Whether it’s Hacı Beşir Usta’s çiğ köfte from Istanbul’s Kadınlar Pazarı, a perfectly steamed Oaxacan tamale by Tia Tila or the Pang family’s late-night dumplings in Shanghai, street food and the folks who make it are the heart and soul of Culinary Backstreets.
Yes, we love street food. It’s tasty. It’s fast. It’s cheap. But the carts, trucks and stands serving up our favorite snacks are also an integral part of the communities they operate in. There are the beloved vendors who have been local fixtures for decades and the hardworking entrepreneurs trying to get their start. Whatever their story, these street vendors are hardworking people worth celebrating.
On this International Street Vendor Day, we’ve gathered together some of our favorite street vendor stories from over a decade of fanatic street eating.
In Rio, Erisvaldo’s Dirty Doughnuts Delight
“One, two, three, four! Do what’s cool and thrust your rosca up high!” Erisvaldo Correia dos Santos belts out to announce his arrival to the streets of Catete and Largo do Machado in Rio each day of the week. The short, 40-something performer then swivels his hips as he balances a cooler-size plastic case of steaming, cakey roscas (doughnuts) on top of his head.
Flashing smiles that blur the line between cool and creepy, Erisvaldo carries his routine for blocks, from Rua Pedro Américo down to the Largo do Machado plaza. Even the most innocent-minded will start to recognize the double-entendre behind Erisvaldo’s repertoire of one-liners about his “roscas,” making for a colorful street performance alongside a delectable snack.
In this story from Rio, Taylor Barnes tells us why he can’t help but laugh along with the rest of the street at Erisvaldo’s antics, recounting a few choice one-liners.
Arnulfo’s Tacos de Canasta, Served With A Smile
Just a block away from Mexico City’s financial district, one unlikely food star sets up shop every morning. From Monday to Saturday, at La Abuela, 78-year-old Arnulfo Serafin Hernandéz feeds hungry office workers, commuters, neighbors, school kids, government officials and tourists from all over the world with one of the simplest Mexican dishes: tacos de canasta.
La Abuela tacos de canasta are some of the best we have tried in the neighborhood. For two generations, Arnulfo’s family has been preparing the dish. “My aunt, Mrs. Delfina,” Señor Arnulfo tells us, “started this business 37 years ago. She has passed away, but her children continued the business and named it La Abuela [Grandma] after her.”
Arnulfo is a charming guy who enthusiastically engages in conversation with all his customers. If a camera comes out he invariably smiles and poses for a picture. It comes to him naturally, after his having been featured in all kinds of local press. He gives us a long list of all the media where he has appeared and adds that many international venues have featured him as well.
In this story from Mexico City, Ben Herrera has one final thing to say about the ever-smiling Arnuflo: “Grandma would be proud.”
The Hangover Helpers of CDMX, Catalina and Cristina
Like bacon in a salad, the stand on the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas stands in open defiance of the Condesa neighborhood’s pursuit of Sunday-morning physical wellness, opting instead to pursue hedonistic aims. La Esquina del Chilaquil serves tortas de chilaquiles, also known as tecolotas, an extravagant variant of the already indulgent breakfast meal. It attracts go-getters of the non-athletic sort – those who believe the best cure for Saturday night’s alcoholic excesses is an early morning meal of a thousand calories’ worth of grease and carbs and fried meat, not a morning jog like everyone else who is out and about.
Current proprietors, sisters Catalina and Cristina, inherited the stall from their great-grandmother. “Others tried to copy us. But our tortas de chilaquiles are still the most famous” in Mexico City, one of the employees at the stall says.
After waiting in line for 45 minutes, tortured by the downwind-drifting aromas emanating from the puesto, customers are rewarded with Catalina and Cristina’s most-delectable tecolotas. In this Mexico City story, J. Alexander counters the gentrifying “natural this” and “green that” Hipódromo with his profile of a stall serving up some true gut busters.
The Late-Night Tailgate at Yıldırım Usta’s Kebab Van
Right in the center of the busy transit hub that is Kurtuluş Son Durak, we stumbled across a diminutive white van rigged with a makeshift grill. Inside the tiny, elaborately decorated vehicle crouched Yıldırım usta, a 75-year-old veteran of the kebab trade who has been serving up truly delicious dürüm – kebab wrapped up in flatbread – on Kurtuluş Son Durak for 31 years. He has lived in the area for just under half a century.
“You see all these other kebab shops? I was here before all of them,” he told us.
It is no surprise that Yıldırım Usta adheres to a system that hinges on absolute quality and freshness, and embodies the term “usta” (master) to the fullest extent.
Hailing from the Mediterranean province of Mersin, Yıldırım usta spent years cutting hair before switching occupations. “Being from Mersin, I know the Adana taste well,” he said, referring to the neighboring province from which one of Turkey’s most essential kebabs takes it name. Yıldırım usta’s menu is short and to the point. Adana (spicy lamb kebab), Urfa (the same but not so spicy) and çöp şiş, a skewer of grilled beef morsels intertwined with bits of fat. In this Istanbul story, Paul Benjamin Osterlund gives us a seat behind the white doors of Yıldırım usta’s van.
Carmine, the Wizard of Napoli
In the midst of Naples’ plethora of street stalls – Bread, thin pizzas meant to be eaten folded, fried pizzas, octopus broth, roasted artichokes, cones full of fried goodies, donuts, panzerotti and rice balls – there’s one that somehow manages to stand out.
Some know him simply as Carmine. Others call him Carmine the Wizard because of his enchanting roasted chestnuts, which warm the hands and the stomachs of Neapolitans in winter. Whatever you call him, he’s an icon of Naples street food. In this story, Amedeo Colella talks to Carmine, whose stand is open year-round: He’s the magician of granita in summer; in autumn, he dishes out octopus broth; and in winter, he is the chestnut wizard. He never takes a break.
Cart Attack: Queens’ Street Vendors Fight for Fair Treatment
Food carts are trapped in a paradox in New York. They’re an omnipresent expression of the city’s staggeringly diverse immigrant population and serve as a powerful symbol, promoting the idea that tasty, affordable food from around the world can be found on every corner, regardless of how high property costs rise, and that running a cart can be a stepping stone to making it in America. At the same time, the people who operate food carts tend to be ignored, threatened or displaced through policing and archaic regulation – a disregard for their livelihoods that has been made plain in recent months.
The Street Vendor Project estimates that there are as many as 20,000 street vendors in New York City (this includes non-food endeavors such as street art sellers and flower carts). In 1983, the City Council put a cap on the number of vendor permits at about 5,000. Although the few lucky holders only pay $200 every couple of years to renew their permits, they rent or sell them in a secondary market akin to taxi medallions. Permits often go for between $20,000 and $25,000.
As a result, the vast majority of food vendors operate in a legal gray zone. They still receive the same health inspections as brick-and-mortar restaurants. But without an all-important permit, the vendors are subjected to tickets, seizure of property and arrests. In this story from Queens, Leo Schwartz talks to Queens’ vendors about their fight and right to make a living through their stands and carts.
Published on November 14, 2021
November 17, 2021
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