As well as double-decker buses, black cabs and red phone boxes (that increasingly double as public lavatories), people visiting the UK for the Olympics
this year can look forward to another quintessentially British sight. Up and down the country, people will be clamping folded newspapers under their arms, fiddling with their smartphones and dutifully joining some of the biggest queues you’ve ever seen.
But the thing keeping them there won’t be the prospect of a ride on an oversized ferris wheel or even an impromptu audition on The X Factor. It will be a tiny team huddled in a van or crammed behind a stall serving sizzling portions of food.
But it’s not just any food — messy cheeseburgers served barbecue-scorched in freshly baked buns. Vietnamese baguettes overflowing with griddled garlic pork and fiery spices. Guacamole-slathered steak burritos that are so big you need two hands and a workbench to eat them. Like those growing lines of people, the list goes on.
It doesn’t take a food-obsessive, or even a mildly observant person dodging the hordes outside the local farmers’ market, to know that the street food renaissance isn’t going away any time soon. But why the continued clamour for simple food served in cardboard trays? And how has the humble mobile eatery, a medium once associated with soggy cones of chips, thimbles of scalding tea and late-night hot dogs that might as well have been served with a complimentary side order of Imodium, suddenly started dishing up Michelin-grade food?
For one, the unrelenting grimness of the economic forecast has signalled a shift in dining culture from fancy to unfussy. The pinnacle of gastronomic achievement used to be a plate of complex sauces and foam that required a second mortgage to enjoy. But now people will happily endure a prolonged wait in a blustery car park to try a £3.50 hot dog they’ve read about on Twitter.
Also, talented home cooks with an entrepreneurial eye no longer need to beg bank managers, sell organs or fumble with a flipchart on Dragons’ Den. All you need now is the money to secure a pitch and a modest mobile cooker.
Another theory on the boom is the sizable influence of global street-food culture. Which is not to say that Britain doesn’t have its own fast-food heritage: from Victorian vendors serving penny pies and pickled whelks out of rickety carts to the baffling popularity of the tripe shop in post-war Lancashire, there’s a surprising variety to kerbside cuisine in this country. But today’s street chefs, their passports bulging with exotic visas, are scouring the globe in search of new flavours and then mingling them with our own quality produce.
(Image credit: Willyums.co.uk)
This means you don’t have to go to the street markets of Tel Aviv to track down succulent shawarma kebabs or fryer-fresh falafel. You needn’t brave US immigration to enjoy LA-style tacos, artery-furring Texan barbecue or sauerkraut-spiked New York hot dogs. And the only ‘border’ you have to cross for an authentically Mexican burrito is the high street.
As with any new phenomenon there have been grumbles of dissent from some. South London burger van-turned-West End sensation Meat Liquor and pulled pork specialist Pitt Cue Co have enraged a few food critics and customers with a ‘no reservations’ and a no-queue-pushing-in policy that even Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi might term “a bit strict”.
Others have dismissed the pop-ups as a mere passing fad, and Times columnist Giles Coren recently theorised, tongue only just in cheek, that the inevitable conclusion to this would be “drive-by dining”, where a passing moped flings food directly in your mouth. There may yet be some truth in that.
But until then we’ll be wolfing down piping hot Portuguese churros soaked in thick chocolate sauce, devouring slices of wood-fired pizza and polishing off drool-worthy rib rolls. See you in the queue.
The Best in Britain
Greasy burgers on the way to the match? Not any more. ShortList’s Chris Harding tracks down the best street food our nation has to offer.
The English capital has the most vibrant street-food scene in the country, with tantalising new options seemingly arriving every month
- Big Apple Hot Dogs Run by Abiye Cole, BAHDs is one of the biggest draws for London food-lovers. He creates his sausages from 100 per cent free-range pork, meaning they’re some of the best this side of the Atlantic. Where to find it Tues-Fri 12-6pm at 239 Old Street, EC1; King’s Boulevard, N1 (check Eat.st/kings-cross to find out when); bigapplehotdogs.com; @bigapplehotdogs
- The Ribman Currently garnering attention for his enormous rib meat rolls, wraps and racks, Mark Gevaux pitches up on Brick Lane every Sunday at 3am to start the slow cooking process that makes his baby back ribs meltingly tender and delicious by the time they go on sale at 9am. Where to find it Thursdays at King’s Boulevard, N1; Sundays at Brick Lane Market, E1; theribman.co.uk; @theribman
- Homeslice Described as “the love child of three men with a passion for making and eating woodfire pizza”, David Rowe, Ry Jessup and George Whiting hand-roll their dough at their stall on Saturdays at Broadway Market before it’s topped with fresh gourmet ingredients. Where to find it Saturdays 11am-4pm in the schoolyard of London Fields Primary School, Broadway Market, E8; Sundays 5-10pm at Ridley Rd Market Bar, E8; homeslicepizza.co.uk; @homesliceLDN
- Tongue ’n Cheek Making the best of some of the less-regarded cuts: ox cheek served with polenta and seasonal veg or tongue rolls with salsa verde or horseradish and apple sauce. Cristiano Meneghin moved his family from Italy last year, and we couldn’t be more grateful. Where to find it King’s Boulevard, N1. Check Eat.st/kings-cross to find out when; tonguencheek.info; @tonguencheeks
Bristol, with its metropolitan outlook is fertile ground for outstanding street eats
- Coconut Chilli With a rich heritage of Indian cuisine — operator Navina Bartlett’s gran is reputed to have cooked in the kitchens of the Maharaja of Mysore — Coconut Chilli serves Indian wraps comprising deeply and expertly spiced lamb kofte or potato, taking inspiration from both East and West Indian cuisine. Where to find it Keep an eye on Streatfoodcollective.com for information on when and where you can find Coconut Chilli. @coconutchilli
- Aroy Thai The new enterprise from Jirat Bunjan, a chef who could formerly be found in the kitchens at Budokan, one of Bristol’s first and most popular pan-Asian restaurants. She serves Pad Thai glass noodles cooked fresh on her wok range — just like you’d see on the streets of Bangkok. But don’t overlook the fragrant Thai green curry. Where to find it Again, check out Streatfoodcollective.com for updates on where you can find Aroy Thai in Bristol.
