At first blush, it’s easy to confuse America’s love of comfort foods with the recent surge of street foods showing up on restaurant menus. Both offer an easy casualness that most of us love. But consider this: Many of the street foods showing up on U.S. menus incorporate unfamiliar ingredients from far-flung places that most have never visited. On that level, street foods often challenge more than they comfort, at least initially. Perhaps Americans have embraced them because of their humble origins. Perhaps seeking refuge in the familiarity of comfort foods has grown old. In any case, Americans are craving the excitement of street foods from around the world. If you are not including some on your menu, perhaps it’s time to do so. Take a cue from some of the following restaurants that have done just that.
Lantao Kitchen & Cocktails, Miami Beach
Located at the new Surfcomber Hotel in Miami Beach, Lantao gets its overall inspiration from the street foods of Southeast Asia. Like many highly stylized restaurants, it takes street foods to another level. Unlike most, however, it serves many of its dishes family-style and divides them into four categories—Gansing (snacks), Shala (salads), Bo ling (bowls) and Zhuban (main plates).
One of the signature street foods you’ll find at Lantao—named after the largest island in Hong Kong—is banh mi with beef, pork belly, pickled vegetables, cilantro and spicy mayo on a baguette. Another is Madurese street noodles in spicy coconut broth with chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, water chestnuts and crispy shallots.
In its list of the top food trends this year, Boulder, CO-based food brand consultancy Sterling-Rice Group predicted Asian foods from Thailand, Vietnam and Korea will become America’s next comfort foods. “Expect to walk into a classic American diner and see options like Vietnamese chicken sandwiches, Sriracha mayo and Korean-glazed pork ribs.”
The Parish, Los Angeles
The Parish is the brainchild of 29-year-old Casey Lane, who is taking English gastropub-inspired fare to a higher level. Preparing what he calls “great drinking food,” Lane’s menu features quintessential British street food fare, such as fish and chips and pot pie, though few moms and grandmothers likely utilized pork heads and pig trotter in their recipes. Lane has made a conscious effort to avoid serving typical Americanized pub fare. “I’m doing it with a bolder, more exciting twist,” he says. Even the chicken wings at the Parish get a special treatment—they come tossed in a stout beer glaze. On his dessert menu Lane—a 2012 Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star—takes a street food favorite, beignets, and jacks them up with maple-bacon, sausage and cheese.
The Center for Culinary Development recently pointed out that many American chefs, like Lane, are turning back to Europe for inspiration. “We see Americans grabbing hold of the flavors and traditions of these culinary stalwarts and bringing them into the 21st century food landscape,” says Kimberly Egan, c.e.o. of the Center.
Hearty Restaurant, Chicago
Located in a storefront in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, Hearty’s vision “is to honor the foods that have become part of our American culture while contemporizing them for the modern palate.” Its goal—to offer twists on items aimed at provoking memories of meals past—pushes the menu toward classic comfort food (tuna noodle casserole), though it also offers street food favorites as well—including corn dogs. “In keeping with corn dog tradition, we use a honey mustard corn batter and rabbit sausage in place of, well, whatever it was we were eating at the carnival,” says Hearty manager Nico Adams. The corn dog is served with cabbage slaw and a side of vanilla porter syrup for dipping.
During a recent chefs panel sponsored by the Certified Angus Beef Education and Culinary Center, the chefs identified several menu trends they see on the horizon, including the rise of high-end nostalgia fun food. Gourmet versions of favorites like fair food and American junk food are inspiring new menu items, including everything from corn dogs with lobster to pork and beans with pork belly.
G Street Food, Washington, DC
G Street, which has two units in the metro area, offers global foods inspired by snack foods often found at carts, stands and stalls around the world. At this breakfast and lunch spot you’ll find Montreal-style bagels, Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, noodle soups from Southeast Asia, Roman pizza squares and Middle Eastern flat breads. Located just west of the White House, G Street also features a daily sausage selection. One day the sausage option may be merguez with pickled vegetables, while another day it may be chorizo topped with garlicky spinach and chickpeas. The concept, created by Mark Furstenberg, a master baker and founder of Marvelous Market and Breadline Café, honors the traditions of the snack items it serves, though it’s not afraid to amp them up a bit.
In its pre-diction of 2013 food trends, Chicago-based foodservice consultant Technomic said America’s love of around-the-clock eating has made us a “snacking nation.” The food truck/street food craze feeds into consumers’ needs and desires to have quick variations of foods available at any time of the day.
The Corner Office, Denver
This restaurant in the Curtis Hotel thinks local, while celebrating a menu that offers street foods from around the world. Its street foods can be found on a dedicated section of the menu. Consider, for example, supplie al telefono, Roman-style fritters made of braised short rib and mozzarella risotto formed into small breaded balls. From France, it offers pork rillete, which is dressed with seasonal mostarda and spread on grilled bread. A Mexican street food offering is Baja fish taco, while those longing for something Asian can order a shrimp spring roll with black garlic sauce.
