There is street food for every city I've ever cared about: the baked potato guy outside the state capitol in Albany, New York, where I grew up; the toothache-sweet smell of roasting peanuts on a frigid corner of New York City; the elotes--corn on the cob with chili and cheese--sold just outside Latin markets in Los Angeles; the tamale guy with the jingling pushcart who saved me from a monumental hangover in San Diego; the bhel puri--essentially an Indian nacho, fried rice puffs topped with potatoes, onions, chilies, and chutney--from that Berkeley chaat shop; and the anchovy-topped pissaladiere--the savory tart that was one of few French classics I could afford on a student budget in the south of France. But my memories probably bore you--I'm sure you've got your own.
Then there's orderly Seattle, not a great street-food town by any stretch. Maybe it's the rain, more likely it's the careful health and zoning regulations, but the vendors here are few and far between. In Seattle, street food doesn't trip you up on the sidewalk like it does in New York, Bangkok, or Oaxaca--you have to seek it out. As with music and dance, Seattle tends to be festivalized when it comes to street food. Many food vendors seem to only come out for big festivals at the Seattle Center: Bumbershoot, Northwest Folklife, or culture fests like Festa Italiana or Turkfest (you didn't know there was a Turkfest, did you?). It's too bad because street food is best when it is immediate, when it throws itself in your way before you can analyze your hunger or your craving. This is why it is loved by children (think ice-cream trucks) and drunkards (think midnight hot-dog stands) alike.
Still, as spring gets rolling there is some hope for the walking hungry here in town. It takes a moment for your vision to adjust, but soon you'll start spotting the nocturnal hot-dog vendors lurking outside nightclubs and feeding the teetering hordes. There is the southern archipelago of taco trucks--in White Center, Columbia City, and Rainier Valley--parking ever closer to downtown. There is the new Kaosamai Thai truck that brings a little lime leaf and coconut milk love to a lonely parking lot in South Lake Union, and a mobile Gorditos annex near the Ballard Bridge that serves your enormous-burrito needs. From permanent digs, you can buy gyros aplenty on the Ave in the U-District, sweet pork hum baos or cheese curds at Pike Place Market, or a fabulous falafel at Zaina in downtown. And, as the weather gets nicer, there are the weekend markets in the neighborhoods that foster vendors with more offbeat offerings.
I talked with a few of these market vendors, just as their busy season is about to get underway. They remind me that the beauty of selling food in the street is that you can be a little capricious. For instance, driving around a roving, wood-burning oven as Errin Byrd Jett and her husband Marshall Jett do, cooking pizzas at the Ballard and Fremont Markets. It's kind of crazy to see an adobe oven on wheels, but the pizzas cooked in three to four minutes over Yakima apple wood make a pretty compelling argument for such frivolity. Some vendors come with more of a pedigree than you might expect. At the Fremont Market, Anita Ross, radiantly pregnant, raked crepe batter across a cast-iron burner the other day, and apologized for running out of homemade raspberry jam. Anita is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and of an internship of the acclaimed French Laundry; and though she could work in any fine-dining spot in the city, she's happy standing under a canopy with her husband Jeff at her side. "We like to put on a show," he says. The street can serve as an incubator for great new restaurants, as it has for Alfonso Gonzales who stood a couple of stalls down, selling fried empanadas and stewed chicken. Vending at the market helped him get Sofrito Rico, his Puerto Rican restaurant (the only one in Seattle, as far as I know), up and running--testing the market for his cilantro-kissed rice and beans and crisp-fried plantains among Fremont's flea marketers.
I have to admit I'm a bit of a culinary libertarian. If it were up to me anyone with a hibachi and a dream could start selling food in the streets of Seattle. I think you should be able to take your own chances with food, make your own decisions whether a vendor's cart is clean and safe. I'm all for pushcart chaos in the streets, if it means I get to eat banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), roti (Caribbean curry wraps), and antichuchos (Latin-American kebabs, often beef heart). Of course, this will never happen in well- regulated Seattle. Still, wouldn't it be great if eating outside became not just an odd treat at a festival, but an everyday part of the city? What if street vendors were part of the plan for new city developments (South Lake Union anyone?), where a square or even just a parking lot could be set aside for vendors to park their wares? What if every monorail station had an umbrella and a vendor selling sausage sandwiches or Sichuan pancakes or corncobs on a stick? It would be a glorious sight.
In this issue, we'll get you started on Seattle's street-food revolution. We'll tell you why it's so difficult to get a pushcart of your own started in this city of well-dotted I's and crossed T's. We'll talk to chefs and food people around town about the most mind-blowing street food they've ever eaten. And naturally we'll tell you where you can get food for the street and have a movable feast. All we ask is that you do your part and eat outside. Make it worthwhile for the street vendor who stands out in the cold and the rain. Make the guy on the street next to you wish he had a taco too. Take to the streets comrades, to the streets!