Although the name doesn’t have the greatest of connotations, street meat is one of the great joys of the urban lifestyle, and a staple in the diet of any human who frequents bars, pubs and clubs. Wandering the streets after last call looking for something – anything – to satisfy one’s appetite is an essential rite of passage on the journey to becoming an adult in any given metropolis, and therefore this curbside wonder must be celebrated.
Street meat can be as terrible as its moniker insinuates, but it can also be heavenly at times; this author has heard Toronto’s hot dogs be described as ‘nothing short of breathtaking.’ There are, of course, many forms of street meat, ranging from simple hot dog stands to gourmet food trucks, pretzel wagons to folks roasting chestnuts over a used oil drum, tacos to BBQ, Jamaican patties to falafel.
The idea of street food dates way back to ancient Greece, where merchants sold small fried fish on the side of the streets; and there was even evidence of street food vendors discovered in the excavation of Pompeii (seriously). This type of dining originated to cater to the poor folk who weren’t in possession of a proper oven to cook their food, and it was pretty much found in most corners of the world including ancient Rome, China, Cairo, Renaissance Turkey, Aztec regions of South America, Peru, Paris (where French Fries originated in the 1840s) and even colonial America.
As with anything to do with taste, the ranking of street foods is completely subjective, and putting them in any specific order is most certainly not something this list is attempting to achieve. According to both research and personal experience, here are some of the world’s best cities to chow down on street food.
5. London, England
Fish and chips are most likely what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of London’s culinary experience. Oh and curry, which strangely enough is the official national dish. London street food – like almost all food sold outdoors these days – is mostly associated with the hipster movement, and therefore the East End district Shoreditch (in the borough of Hackney) is one of the hot spots for eating on the curb. The annual Urban Food Fest is held each spring in an ugly car park in the hipster capital, with street delights ranging from jerk chicken to wood-fired pizza, sushi to macaroons. And of course, they even have a ton of craft beer available, along with the obligatory vegan options so closely associated with the hipster movement.
Not surprisingly, street food’s main demographic are students with slim wallets, so outside of London the biggest markets are the University towns such as Manchester, Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol. However, London itself most definitely gives them a run for their money. Whitecross Street Market is one of the most popular destinations for lunchtime indulgence, which does away with the trendy nonsense and just delivers quality grub around the £5 mark including burritos, bourgeoisie duck confit brioches and Thai curries.
Some other highlights of the London scene include Anna Mae’s Smokehouse southern-style BBQ in Kings Cross; Eat My Pies’ British-style grub (scotch eggs, pork pies, custard tarts) at the Whitecross market; Jamon Jamon’s paella specialties over at Portobello Rd; Kimchi Cult’s (seriously, what’s with kimchi?) Korean fusion also at Eat St in Kings Cross; Churros Garcia’s authentic Spanish-style donuts (the best!); and the organic buckwheat delights at Crêperie Nicolas at Real Food Market.
4. Montreal, Canada
The largest French-speaking city outside of Paris is renowned for its poutine – French fries with gravy and cheese curds, for those who didn’t already know – though their sidewalks are chock full of gastronomic delights that truly must be experienced. One of the most famous street options is the $2 chow mein, which is served through a window of an otherwise closed Chinese restaurant on Blvd St. Laurent. These entrepreneurial restauranteurs set up their wares by an open street-facing window with only a hand drawn sign to attract the drunken hordes that are exiting the multitude of nightspots on the St. Laurent strip. The best part is they’re often open for business until the wee hours of the morning, ensuring a full stomach on the cheap year-round.
Another awesome Montrealais specialty is the licensed food trucks that pop up over the summer (and a few even run throughout the other not so enjoyable seasons). Options include dim sum, seafood, coffee, burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, Mexican, vegetarian, grilled cheese, donuts, Indian, smoked meat (another famous Montreal gem) and of course the ever-present poutine. The trucks pop up at approved locations, along with all the important summer festivals like Just For Laughs (the largest comedy festival in the world) and Osheaga (a huge three day music festival held at Parc Jean Drapeau), giving locals and tourists an awesome feed at reasonable prices, wherever in the city they find themselves.
3. New York, USA
The Big Apple is synonymous with yellow cabs, Times Square and street food. Without Googling the statistics, it would be reasonable to assume that New York has more street vendors per capita than any other city in North America as it feels like you can’t turn a corner without bumping into one of those silver carts selling all sorts of carb-y and sugary goodness.
Aside from the ever-present hot dogs and pretzels – both of which are generally fantastic – New York has a ton of awesome street options scattered all around the city. Daisy May’s BBQ Cart on 50th brings that down south flavour and is renowned for their pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs and chilli; Yvonne’s Jamaican Food Truck on 71st delivers authentic island cuisine, with specialties including their jerk chicken (or pork) and their boss oxtail stew; Shorty’s On Wheels does an amazing Philly cheesesteak; The Cinnamon Snail offers these incredible organic vegan donuts; and Calexico will fill you up proper with their genuine California-style Mexican grub.
With too many offerings to mention here, New York is most definitely a hot spot for street food and it’s a definite must to check out when passing through the neighbourhood.
2. Berlin, Germany
Berlin – another hipster capital – is renowned for their Currywurst, the most popular street snack in the über-cool city. It’s a dish that dates back to 1949 when folks sold boiled sausages that were then fried and smothered in a unique sauce – tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder and a few other ingredients. It’s become the most commonly found street meat in Berlin, and you can’t walk more than 100 feet from any train station exit without their signature smell wafting through the air. These sausages are often paired with French fries covered in ketchup and mayonnaise. Curry 36 in the Kreuzberg district is the go-to hot spot for this local delicacy.
Another key Berlin street staple is the döner kebab, a gyro-like Turkish wrap that is almost as popular as the Currywurst. Over the holidays, Germany is peppered with Christmas Markets where one can find even more amazing examples of comfort food. From fresh Bratwurst paired with Bitburger beers, funnel cakes, Belgian-style waffles, to their unique Glühwein (German mulled wine), it’s non-stop excitement for your taste buds.
Street Food Thursdays (which likely isn’t the official German name for it) at Markthalle in Kreuzberg is surely the best place to make sure you sample the highlights of Berlin street cuisine.
1. Toronto, Canada
It would seem unfair that Canada takes two spots in the list, however this is far from unwarranted. Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world, and therefore its residents have uniquely wide-ranging culinary expectations. That said, the Screwface Capital is mostly known for its exceptional hot dogs. Carts hawking the street meat king are strewn all over the downtown core, mostly near subway stations and the multitude of sports stadiums, so there’s nary a place in the city you won’t be able to satisfy your hunger. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Toronto’s hot dogs have that the others don’t – perhaps it’s the eclectic array of sides to go with it (from horseradish to pickles to bacon bits and much more), or perhaps there’s just something in the water.
On top of the fantastic dogs, Toronto also has a very healthy food truck movement. The stalwarts by Nathan Phillips Square are there all year round, serving up predominantly burgers, poutine and of course, hot dogs, though the quality is reliable and you know they’re always going to be there. The gourmet food trucks are the pinnacles of T-Dot street fare, however.
They’re reasonably priced for the most part, but the selection and freshness make your hard-earned dollars feel well spent. From the lobster rolls and shrimp-filled everything of Buster’s Sea Cove; the authentic Italian meatballs, pasta and veal sandwiches of Rome’n Chariot (get it?); the to-die-for Southern BBQ from Hogtown Smoke (pulled pork poutine, beans, cornbread, smoked meat); to Caplansky’s smoked meat truck, with Jewish favouries like latke pakoras, kishkes, Passover-style brisket and even maple-bacon donuts.