Millennium Wheel (www.londoneye.com), but something much smaller yet more significant. For years, London street food often meant late-night kebabs from cart vendors or fish and chips in exotically mundane newspaper takeaway parcels. But now the heretofore-well-kept secret of certain English kitchens and bakeries is out among Brits and tourists alike: The savory Cornish pasty (pronounced pass-tee) has gone mainstream. Originally the meal of choice for Cornwall's miners, the pasty resembles an Italian agnolotti in its half-moon shape. The golden flaky pie crust of the pasty (Note: not sweet like a sugary pastry at all) was the vessel for transporting a pot-pie-like stew that may even retain some of its heat inside the packaging. Its thick crimped edge was used as a handle by the miners so the coal residue on their hands didn't taint their food; then they would simply toss the dirty crust. Vendors are located around London, such as The Pasty Shop in Euston Station or West Cornwall Pasty Co. (www.westcornwallpasty.co.uk), just outside the station with other locations throughout the city and country. Delightful, wide-ranging choices include ham and cheese, chicken and mushroom, curry vegetable, cheesy onion, beef and Stilton, chicken and veg, or lamb and mint. Pasties (also called oggies in slang) are brilliantly inexpensive and perfect for being eaten at any time of day: breakfast, snack, second breakfast, whatever. So queue up at one of the tiny counters, peer into the glass-enclosed case, and pick your passion. -- Alexia Travaglini
Crepes in Paris, France
Nothing tempts me more on the streets of Paris than vendors hawking piping hot crepes from their makeshift stands. Just as soon as you place your order, your crepe will begin to materialize as a dollop of rich yellow batter on a perfectly crepe-sized cooking surface. The vendor will carefully spread out this gooey goodness with a wooden tool crafted exclusively for this purpose. Soon, and with a disarming Parisian nonchalance, your crepe will be expertly flipped and filled with the delicious ingredients of your choosing -- perhaps minimal with sugar, indulgent with Nutella and banana, or savory with ham and cheese. Although you can buy crepes at any restaurant, I always maintain that the tastiest specimens are to be found on the street, particularly on brisk days when you can eat them in a park or on the steps of some fabulous, nearly deserted monument, all while congratulating yourself on the wisdom of coming in the off-season and having it all to yourself. -- Marc Nadeau
Currywurst in Berlin, Germany
A standard fixture on nearly every street corner in Berlin, currywurst is to Berlin what hot dogs are to New York City or falafel is to Israel. It is greasy and fattening and absolutely delicious. So what is it? Currywurst is roasted bratwurst -- or sausage -- sliced into bite-sized pieces, doused in a sweet honey-like curry sauce, and served with a roll. Maybe it sounds foreign, and even a bit unappetizing to the American palate, but it is a succulent and savory snack.
You can find currywurst stands just about everywhere in the city: vendors wait for hungry passersby along the Kurfürstendamm, the main shopping street in Berlin; outside of the Tiergarten, Berlin's largest park; or just about anywhere that people congregate. Among the several famous currywurst stands in Berlin the one that most stood out to me was Konnopke's Imbiss (Schönhauser Allee 44a; German-only website www.konnopke-imbiss.de) in the hip neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, where a line of yuppies, construction workers, students, and tourists regularly wait for the famous national snack. -- Jennifer Polland
A Full Menu in Thailand
When I visited my buddy Erin in Bangkok a few years ago, I was nearly broke and unable to splash out on lavish meals. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I was indoctrinated into the incredible, complex world of Thai street food. There's an endless variety of exotic delicacies to try all over town, particularly along the main drag of Sukhimvit Road.
My favorite Bangkok street treat was som tam -- green papaya salad with shredded catfish. You can also find "grilled everything" (as Erin puts it), from chicken to squid. Other tasty options are sen lek moo dang (red pork and noodle soup), fish ball soup, and pad thai (of course). As a snack (or palate cleanser, if you're feasting), street vendors sell the freshest fruit, such as cut up pineapple or mango. If you're an adventurous foodie, try durian, which elicits very mixed emotions -- some people adore the stinky fruit, but it reminded me of fruit left to rot in a dumpster for a few days. You can also sample bugs like grasshoppers, scorpions, or ants. While I didn't get to try any, according to Frommer's Southeast Asia, crickets taste like popcorn, and the beetles (you guessed it) like chicken.
Being a caffeine addict, I have to admit that best of all were the iced coffee stands throughout the city. The coffee is mixed with condensed milk and a boatload of sugar, and served in a plastic baggie with a straw -- a super-sweet jolt for 10 baht (about 30 cents). I find myself thinking about it wistfully most mornings here at home, as I buy my daily $5 latte. -- Jamie Ehrlich
Mystery Fig Bars, New York, NY
The world might be without Seinfeld were it not for my favorite street food -- whole wheat fig bars, wrapped in plastic without even a peel-off label, from Korean grocers in New York City.
As the story goes, Larry David and his pal Jerry were snack-shopping late one night, poking fun at the merchandise by the register -- namely the fig bars "that look like they were made in someone's basement," said David. There in the grocer, he said to Seinfeld, "We should do a show about this. This is the kind of dialogue that we should do on the show." Soon after, NBC signed the sitcom "about nothing."
I got hooked on the mystery fig treats when I was young and broke in New York, and they were a buck for four. Twenty years later, they're a buck for three and filling enough to remain my ideal breakfast-on-the-go. They're gummy and sweet on the inside, like the Pop-Tarts I was never allowed to eat as a kid -- but with much more fiber and less white sugar, posing no threat of a midmorning nosedive. They're best when moist and fresh, washed down with a carton of ice-cold whole milk.
