I remember when Anthony Bourdain first set out to bring a Singapore-style hawker center to New York City. It was 2014 and he was two years into filming Parts Unknown for CNN, after a wildly successful run spotlighting the world’s best street foods, among other things, on No Reservations. The premise for Bourdain’s international food hall? That New York lacked the vibrancy and diversity of famous street-food cities, from São Paulo to Singapore.
And I empathize with the sentiment. I grew up in Hong Kong and spent my childhood shuttling around South Asia and Southeast Asia, where I experienced some of the same street-food cultures on which Bourdain shone his light. Now, living in New York, I realize I’ll never find an equivalent for the dimpled naan my uncle would buy from a street vendor in Lahore, or the charred pork skewers from a roadside grill in Bangkok and, well, that’s depressing. But I also know that nostalgia, or a longing for a different time in my life, is at play here, which perhaps obscures the reality that New York does have a vibrant street food scene. And in a way, back in 2014, the globally-inspired street food haven Bourdain had been dreaming of, or something like it, had already taken over New York City’s dining culture. It just wasn’t on the streets.
An infatuation with street food is understandable, maybe even universal. It is, after all, one of the oldest formats of eating outside of home, dating back centuries. It’s samosas in Mughal India, sushi in Edo Japan, and oysters in 18th-century New York City. Street food is the original fast food, serving a quick, hopefully delicious, calorie-rich meal at affordable prices. At one point, most street food was also true to its name — food you ate on the street. But over the years, especially in the U.S., classic street foods from around the world have found their way onto restaurant menus, adapted for the more formal setting. It’s the crispy chaat that starts a meal at a South Asian restaurant or the skewers of meat from Indonesian satay to Nigerian suya to Peruvian anticuchos (and literally every other crispy, greasy, salty, sweet food you can imagine).
So how exactly did all this good food get from the streets of the world onto practically every menu across America? And did Bourdain just not notice how he was already surrounded by it?
Street food is often described as a hyper-local culinary experience, or a taste of a place. Every city in America has its homegrown street foods, like Halal meat-over-rice in New York or hot dogs in Chicago, but I’m particularly interested in the street foods that have been imported from somewhere else, and replicated in a restaurant setting — a form of domesticated culinary tourism. Turns out, these foods have flourished by serving two kinds of diners — those interested in trying something new, and those looking for something familiar.
“Back home, street food is something common. Here, bring it out of context, and it’s very exotic,” says Salil Mehta, the chef and owner of restaurants Laut, Laut Singapura, Wau, and Chard, in New York City, which specialize in Southeast Asian street foods. A curiosity for new tastes likely drove exploration of different cuisines in the late 1960’s post-Immigration Act America, when quotas on immigration from non-Western European countries were finally lifted and, as a result, restaurants specializing in non-Western cuisines proliferated. In 1961, for example, Craig Claiborne visited what was apparently the first Vietnamese restaurant in New York City, Viet Nam on the Upper West Side. He called the restaurant “unpretentious … with an interesting cuisine,” which included pho, cha gio, and bánh cuon — a few famous street food dishes from Vietnam.
Yet these very same foods also served as important cultural ties for displaced populations in America. Keeping with the Vietnamese example above, in the mid-1970s, following the fall of Saigon and the consequential migration of thousands of Vietnamese to America, Vietnamese restaurants sprouted up from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. These restaurants specializing in street foods also served as a reminder of home or, less romantically, a taste of something familiar. As the Vietnamese American cookbook author Andrea Nguyen writes on her blog, “Like many Vietnamese expatriates, we began savoring pho as a very special food, a gateway to our cultural roots.”
Fast forward to the 1990s, when the site Chowhound was created, fostering a community of people interested in food that reached beyond the Western European restaurant standard. (Sadly, Chowhound shut down in March, marking the end of an era). This was the beginning of street food’s contemporary shift onto restaurant menus. By the early 2000s, peripheral interest in street-food culture from elsewhere was edging in on the mainstream, coinciding with the shareable, small plates phenomenon, which was influenced by Spanish tapas and pintxos, themselves iterations of informal food.
