Interpreting Street Food Trends For Restaurants

Traditional street-corner favorites are finding a place in the dining room.

If your options were limited to hot dogs and soft pretzels the last time you indulged in street food, I've got news for you: It’s a whole new world out there. I mean that literally; the explosion of world-cuisine street food is one of the hottest new food trends. From Korean fusion tacos to authentic Greek souvlaki, Americans just can’t get enough of these handheld ethnic meals. And, even though these dishes take their cues from traditional street-side vendors, they are equally well-received in a restaurant dining room.

Restaurant Street Food Trends: A World of Sandwich Choices

Sandwiches, of course, are the quintessential handheld food. Sandwiches have everything customers look for; made of mainstream ingredients with familiar flavors, they can be exciting with lots of personality and are appropriate for full-service sit-downs as well as grab-and-go or takeout.

Latin Torta

This is yet another example of a street-food sandwich that has crossed the border. Instead of a tortilla, tortas use a burillo roll—sort of a hybrid of a Kaiser roll and a hamburger bun. These hearty rolls are substantial enough to hold generous fillings without making a mess. Ground-beef taco meat, carne asada, shredded pork carnitas, and mole chicken are just a few of the Latin-style proteins that can fill a torta. Layered with tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, fresh or grilled onions, spicy mayonnaise, and flavorful cheese, these overstuffed sandwiches are the ultimate in comfort food.

Cuban Frita

Made of ground beef and chorizo, this sandwich is served burger-style on a bun and topped with a julienne of fried potatoes and “pink sauce”—typically a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise. Try putting your own stamp on it with a signature sauce, something like a Russian dressing, and a proprietary custom blend of ground beef, pork, and chorizo.

Colombian Perro

This sandwich features interesting parallels to the very American hot dog. Grilled, sautéed, or braised meats are stuffed into an oversize hot dog bun and garnished with something that might be considered pedestrian— potato chips ground into coarse granules and used as a topping to add crunch. This has a certain playful element that I love, and it begs for creative innovation. I imagine these sandwiches topped with a Latin-style melting cheese like queso panela or pepper Jack, and a creamy drizzle of flavored mayonnaise or sour cream. If the ground potato-chip topping seems too lowbrow, try substituting crisp shoestring potatoes or extremely thin, fried onion rings.

Integrating International Street Food for Restaurants

Of course, you don’t have to execute a literal example of these sandwiches. Take the flavor and garnishing cues from the original versions and apply them to conventional sandwiches.

Saltie restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, for example, specializes in unusual sandwiches that frequently draw from world cuisine. The “Spanish Armada” with potato tortilla, pimento, and aïoli, and the “Clean Slate” with quinoa, hummus, pickles, and yogurt on naan bread are great examples of adding ethnic flavors to a very American sandwich format. Many of Saltie’s sandwiches also are garnished with layers of greens and fresh herbs in a nod to the Vietnamese Bahn Mi.

Asian influence has sidled up to Latin fare with the Korean taco trucks that have popped up along the West Coast. These tiny trucks deliver big flavor, filling soft corn tortillas with grilled short ribs, spicy pork, chicken, or tofu with fresh veggies and a smattering of kimchi—a Korean condiment of spicy pickled vegetables, typically featuring cabbage. Of course, any number of ethnic influences could be drawn into this style of taco. To keep with the traditional street-food style, use small, soft corn tortillas with a combination of warm, bold-flavored meats paired with crisp, refreshing vegetables. Don’t overstuff these tacos; they should be easy to eat out of hand.

From tacos to tortas, Asian fusion and a South American take on the hot dog, the explosion of ethnic street food into the American mainstream is a promising trend that I believe will continue to grow in popularity.

By combining bold flavors and playful components into a neatly wrapped package of comfort food, these handheld treats have broad appeal. With a little creativity, they can inspire menu items that satisfy customer demand for exciting new options without compromising your restaurant’s identity.

World Cuisine: Sandwiches

Almost every world cuisine features some sort of sandwich that translates well to any menu. These include:

GYROS: The popularity of Mediterranean sandwiches was kicked off by the gyro, which features roasted meat, tomatoes, onion, and tzatziki sauce rolled in a pita.

SOUVLAKI: This is a traditional Greek fast food consisting of small pieces of meat or veggies grilled on a skewer and easily wrapped in pita or flatbread. It’s garnished with veggies and sauce or even a flavorful melting cheese to create a tasty and unique sandwich that still has mainstream ingredients and a familiar flavor profile.

KUBIDEH: This Persian dish of very finely ground beef with onions and spices is molded and wrapped around a skewer and grilled. Serve it with the same treatment as souvlaki.

VIETNAMESE BAHN MI: This is one of my favorite sandwiches. In the traditional version, a French-style baguette is filled with cold sliced pork, pâté, and a thin layer of mayonnaise, then topped with a crunchy salad of fresh basil, mint, cilantro, julienned pickled carrots, cucumber, and, more often than not, thin slices of fiery hot peppers. The combination of fresh, crunchy vegetables and savory meat with mayonnaise tying it all together is incredibly satisfying. This style of sandwich is open for endless interpretation. Warm braised or roasted meats, or fish with aggressive flavor profiles, could be paired with any number of fresh, crisp veggies. Flavored mayonnaise or other spreads also put a twist on the classic; a thin layer of dressing is a small but integral component that adds moisture and makes for a truly unforgettable sandwich.