The surge of food trucks and street foods have pushed restaurants to become more casual than ever. This is an ideal opportunity for you, suggest the folks at the MSLGroup Northern American Culinary & Nutrition Center, because customers will pay higher price points to eat street foods in a comfortable, casual environment. It’s your leg up on the food trucks.
Kachina, Westminster, CO
Kachina, a modern Southwestern grill that opened last summer, pays homage to street food culture in a most literal way. It employs a tricked-out roving food cart within the restaurant, while also taking inspiration from, of all things, Continental cuisine. The cart can be moved around the restaurant for tableside cooking. But instead of preparing old-style Caesar salads or cherries jubilee, Kachina’s rotating cart menu includes Southwestern street foods, such as grilled corn on the cob. Customers choose one of three sauce options—chipotle aioli, jerky butter, chipotle butter—and then select a topping—fresh chopped cilantro, botija cheese or ancho chile powder. Because it has had such success with its roving cooking food cart, a tequila cart will soon be visiting tables at Kachina. It sure beats standing in line at a food truck in 30-degree weather.
As in the case of Kachina, the dramatic increase in food trucks around the country has had a strong influence on brick-and-mortar restaurants. If customers are willing to stand in long lines at food trucks in often unfavorable weather conditions, imagine how much more pleasant the experience would be in your restaurant. It’s your job to let potential customers know that you are offering the same food they are standing in line for, if not better, but in a much better setting. This holds particularly true for those who operate in colder climates.
Bodega N. 5, Chicago
For the last several years, Iron Chef Jose Garces has operated an upscale modern Catalan tapas restaurant in the city called Mercat a la Planxa. It’s been a runaway hit, though a smaller space below the restaurant had trouble finding a concept that connected with the public . . . until recently. Its newest street-level concept is Bodega N. 5, and it features breakfast and lunch menu items that you might find walking the streets of Barcelona. Many of the items are priced at $5. Bodega—which translates to a Spanish minimart—features soups, empanadas, flatbreads and bocadillos (sandwiches). For the same prices you’d find at a food truck, without any of the hassle, customers can order an empanada with eggs, roasted peppers, green onions and manchego, or a pork sausage sandwich with egg, roasted peppers, caramelized onions and machon cheese.
With menu prices at $5 and items portioned to food-truck sizes, Bodega has not only tapped into the street food craze, it’s also tapping into the smaller plate trend. The Sterling-Rice Group predicts that small plates meant for sharing will be replaced by smaller, singular servings for a truly customized dining experience. The chefs’ panel for Certified Angus Beef agreed saying “tapas for one” allows customers to try multiple dishes.
Asian Box, Palo Alto and Mountain View, CA
Don’t think for a second that the fast-casual market hasn’t licked its chops over the idea of serving street foods in an environment that’s more than a notch or two above the street truck/cart experience. Asian Box, which was inspired by Asian street food carts, opened its first unit early last year and a second unit last month. Its trump card is Chef Grace Nguyen, the former chef de cuisine at world-renowned Slanted Door in San Francisco. As you might expect from a chef of her caliber, the Asian Box street menu is composed of high-quality, gluten-free ingredients made from scratch. Set up much like the Chipotle format, customers first select a choice of rice, noodles or vegetables and then add a protein (chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, tofu). They are even given the choice of having the meal cooked in steam or tossed in a wok. Toppings include fresh jalapeno, bean sprouts, chopped peanuts and pickled vegetables. Finishing sauces include tamarind vinaigrette, sriracha and no-oil fish sauce. Sides are available as well, including spring rolls and a glass noodle salad.
Asian Box, which is poised for tremendous growth, not only taps into the street food trend, but also plays off of what New York City consultant Michael Whiteman calls the desire to “want to be Chipotle.” Let’s face it, the Chipotle model works and it can work for many styles of food, particularly street food. “Everyone understands the system: Interactive service with food made in front of you; customizable upscale options, bolder flavors, distinctive, contemporary décor; prices about half-again as much as fast food and slightly slower service in exchange for better quality food,” he says.
Station Street Hog Dogs, Pittsburgh
A long-time lover of great hot dogs, Chef Kevin Sousa created the quintessential hot dog joint. But a chef of his skill and talent soon found the idea too limiting, so he turned Station Street into a street food shop that also serves tacos and ramen. The hot dogs are insanely good, but so is the steamy ramen, which is ladled into big bowls topped with hard-boiled eggs and paper-thin slices of radish. His tacos are garnished with unique toppings that take humble street food to stratospheric levels. Consider his sturgeon taco, which is adorned with orange, fennel, pomegranate and shallots. It was a brilliant business move that expanded a simple hot dog concept to one that serves street food from three different cultures. Casting a wider net has dramatically expanded Station Street’s customer base.
In predicting the top food trends of 2013, consultant Technomic commented that “ramen done right is a long way from dorm fare; it’s nutritious, subtle, satisfying and redolent of exotic Far East street markets. Look for ramen, udon, soba, cellophane and rice noodles to show up in hearty layered bowls, fragrant soups and even mixed-textured salads.”