What is street food? An informal poll of friends and colleagues generated some interesting answers. One colleague equates street food to road kill– the flattened fauna, car-crashed carrion and furry Frisbees found on and along the highways and byways throughout the fruited plain. (Hmmm, that answer might explain his halitosis.) To another, street food is synonymous with hot dog carts while yet another colleague answered simply “roach coaches” (a pejorative for food trucks). The most interesting answer, provided by a geriatrically advanced friend not quite contemporaneous with Charles Dickens, was “chestnuts” with which not everyone in my focus group was even acquainted.
By definition, all of those answers could probably be considered at least partially correct. The term “street foods,” as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, describes “a wide range of ready-to-eat foods and beverages sold and sometimes prepared in public places, notably streets.” The FAO further stipulates that “the final preparation of street foods occurs when the customer orders the meal which can be consumed where it is purchased or taken away.”
While New Mexico, and for that matter, the United States, has a burgeoning street food culture, it pales in comparison to the street food culture in Asia where urban households spend anywhere from fifteen to fifty percent of their food budgets on street foods. In the Indonesian city of Bogor, there are a whopping 18,000 street food vendors—nearly one for every fourteen people. Throughout Asia, street foods make great sense–particularly for those who are economically downtrodden—when you consider food costs and preparation time, cooking equipment and transportation.
My friend Huu Vu, who grew up in Vietnam, fondly recalls many a wonderful street food meal, some prepared on makeshift hibachi grills in temporary stalls along the sidewalk. Street food is an essential facet of Vietnamese culture, with some 400,000 establishment selling street food not counting several hundred thousand itinerant street hawkers. Huu’s favorite street food is pho, a sumptuous repast of clear soup with bone broth, thin noodles, fresh vegetables and carefully prepared meats. He calls the aroma enticing.
There is one aspect of “street food” for which the term itself appears to be a misnomer. That’s because these “streets” are neither paved nor on cobblestone nor even on dirt. Throughout Asia, especially in Thailand and Vietnam, “floating markets” on canals and waterways thrive. Cavalcades of vendors on canoes and other floating contrivances prepare and sell traditional foods to passers-by on land. It’s a colorful cacophony of commerce where vendors hawk anything from gourmet quality food to fruits and produce they grow themselves.
When a restaurant calling itself “Street Food Asia” launched on Central Avenue just west of Carlisle, Huu and I had our doubts as to whether it could hope to replicate the street food experience in Asia. Sure, it’s located off a heavily trafficked street, but that in itself doesn’t, by definition, qualify it as a venue for street food. Maybe, we surmised, the indoor restaurant seeks to invoke the spirit of the Asian street food experience, not necessarily to duplicate it. That’s what I found during my inaugural visit.
Street Food Asia is located in the heart of Nob Hill, arguably the city’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cultural hub. The restaurant’s cranberry colored storefront with large picture windows looking onto Route 66 is very much in tune with Nob Hill’s unique expressiveness. The interior configuration is very much restaurant meets market. A large counter divides the restaurant. On one side you’ll find seating for diners as well as shelves stocked with Asian food products. On the other side is the restaurant’s assiduous kitchen and prep area, the epicenter of activity where orders are prepared and picked up. The aromas emanating from the high-heat kitchen are intoxicating.
The menu is almost intimidating with its compendium-like completeness. It’s a menu encompassing six Asian countries: Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and China, each represented by a number of dishes. The wait staff is knowledgeable about the cultures and cuisine showcased on the menu and can capably guide you along your culinary adventure. Street Food Asia is owned by Chef Tai Tok who was born and raised in Malaysia where my favorite Asian cuisine (even above Vietnamese) is prepared. With more than thirty years experience, Chef Tai has introduced Duke City diners to a multi-cultural Asian street food experience and the city has responded, according his restaurant a bevy of awards and accolades.
18 August 2013: Most restaurants which endeavor to be all things to all people fall far short of their aspirations. If our inaugural experience is any indication, Chef Tai and his staff have the chops to achieve their fondest aspirations. The best way to experience a multitude of dishes is with sampler platter such as the dumpling sampler or the satay sampler. While dumplings are common throughout Asia, the ways in which they’re prepared are as varied and unique as each culture. The dumpling sampler is a meal-sized tray showcasing dumplings from Korea and China: Seoul Street Vegetable, Seoul Street Chicken Kimchee, Beijing Street Shrimp Cilantro, Seoul Street Short Rib Kalbi in a steamed bun, Beijing street BBQ pork and chicken buns. Save for the steamed BBQ pork and chicken buns, you can ask for the dumplings to be steamed, wok-seared or fried crispy. At the very least, each dumpling is very good; some are excellent.
2 September 2013: Among the most popular of Malaysian street foods is satay which is sold at food stalls throughout the island nation. Similar to barbecue skewers or shish kebab, satay has won over American hearts, too and is served at just about every Thai restaurant across the fruited plain. Street Food Asia’s Satay Sampler is edible art at its best. Skewers are laid out in a concentric pattern so that you can easily pick each one up by the skewer itself. The satay is magnificent! Whereas most Thai restaurants serve skewers of pork or chicken, Street Food Asia’s satay provides a palate-pleasing array of tofu, shrimp, pork and vegetable satay, each grilled to perfection. The satay is served with a Vietnamese fish sauce, but you can request the more traditional peanut sauce if you wish.
