Street food is exciting. The delight of finding your favorite food truck parked outside your office, the delicious, steamy chewiness of a New York street pretzel, the taste of an ice-cream-truck sno-cone on a hot day… street food is fun to eat, delicious and often an unplanned and unexpected treat. Buying a street-food treat on impulse can either inject some flavor into your workweek or add an unexpected culinary adventure to your vacation.
Many street food vendors are elusive, though. They cart and drive and walk around the city to sell their goods. Finding a great food truck often happens by coincidence. But increasingly, street vendor food tours are becoming popular as vendors report their schedules online. Tracking food trucks and following your favorite vendors can be a fun (and filling!) afternoon activity whether you’re in your own city or on vacation.
Mobile Food Trucks, Street Vendors and Street Fairs: Keeping it Real with a Street Food Tour
Mobile food trucks and street fairs can offer a fun, colorful and down-to-earth culinary adventure. You can enjoy their offerings outdoors, amid the bustle and sun of a real Chicago afternoon (substitute Chicago for Paris, Detroit, Bangkok, Yerevan, Johannesburg, Stockholm, Milan or Singapore). They’re an affordable way to get the “food pulse” of a city. And most of all, they’re run and managed by regular people who work hard all day to share their city’s culinary traditions with other regular people in an honest and unpretentious way.
But all the same, there are some street vendors in every city that are skippable, and there are some that draw customers like magnets, serving tacos, steamed bean buns or acaraje to a line of hungry people that winds down the block. Some are unforgettable. Some are so bad they can be considered dangerous. How do you sort the first from the second, and how can you make the best use of your time as you move from one mobile food truck experience to the next?
Finding the Best Street Vendors Amid a Sea of Identical Mobile Food Trucks
Planning a food truck tour is essentially a two-step process. First, you need to have some idea of what you’re looking for. Second, you should be able to find your way toward your goal through a maze of busy intersections or landmarks distributed throughout street fairs, and you should make an effort to schedule your arrival at your destination. Unlike restaurants, food trucks move, and the one you happily stumbled upon yesterday may be replaced by another one today. Even if you know your city well, bring a map with you. A cell phone with an internet connection can help. If the vendors you want to visit update their statuses online, search for websites that aggregate food truck updates in your city.
Street Food Tours, Step One: Know What You’re Looking For
If you’ve ever stumbled across a top-notch taco truck at 2 AM or had an unforgettable homemade ice cream from a cart, you know this: street food is more than just a meal. It’s an experience. And the hunt makes it even more exciting.
Know what you’re looking for, or at least be able to describe it, before heading out into the wide world of mobile food trucks. If you’re in New York and you’ve never had a knish, find one. Then put mustard on it. If you’re in Japan, explain to someone that you’re looking for a soft white bun the size of a donut filled with sweet red bean paste that can’t be duplicated anywhere else on earth. If you’re in Philadelphia, don’t waste your time looking for ice cream–search instead for some water ice. (It’s different.) In Rome, learn enough Italian to ask where you can find the best gelato. Half the fun of a food truck tour is the search, and the search begins with the establishment of a specific goal.
A little research beforehand can help. Identify local street food specialties the same way you find out about not-to-be-missed public fountains, museums and natural phenomena. Consult your guidebook or spend a moment on the Internet before you head into the streets.
Street Food Tours, Step Two: Know Where to Go
In Philadelphia, a handful of food trucks under the same management sell incredible soup. The soup comes in only two varieties (wonton and chicken and rice) and the carts can only be found during the lunchtime hours. The food trucks appear around the city at about 11:00 a.m. and they disappear again sometime after 2:00 p.m. Their locations shift from block to block during even and odd days of the week. Identifying a pattern like this can take days or weeks of devoted study, or it can be as simple as using a website or mobile phone application. Websites that aggregate online vendor updates (often via Twitter) can help you identify the locations and schedules of food trucks in U.S. cities, and mobile apps like “Food Truck” and “LA Street Food” can help you track the movements of food trucks in specific places. A relatively new app called “Road Stoves GPS” uses GPS locators in certain food trucks to follow their tweets and transmit their whereabouts in real time.
Once you find out where certain food trucks are likely to be and when, you’ll need to know how to get there. Your mobile phone can help you with this too. Or, if you’re up for real adventure, you might try finding your way to the holy grail of hot links, noodles or garlic pickles with an old fashioned city map.