Street food in Calcutta, anyone?
  • Arnab Bose
  • Street food in Calcutta, anyone?
If you think Seattle's street food scene isn't as cool as New York's or Portland's, you're not alone. Folks at the City of Seattle agree. In fact the Seattle Department of Planning and Development is trying (.pdf) to roll out more food vendors on the city's sidewalks and parks with the consent of the City Council. The Downtown District Council is hosting a public workshop at City Hall today at 5 p.m. to talk about a proposed street-food initiative. So if you love Marination Mobile, Maximus Minimus, or the taco truck in your hood, this is your chance.

Currently food trucks are only allowed to park on private property (only hot dogs, coffee, and popcorn can be heated and served on the sidewalk) in Seattle, which results in turf wars and perhaps even haggling for space with a property owner. DPD planner Gary Johnson—who totally gets it—told me that he wants to change Seattle's street food system to Portland's. Yes! Finally someone who understands the joy of having some 580 cheap and tasty licensed food trucks mobilized all over the city. Council Member Sally Clark also gets it. "We are trying to figure out what are the rules that keep food carts from being really successful," says Clark, a self-confessed street food fan. Except for the hot dog carts, Seattle doesn't have food vendors selling smoothies, sandwiches, and fresh food, Clark says, because of existing health code rules. The Health Department is considering lifting the restrictions to allow "assembly of pre-cooked ingredients." She adds, "The new codes will provide start up business opportunities and turn sidewalks into more interesting places. The flip side is litter and less room for wheelchairs."

Make no mistake, I love street food. Full disclosure: I come from a country where people eat street food at all times of the day and night. But I have seen the evil side of street food: overcrowded sidewalks, garbage and blatant health code violations.

My mom used to scare me by saying that street hawkers in Calcutta had an inch of dirt beneath their fingernails and were constantly scratching their balls (but I ate their chaats anyway).

Jump to San Francisco, another street food mecca (I miss you, bacon-wrapped hot dog) which I left for Seattle, though not without hitches. Cupkates, the Bay Area's first cupcake truck, recently got into some trouble with the City of Berkeley for vending from a metered parking space, but I believe they are now back in business.

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"The onus is going to be on the applicant to prove themselves," says Johnson, when asked about the implications of expanding Seattle's street food scene. "They can sell gyros and burritos and crepes and all sorts of things as long as they can be done safely." Street vendors in Seattle will require street-use permits under the new ordinance. Belltown and the Pike-Pine area already have a robust street food scene, but most vendors are operating illegally, Johnson says. "Much of what they are doing are permitted, but it's not legal yet," he says. "Enforcement's been a bit spotty." The new legislation also hopes to assign a mobile food vending zone—something like a permanent Mobile Chowdown. "That's great," says my friend The Hungry Koala, whose favorite Seattle street grub is the Torta Guadalajara. "They will be easier to find. Most of us don't have time during a business day to run from one street corner to the other." Right now a lot of people follow their favorite street food vendors on Twitter.

How are well-established Seattle restaurants taking it? Not too well, according to Johnson. "There have definitely been concerns raised from restaurants and fast food joints who see mobile food trucks as a threat in a weak economy, so we are proposing setbacks from any food places," Johnson said.

Oh and this just in—Mayor McGinn, who was a hit at the CHBP Sunday, is a big supporter of the street food initiative.