October 23, 2009
My take on Street Food
I—and so many journalists and bloggers—have called Xoco my “street food concept.” To some, calling Xoco’s offering “street food” is just plain inaccurate: nothing is prepared or served at a stall on the street. To others, that detail is inconsequential: Xoco offers the kind of food you can find at street stalls all over Mexico. So which is right?
In my opinion, both are. But it’s a little complicated. Where and how you serve food is sometimes as important as the food you serve, and those considerations definitely affect how you think of (and how you taste) the food. Your favorite ballpark hot dog wouldn’t taste nearly as good served on a plate at your grandmother’s dining room table. Most agree: our senses are heightened when we eat outdoors, and so are the flavors we expect. Bold, earthy, gutsy, spicy are street food flavors that captivate us, even though the many very sophisticated techniques may have been used to create dishes that show those flavors off. I’m thinking here of my favorite stall at Mexico City’s Sunday morning Lagunilla market, in its cramped quarters with one table and rickety collection of stools—never enough for everyone to crowd onto. Yet, perfectly ground fresh blue-corn masa is kept at just the right consistency for hand-patting oval tlacoyos filled with ground fava beans. They’re baked on a hot metal slab until just set (try it sometime and you’ll realize how hard that is to do), then topped with a variety of fillings. My favorite involves griddle-seared nopales and a salsa that combines just the right balance of roasted tomatillos, garlic and three dried chiles—gutsy, spicy and earthy … and very hard to get right.
Or I think of my favorite street vendors in Bangkok who make voluptuous little steamed rice-noodle dumplings filled with sweet preserved daikon or braised garlic chives and served with an eye-poppingly spicy dipping sauce. I bought the steamer set up, worked with a traditional cook to learn the intricacies, and finally gave up, deciding I’d have to quit my day job in order to have enough practice time to truly get them right.
The best street food—and I’m speaking here of what’s made in cultures that have developed vibrant street food cultures—delivers a full-throttle experience without skimping on high-level cooking skills. And my favorite street vendors around the world create their offerings from unique local offerings, often being able to tell you who grew or raised or baked or preserved the ingredients they’re working with. A vendor friend in Yucatan raises his own pigs for the cochinita pibil he sells at his stall; his mother-in-law cultivates the achiote for the marinade; one neighbor takes care of the sour orange trees that provide the tang while the other grows habaneros for salsa. Often, when a national passion for street food develops, “you can only eat this here” becomes the mantra of both cook and eater.
And just because it’s served in humble surroundings, doesn’t mean folks expect it to be cheap. Maybe cheaper than what they’d pay in a full-fledged restaurant, but certainly not dirt cheap, not 99-Cent-Value-Meal cheap. Last Christmas in Oaxaca, I paid the equivalent of $5 for the huge, charcoal-seared street “taco” they call a tlayuda. That’s in Oaxaca, where I think nearly everything costs about half what I’d expect to pay in Chicago. In Barcelona three years ago, four of us spent over $200 at a stall in the Boquería market for amazingly prepared street food made from what swims in the Mediterranean. As a fast-food nation—one who’s priorities have included spending less and less on food—we’ve confused fast food with street food and cheap with good. Or perhaps more accurately put, we’ve confused processed food—manipulated as it is to use less real food, bolstered by artificial flavors to make it taste like what we really wish it was—with street food. With maybe an exception or two, every bite of street food I’ve had anywhere in the world has been handcrafted from natural raw ingredients.
It’s hard to separate the food from the experience, though. There is a tantalizing immediacy to food served on the street. You walk right up, take in the sight and the aroma of what the cooks are making, order what appeals and watch it all go together. Often fueled by a wood or charcoal fire, mixing its primal smell into that of damp earth, asphalt and car fumes.
So how does Xoco fit into this street food world, given it’s not literally street food? Well, I didn’t want it to go the way of what I’d heard about Singapore’s vibrant street food cultures. When the government moved the vendors into large food courts, promising the public a more sanitary way to grab a quick bite, I heard that a lot of the gutsiness fizzled out of both the ambiance and the food. The lighting was brighter, the seating more spacious, the cooking equipment better, the air cleaner (no wood fires), the ingredients kept colder—and no need to keep the food robust to match the roughness of typical street-stall atmosphere.
Knowing I had to serve my street-style offerings inside—meaning I couldn’t rely on damp earth, asphalt and car fumes to create the robust environment—I decided to create atmosphere in two ways: a big wood fire and a food preparation area that you literally walk right into. I wanted every person that walked in the door to experience something rustic, elemental. A hearth, delicious-looking food, ingredients being crafted into finished dishes—many of them by coming in close proximity to glowing embers.
And though I had to build the place to satisfy a fussy landlord, an even fussier health department and a lot of downtown customers who are used to—and expect to pay the price for—creature comforts, decided to create a menu that grew out of my downtown atmosphere, but resonated for me far beyond it. I wanted each dish to reflect the craftsmanship and local sourcing that I respect in the world’s best street food. But I wanted it to have enough “my god, that’s great” punch to fit into even the most rustic locale. So, I tasted each dish we developed for Xoco with closed eyes, imagining myself in one of my favorite street spots in Mexico, asking myself if it stood up to true street food rigors. Then I opened my eyes, looked at my cramped little Xoco dining room, and ask if the dish had the strength to straddle the two worlds. Only time will tell.