Food & Drink

Street Food

The Social Life of Street Food

It is spring, and during spring a food-lover's thoughts turn to street vendors--those purveyors of tube steaks, pretzels, and fried things outdoors. Street food is necessary to a healthy city--it is cheap, fast, and non-committal. As William Whyte pointed out in the 1970s, streets that work have people and things on them. Whyte describes street food vendors as mayors of the plaza or street corner they inhabit. A sense of ownership fosters respect for our shared spaces. But while Seattleites are generally quite polite to each other otherwise, we refuse to schmooze on our sidewalks, passing laws that mandate people who stop to rest on them should be harassed.

Back in the 1970s, our fair city decided "clean streets" meant enforcing the stiffest laws in the country regulating street food vendors. These kinds of regulations, born of good intentions, are potentially harmful to thriving, usable streets. As Seattle's downtown core flourishes, the need for street-level, small, family-run restaurants and bars where working people can eat cheap increases.

The need for street food arises in two separate instances: lunch and drunk. Seattle vendors attend to both these needs with their salty salve of grilled sausages, and while I am very fond of hot dogs--so fond that I got married on Coney Island, consummating the boardwalk ceremony with Nathan's corn-dog nuggets (no wood stick taste!)--one cannot help but long for more variety.

I recently conducted a hot-dog stand tour of Seattle's downtown, using the olfactory accuracy and hound-dog wail my toddler associate, Ruby, possesses in relation to the frankfurter. Traversing down Pike and Pine, we ricocheted between Island Espresso (Canadian Jumbos $1.75) at the Convention Place bus tunnel stop, and Steve & Jerry's grilled sausages (classy), ending our journey at Seattle's wiener mecca, Danny's Wonder Freeze in Pike Place Market (across from the Donut Robot). All anyone needs to know is that Danny hand-batters each and every corn dog (tofu, too) to order.

Then, one dim Sunday afternoon, walking down Broadway, an incredible odor assaulted my near-frozen nostrils. The unmistakable scent of slow-cooked meat permeated the damp air. Parked in front of the Blockbuster video store loomed the largest barbecue I have ever seen, mounted on truck tires. 'Cue Fresh, community mastermind and loving barbecue-ist, brings his particular brand of passion to the people every Sunday via this unique vehicle.

"You know why it tastes so good?" Mr. Fresh asks. "I put the love in the sauce, so when you eat my barbecue, I am sending love to you, through the 'cue." Mr. Fresh gathers a crowd, and conversation strikes up between salivating customers as they wait for their brisket, ribs, or chicken, staring into the flames in the belly of the iron beast. When a Metro bus pulls up to the stop behind the barbecue tank on wheels, 'Cue zips over to offer the driver a meal, convention or regulation be damned.

Inspired by Mr. Fresh's example, I recently called the health department to inquire about opening a French-fry cart, the importance of which became apparent to me as a teenager in Amsterdam. The hardened municipal worker on the other end of the phone informed me that if I didn't see it on the streets, it could not be done. When I decried Seattle's embarrassing lack of street food variety, she suggested I "move to France, where their food poisoning rate is consequently higher."

While I value intestinal safety as much as the next person, I felt the iron belt of American prudery fasten itself around my tongue. Forget France--Seattle needs something like the plazas in Andean villages, with makeshift awnings lit by fires over which old ladies fry corn cakes filled with cheese and stir massive pots of arroz con leche, served topped with blackberry sauce. Everybody--aunts, uncles, kids, dogs--would gather to warm up with a snack before bedtime. It is in these moments of consumption that community is birthed.

Some street vendors worth visiting:

Island Espresso

Convention Place Station, Ninth Ave at Pine St

Steve & Jerry's

Pike Street, between Sixth Ave and Seventh Ave

Luigi's Grotto

Outdoor grill (Mon-Fri) during summer months, on First Ave and Cherry St

Top Dog

Entrance to Showbox, 1426 First Ave

El Carrico Hot Dogs

In front of downtown Men's Wearhouse, Fourth & Union

 

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