Monday, October 12, 2009

Street food goes 5th Ave.

By official foodie standards, street foods are a mere Food Network hit away from being pronounced a fine-dining phenomenon. We already have big-name chefs spotlighting simple boulevard fare in Los Angeles (Susan Fenniger, at Street), Chicago (Rick Bayless at Xoco), New York (David Chang at Momofuku Ssam Bar, Zakary Pelaccio with his vegetable and pork buns at Fatty crab), and even Boston (Ming Tsai with his “bing” street dumplings at Blue Ginger.)

C’mon, San Francisco and Minneapolis, you need to get with it.

Otherwise you’re going to be left in the road dust from one of the more sensible trends to hit high-end dining in some time. Flavorful fare that’s inexpensive, a great complement to drinks, and likely at its best in an informal setting—I’m starting to tear up over here.

No doubt more momentum was added this morning with the news that Paul Kahan, the talent behind Chicago’s The Publican and Blackbird, will unveil his entry, Big Star, within the next few months (Kahan gets extra credit for naming the place after one of the greatest bands of all time; I’ll wear a sandwich board and hawk the place myself if he involves Alex Chilton in the publicity).

But the real sonic boom may well come next month, when the Culinary Institute of America devotes its annual foodie fest, the Worlds of Flavor conference in Napa Valley, to street foods. The culinary Harvard’s Greystone campus, one of the most advanced cooking facilities in the world, will focus on the simple fares of Latin, Asian and European marketplaces. Is there any doubt the trend is building to gale force?

Speaking as a consumer who always preferred casual over haute, I view this current right up there with the spread of electricity and the invention of the electric guitar. For the smokey delight of some unfamiliar protein or vegetable, cooked over flame or in some similarly simple fashion to deliver flavor, this is world-changing. It’s also the perfect antidote to molecular gastronomy, or what I tend to view as good eating’s NASA Period.

I may even have to celebrate by heading out to Queens for some real street food. Unlike the high-end variety now sweeping the market, it comes with the added thrill of a food-safety roll of the dice.

But have you tried that roasted ears of corn slathered with mayo and cheese--all for two or three bucks?

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