Where they're from, however, remains a Seinfeld joke. They all but completely elude Google searches (try it, and the closest match you'll find is Larry David's New Yorker interview, which informed this story). A few Korean market buyers told me they're imported, but they didn't know from where, nor could I track down the wholesalers for questioning.
One thing I do know is where they sleep at night -- germ-free under Saran (no small reassurance when you're talking about street food in New York). -- Maureen Clarke
Pho in Hanoi, Vietnam
Whenever, and wherever I travel, I try to set my preconceptions about food (what it should look like, how it should be prepared) aside for the sake of eating unfamiliar food from street side vendors. Not only is this great for my travel budget, but it often affords the opportunity to watch the meal be cooked in front of me and to watch people. This is how I learned about pho, the national dish of Vietnam.
Pho is a broth with noodles and pieces of chicken or beef, bean sprouts, and other floating delicacies dished up in every class of eatery in Hanoi -- from the most exclusive restaurants, to the proletarian curbside cafes. I prefer the latter. Hanoi is the country's pho capitol, with the warren of Old Quarter streets filled with tiny storefronts selling the soup and providing squat stools for dining on the sidewalk. While I don't speak Vietnamese, I am very good at pointing and nodding, which is how I wound up with my first bowl and initiation into Vietnamese cuisine. Honestly, and unfortunately, I don't know exactly what was in the soup each time I ordered it, but I do know that it was cheap, and tasted just as delicious as it looked. Choices include all manner of green vegetables and herbs, flavorful oils, chilis, and various cuts meat.
A great way to spend an evening in Hanoi would be to set out for a nighttime shopping spree through the night markets in the hectic (even at 10pm) Old Quarter. Plenty of tourist shops and tailors will still be open if you're not keen on buying fruits, vegetables, or cell phone accessories for souvenirs. Keep your eyes peeled for pho shops and pick the one with the longest line of Vietnamese youth and the freshest-looking food on display. After dinner, buy tomorrow's breakfast from a baker, selling French baguettes on the street. -- Melinda Quintero
Shawarma in Queens, NY
In a 3-subway stop radius of my house, I can find (among others) authentic Bangladeshi, Indian, Brazilian, Croatian, Chinese, Cuban, Greek and lots of Mexican food. On my way home, there's a little Mexican storefront (Los Portales, 28-05 Broadway, Queens; tel. 718-204-6736) where the chef stands in the window and grills meats and vegetables. For a dollar or so, they'll hand over a tortilla stuffed to your tastes, and you can choose the garnishes and toppings from a row of bowls lining the counter.
But that's not even my favorite street food on the way home; as I get off the subway, I look down the street to see if I can spot the shiny metal cart (often with a flashing red light on top) of the Kings of Falafel and Shawarma at Broadway & 30th St. (www.thekingfalafel.com). From 11 am-11pm daily, crowds gather for the platters dished out by Freddie the chef, and his assistants. For $5, I can lug home "The Chicken Plate," a container of spicy marinated grilled chicken over basmati rice with white sauce (tzatziki), hot sauce and salad. It's enough for two of us, or if there's just one of us, lunch the next day. The chicken is my favorite, but neighbors line up for the lamb chops, kefta, and the falafel on a pita. Freddie always puts a piece of falafel on each platter, and even if you just stop and chat with him, he's more than likely to hand you a piece, fresh out of the fryer. He and his men proudly wear their "King of Falafel and Shawarma" shirts, and set up shop year-round. During the holiday season, when their corner is taken over by the French-Canadians down from Quebec selling Christmas trees, they move a dozen yards or so down the block, and the crowd follows. -- Kathleen Warnock
Tacos in New York, NY
Super Tacos (tel. 917-837-0866), the taco truck parked on the southwest corner of 96th and Broadway, is not just a fantastic street food vendor, but maybe my favorite restaurant in New York City. Nevermind that it's on wheels or that it has no seats. The food is always fresh, the service always friendly, and the bill always next to nothing. Plus, the "truck" is open daily from late afternoon until the wee hours of the morning. Stop by on your way home from work or after stumbling off the subway at 2am; anytime, you're in for a delicious Mexican treat.
Though they offer fancier fare such as guisada de res (Mexican-style steak) and chicken with mole poblano as daily specials, the tortas and the tacos are the thing. For $2 you can treat yourself to a taco stuffed with any number fillings including beef, chicken, goat, or spicy pork. The more adventurous eater can order the lingua (tongue). My favorite will always be chorizo. The meat is nested into two hot corn tortillas, then piled with fresh lettuce, tomato, onion, and cilantro. Fresh salsas, both red and green, are available. Just watch how much you pour on; some batches are hotter than others. The tacos can be a substantial snack or meal (go for two if you're hungry, three if you're ravenous), but the tortas (only $5) also make for a hearty meal. On a torta, the same fillings for the tacos go nicely onto a white sandwich roll, and are topped with lettuce, tomato, jalapeños, avocado, and cheese. In warmer weather, wash everything down with a Jarritos brand Mexican soda. When it's nippier out, the aqua de orchata, a typical south of the border rice milk drink, served hot, is just the trick.
When you can buy two incredibly delicious, authentic Mexican dinners, including drinks for under 10 bucks, you've know you've hit the street food jackpot. -- Cate Latting
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