[Lists are still in, right? If not, how about being retro? There’s no way that being retro is not still in. Either way, my conscience is clear.]
So! I recently spent five action-packed weeks researching and compiling information on the US street food scene. As often happens during frenzied writing jobs where I get almost no exercise and read about delicious food all day while surviving on a steady diet of frozen pizza and panic, my appetite got a little wacky. Per usual, my suffering and weight fluctuation is your gain.
I read, organized and reported on some 260 food stands/carts/trucks/trailers in over 60 cities. The fact that I didn’t get to actually taste any of that food notwithstanding, I’m going to go ahead and declare myself a desk expert on the subject and as such I’d like to now share this expertise with you by providing an authoritative list of the top US cities for street food (that I want to sample).
This list is, admittedly, limited by information that’s readily available online. Regions where street food vendors haven’t discovered how to create their own websites on the “infermation super freeway” (Dallas, Kansas, Kentucky) and local foodies, due to either laziness or illiteracy, have not embraced food review websites like Yelp (South Carolina, New Jersey, Buffalo), consequently may not have been fairly represented. Those people will simply have to continue to live in obscurity like they richly deserve.
So, let’s get down to the list. In no particular order, the top six US cities for street food (that I want to sample) are:
I hate to betray my ignorance here (because it happens so infrequently and privately that there’s typically no need), but this one was a huge surprise. And I’m a little annoyed, quite frankly. Portland frequently beats my own Minneapolis by a nose in all kinds of cool stuff like biking, art and cost of living, so to be so thoroughly trounced in the street food category really sucked the jelly out of my PB&J.
Portland is uniquely littered with ‘pods’, little clusters of street food vendors. Pods often include limited seating and even covered areas in the unlikely event that it should ever rain in Portland. And the simple fact that the sheer number of street food options in Portland required them to invent pods in the first place is just plain awesome.
Speaking of PB&Js, my Portland food cart wish list includes:
Now this wasn’t a surprise. What LA lacks in culture, learning, likeability, accessibility, affordability, tolerance, compassion and manners, it makes up for in street food. I still wake up craving tacos at 3am every night after researching this section. Partaking in LA street food must be like walking around Disneyland without having to fight back the urge to go on a nose-flicking rampage.
It’s a big city and many of these trucks are constantly on the move, but the thrill of the chase is half the fun.
My LA food cart wish list includes:
That’s right, Madison, Wisconsin. With the possible exception of this blog, Madison may be the most criminally under-rated entity of the 21st century. The street food is only a tiny slice of its wonderfulness, which includes an awesome arts community, vibrant university and some really gifted jugglers.
Madison gets a smidge chilly in the winter, which, in addition to their ill-serviced airport, is their main shortcoming, and this can affect what, when and how long places stay open during some months, so it’s best not arrive in the dead of February expecting a street food orgy.
My Madison food cart wish list includes:
Another well-deserving, no-brainer entry. San Fran scores high on street food quality, variety and cleverness. Also, it’s so goddamn expensive to eat a sit down meal in San Fran, that these carts are effectively one of the city’s major saving graces.
Points also go to the street food community’s cumulative green leaning efforts. Nearly everyone boasts some level of environmental friendliness, from compostable utensils to sourcing ingredients from local, sustainable farms.
My San Francisco food cart wish list includes:
Yes, apart from personal space and, frequently, soap, New York has an abundance of everything, including wildly popular street food. This is one of the few places in the country where there’s a palpable, enduring street food culture and, as you can see from my eclectic and varied wish list below, they’re super spoiled.
All the US cities that are dithering over granting street food permits, citing half-baked, fabricated health concerns (ahemMinneapoliscough!) should be forced to spend a week in New York and see what a bloody injustice they’re doing to their hometowns.
My New York food cart wish list includes:
You have to credit the area’s massive Latino community for almost singlehandedly propping up this industry. After these hard-working and motivated people scrimp, save, travel and battle bureaucracy for the privilege of living in crap-ass Florida, though Floridians certainly don’t deserve it, these people turn around and do the state a solid by serving locally sourced, authentic, carefully considered and environmentally aware street food.
My Miami food cart wish list includes:
Honorable mention: Las Vegas
They may not have the sheer number of street food options as some of the other cities, but they sure make up for it in quality and ingenuity. This honorable mention is largely here on the strength of the two places below.
My Las Vegas food cart wish list includes:
[All photos sourced from gracious Yelp contributors]