In 2003, Bourdain’s first TV show, A Cook’s Tour, aired on the Food Network. It was a new kind of travel show, giving an emerging generation of viewers a fresh, food-focused itinerary for travel. If you weren’t squatting on plastic stools, hovering over bowls of bak kut teh in one of Singapore’s hawker centers, you hadn’t really seen Singapore. “Bourdain changed the food culture of New York City and America in general,” says Mehta, who is from New Delhi, but has been cooking Southeast Asian food for over ten years. And certainly, Bourdain provided street foods from around the world a platform to shine.
At the same time, another seismic shift was under way in restaurants. David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, which, for many, marked the start of a more democratized style of dining that persists today. The rejection of a formal and often Euro-centric template opened the floodgates. In 2005, Andy Ricker took the zingy, pungent flavors from his travels in Thailand and turned them into Pok Pok in Portland — an early example of bringing street food in from the street.
The movement arguably peaked in 2008, when Roy Choi took his cue from the taco trucks that had been strolling the streets of LA since the 1970s, if not earlier, and launched Kogi, blurring the line that separated street food from chef food, as it were. Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz founded Mission Street Food in San Francisco, spotlighting a rotating cast of chefs often cooking street foods, and Bill Kim opened Urban Belly in Chicago, with a menu full of Asian American street snacks. This was all taking place in the shadow of the Great Recession, which fueled the popularity of more affordable comfort foods. The goal was maximal flavor, minimal fuss. And chefs who just years earlier had been rhapsodizing about the Left Bank were suddenly quoting inspiration from the kings and queens of comfort — street vendors.
Indeed, by 2010, chefs like Stephanie Izard in Chicago, James Syhabout in the Bay Area, and Alex Stupak in New York were also betting their nascent restaurant empires on street foods of the world. The distinction between street food and restaurant food was all but gone. Today, the influence of such cooking permeates so many menus that it is both expected — just imagine a Mexican restaurant that doesn’t serve tacos — and also completely normal amidst the breadth of a restaurant’s other capabilities.
The irony is that, while the existence of street food has been cemented in American culture, those who practice it in its purest form lack the security of those who have brought it indoors.
And here, ultimately, is what I think Bourdain wanted to address: At its heart, street food is good because it is singular and specialized. Regardless of where they are, the best street vendors are loved for making just one thing and making it really well. (Bonus if the recipe is a few generations old). But that luxury of focus is much harder to achieve in America, where menus can be expansive. “We have to be the jack of all trades, master of none,” says Mehta. “We try to give [customers] as many things as possible on our menu, we can’t just be a kway teow person.” We can theorize about the many reasons why this is so — including economics, and the American fixation on choice. But the simple fact is that it’s hard to be competitive as a restaurant when you only serve one thing.
This brings us to the elephant in this column, which is are legal and economic fates of actual street vendors in America. Take street food back out into the street, and the reaction is more mixed. According to the Street Vendor Project, there are up to 20,000 street vendors in New York City and in the past year, the organization asserts, these vendors are increasingly, “victims of New York’s aggressive ‘quality of life crackdown.’” Last month, vendors in New York held protests over excessive fines and license caps. Surely the spirit of the city’s streets would change if street vendors were slowly pushed off the street — “that kind of stuff is an important thing to preserve over here,” says Mehta, who lives in Flushing, a neighborhood with some iconic street vendors. Yet the irony is that, while the existence of street food has been cemented in American culture, those who practice it in its purest form lack the security of those who have brought it indoors.
In season two of Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour, one episode was called, “Singapore: New York in Twenty Years.” It aired in May 2003. I recently learned that Bourdain’s friend and street food consultant from Singapore, KF Seetoh, is getting ready to unveil his own Singaporean-inspired hawker center, called Urban Hawker, in Manhattan. Seetoh is assembling an all-star cast of vendors from Singapore for the project, which is set to open this summer, just one year ahead of Bourdain’s prediction. I’m excited for the prospect of more good food, and specialized food, in New York City. At the very least, it will add a new dimension to the street-food paradise we’re already living in.
Mahira Rivers is a restaurant critic and writer based in New York, and Resy’s New York columnist. In addition to spending five years as an anonymous inspector for The Michelin Guides, her writing has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Food & Wine, GQ and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.