2 September 2013: In the 1980s, lettuce wraps became one of the most trendy appetizers at Asian restaurants, but they really took off when Paul Fleming (PF) Chang’s opened in 1993. Health conscious diners like them because lettuce is very low in both carbohydrates and calories while not-so-health-conscious diners like them because Asian restaurants have figured out how to make lettuce wraps delicious vehicles for meats, vegetables and sauces which tend to be on the sweet-tangy side. Street Food Asia offers a number of lettuce wrap options including the Saigon Street Cool Lettuce Wraps (grilled pork, carrot-daikon relish. The grilled pork is oh so redolent with the familiar sweet spices of anise and cinnamon used in the preparation of grilled pork throughout Vietnam.
18 August 2013: Having served as a judge at the Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souperbowl Event for several years, I was quite familiar with Street Food Asia’s soup offerings. In 2012, the Kuala Lumpur Street Malay Curry Laksa was a third-place finisher in the critic’s choice category (though my friend and fellow judge Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, and I, both thought it was the best soup in the event). Instead of a two sip sampler at the Souperbowl, I had a wading pool sized bowl on my inaugural visit. It was magnificent, a taste bud awakening Malay coconut curry chicken broth with Chinese vermicelli noodles, spicy lemongrass, basil, spinach, bean sprouts, cilantro, shrimp, calamari and stuffed shrimp tofu. A couple of Thai bird peppers (which brought Roob, a Lobo Lair mainstay, to tears during his visit to Street Food Asia) were added for piquancy.
2 September 2013: Another Malaysian favorite which is sure to please New Mexican diners who enjoy dishes enlivened with piquant flavors is the Kuala Lumpur Street Malay Sambal entree. Sambal is a sauce or condiment made from chiles that complements the flavor of foods with which it is served. When you see Sambal on a menu, there are a number of ways in which it might be served. Street Food Asia serves it with rice (opt for the fried rice), eggs, garlic, tamarind paste, spicy chili paste, yellow onions, bell peppers, spinach, green beans, bean sprouts, cilantro, whole peanuts, shrimp and Chinese lap cheong sausage. There is a lot going on in this wok-fried dish of complementary ingredients which work very well together. You’ll fall in love with the Chinese sausage, as flavorful and addictive as any sausage anywhere. The green beans are perfectly prepared and the fried rice is among the very best in Albuquerque. If I was monogamous about food, this might be the only entree I’d ever order at Street Food Asia. It is that good!
18 August 2013: Pho, the quintessential Vietnamese street food favorite, is a popular specialty at Street Food Asia. It’s every bit as good as the pho at several Vietnamese restaurants in Albuquerque. Served in an oversized bowl, a ginger-infused beef broth hosts Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles, anise seeds, cinnamon and charred onions with the option to add bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, jalapeños and your choice of tofu or meat. In Vietnam, the consumption of pho is a veritable slurpfest. That’s probably why several diners parked themselves on the counter where they could slurp to their hearts’ content in relative privacy.
2 September 2013: Banh Mi, the very popular Vietnamese po’ boy, is also on the menu where it’s been christened the Saigon Street Grilled Pork banh mi. As with many banh mi, this one is a delicious pairing of meat and vegetable on a baguette. A smear of Sriracha mayo on the baguette provides a little kick, but the flavor profile is locked in courtesy of leaf lettuce, cucumber, carrot-daikon relish, basil, cilantro and jalapeño melding magnificently with the incomparable flavor of grilled beef. If there’s one “nit” about this sandwich, it’s that the baguette is rather on the thick side and doesn’t have the crustiness of some banh mi. It’s still a good sandwich, but falls short of other Street Food Asia offerings.
18 August 2013: Because portions are so profuse, you’ll have room for dessert only if you have your entrees boxed up for later consumption. Desserts are well worth sampling, especially the Bangkok Street Black Rice Pudding with toasted coconut flakes. It’s not overly sweet and the texture of the black rice is almost al dente, but the coconut milk infused flavor is addictive. So to is the honey caramel (smoked sea salt) gelato from the legendary VanRixel Brothers. The menu features several gelatos and sorbets from the incomparable award-winning siblings.
Much to my surprise, Street Food Asia did channel the spirit of a street food dining experience in Asia. Moreover, it made a believer out of this skeptic whose doubts put off a visit to this tremendous restaurant for nearly two years. Even more telling is that my second visit came within two weeks of my inaugural visit. That doesn’t happen often.
Street Food Asia
3422 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 September 2013
1st VISIT: 18 August 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Saigon Street Cool Lettuce Wraps, Dumpling Sampler, Satay Sampler, Kuala Lumpur Street Malay Curry Laksa, Kuala Lumpur Street Malay Sambal, Saigon Street Pho, Banh Mi, Honey Caramel (Smoked Sea Salt) Gelato, Bangkok Street Black Rice Pudding