With its strong multicultural influence, it was inevitable that Scotland would be a buzzing part of the street food scene
- Babu Bombay Street Kitchen Founded by native Bombayite Rachna Dheer and graphic designer Gail Finlayson when their dream of starting a restaurant proved too risky. Based in Glasgow, the pair hope to show that Indian food needn’t mean 3am curries and Tupperware boxes. Originally serving just one dish, the menu now changes weekly, and they offer lunchtime delivery.Where to find it Every first and third Saturday at Queen’s Park Farmers’ Market, Glasgow; every second Sunday at Stockbridge Artisan Market, Edinburgh; every second and fourth Saturday at Mansfield Park Farmers’ Market, Glasgow; babu-kitchen.com; @babukitchen
- Harajuku Kitchen Taking its name from the famously stylish (and bizarre) Harajuku district in the bustling Shibuya ward of Tokyo, Harajuku Kitchen offers its own take on authentic, wholesome Japanese food. Chef Kaori Tsuji-Simpson has drawn inspiration from the kitchens of her mother’s restaurant to serve dumplings, sushi rolls and her own yaki udon recipe. Tsuji-Simpson has a unique story regarding her family’s culinary inclinations: apparently her great-grandfather was one of the last remaining samurai in the empire and converted his house into a traditional Japanese restaurant — geishas and all — when the ancient institution was finally abolished in the late-19th century. Where to find it Like Harajuku Kitchen Japanese Deli on Facebook to keep abreast of Chef Kaori’s movements; harajukukitchen.co.uk
With a rich culinary tradition and some of our greatest natural food resources on its doorstep, it makes sense that Yorkshire should make a strong street-food showing
- Fish& serves the most classic of British fast foods, but with a twist. Usually based on Leeds’ Commercial Street, Fish& also pops up at festivals across the country. Serving thoughtfully sourced and lovingly cooked fish and chips out of a van and trailer — called Hope and Dignity respectively — these aren’t fish and chips as you know them. Fish&’s offerings of lemon, lime and chilli-battered or masala-marinated fish alongside the more traditional beer batter mean these are more interesting fish and chips than even your favourite takeaway can do.Where to find it Commercial Street, Leeds LS1, outside the Halifax/at side of WHSmith; fishand.co.uk; @nofishybusiness
- Greedy Bassets Kitchen Dave Lawson has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the street-food scene on a national level, travelling to London to meet other traders. Born out of a passion for all things Yorkshire, Greedy Bassets sources everything locally and can rustle up anything from Whitby crab linguine to Yorkshire chorizo on toasted brioche alongside Yorkshire cawl and hot chicken livers. They’re only just starting, but keep an eye on the Greedy Bassets — we’re expecting great things from them. Where to find it Like Greedy Bassets Kitchen on Facebook to follow its progress and keep up to date with its movements. They're on Twitter too: @greedybassets
The area has a richly varied food landscape, and in October 2011 Manchester hosted its first street food fair as part of the wider annual Food & Drink Festival
- Las Paelleras Lee Tointon and Stephanie Probert are specialists in ‘big pan catering’ — in other words, the hearty paellas and stews of Spain. Their current menu includes three types of paella (including a delicious vegetarian option of piquante peppers, artichokes, fennel and broad beans) and three types of stew, as well as a nod towards the tapas tradition which has proved popular in Britain in the form of patatas bravas with chorizo. Using chorizo and rice sourced from Valencia and everything else from local suppliers, this is the authentic taste of Spain made with Macclesfield soul. Where to find it Third Saturday of the month at Artisan Market, Grove Street, Wilmslow; last Sunday of the month at Macclesfield Treacle Market, Chestergate, Macclesfield; laspaelleras.com @las_paelleras
- Chillikoko Based in Cumbria but specialises in the Indian Ocean Creole food of the Seychelles. Brothers Chanel and Winston Vital are renowned throughout the north-west not just for their food but for the welcoming, friendly atmosphere they create while they cook traditional, authentic family recipes. Aromatic spices and herbs are key in dishes such as spicy Creole pork and chicken coconut curry. Where to find it Visit Chillikoko.co.uk for dates and private bookings.