Street food-inspired cuisine, elevated to new heights, is one of today’s top dining trends

By Wendy Lemlin    |    Photography By Noushin Nourizadeh

As long as there have been tacos, ramen and pizza, street food has thrived in casual American restaurants. But in the last few years, street food-inspired dishes have increasingly found their way onto fine-dining menus with elevated ingredients and creative interpretations. Foods that were once best enjoyed from carts or stalls on the streets—especially in Latin America or Asia—have now been given sit-down status and star treatment in the hottest of dining trends.



Of course, street food inspiration can be home-grown as well as international. Brockton Villa’s Executive Chef Mareyja Sisbarro fondly remembers her culinary school days in Rhode Island and getaway trips to Cape Cod to stop at her favorite roadside lobster shack. Those memories live on in her California Lobster Roll, a New England classic with a West Coast interpretation: Maine lobster meat enhanced with avocado and lemon tarragon aioli, served open-faced on toasted brioche instead of in the traditional grilled hot dog bun.



One could argue that there is nothing more emblematic of San Diego cuisine than the ubiquitous Baja-style fish taco. For 20 years, Mr. Brown’s Swordfish Tacos have held a place of honor on The Fishery’s menu, upgrading the typically fried whitefish to pan-roasted marinated swordfish. According to Chef Paul Arias, this dish began when the restaurant’s parent company, Pacific Shellfish, was originally located in Barrio Logan. Employees would frequent a nearby taco stand, especially enjoying the salsa homemade by the family’s grandmother. When owners Judd and Maryanne Brown opened The Fishery, of course fish tacos had to be on the menu. Judd was a swordfisherman, so, that meaty fish became the central ingredient, and the salsa is replicated today as Mr. Brown’s Salsa.



There’s no denying that Mexico has a vibrant street food culture, and one of the most important ingredients in Mexican cuisine is corn in all its manifestations, especially the wonderful roasted corn known as elotes sold from street carts everywhere. At La Valencia Hotel’s Café La Rue, Executive Chef Alex Emery takes us south of the border with a margarita and his version of Roasted Street Corn Tostada. It’s his interpretation of the food he ate growing up in San Diego, traveling frequently to Baja and taking in all the flavors and aromas of deliciousness from curbside vendors. Emery enjoys elevating these simple standards with great produce and high quality meats and seafood, and adding them to his eclectic fine dining repertoire.



Although Bernard Guillas, Executive Chef at The Marine Room, has relished street food from Korea to Cape Town in his worldwide travels, it’s his own hometown of Pleucadeuc in Brittany that inspires his Organic Hokto Farm Mushroom Cocotte. Known for the inordinate number of twins born there, the town celebrates Fête des Jumeaux (Festival of Twins) every year, attended by over 1,000 sets of twins from all over Europe. Food served at street stalls include a rich mushroom casserole prepared with the abundant wild fungi that grow locally, which Chef Bernard loved to harvest as a kid. He creates a sinfully luxe version of that casserole with a mixture of organic, woodsy mushrooms and shaved truffles, augmented with sage gnocchi and chestnuts. It is perfect as a “share” appetizer or with drinks at The Marine Room’s bar.



When Jason Knibb, Executive Chef at NINE-TEN Restaurant & Bar, visits his father in Vietnam, one of his “must dos” is to hit a street cart for a Banh Mi sandwich. Originating during the French colonial period in Vietnam, these individual baguette-type loaves usually hold a combination of French influenced ingredients like meats, paté and mayonnaise, with native Vietnamese ingredients like daikon radish, cilantro and pickled vegetables. Believing that street food helps you connect to where you are traveling, Knibb is inspired to modernize and elevate the original—filling his roll to overflowing with crispy pork belly, country paté, whole grain mustard, garlic aioli and pickled carrots—yet never straying too far from the classic.



According to Osteria Romantica’s chef/owner Fabio Speziali, other than a slice of pizza or a cup of gelato, street food isn’t much of a “thing” in his homeland, as Italians prefer to sit and linger over a meal for hours. They will—and do—however, order something to go, such as the hearty Meatball Sandwich with housemade marinara and melted cheeses, and enjoy it while sitting in the town piazza or a park, watching the world go by.



Nico Caniglia, owner of Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé, grew up in Switzerland, and parental visits also inspired him to adapt a popular street cart item to restaurant-quality goodness. Stands selling crêpes are often found along the streets of Lausanne, Switzerland, where his mom lives, and who doesn’t love those thin, delicate pancakes folded around delectable fillings? At Bella Vista, Nico and his wife, restaurant co-owner Amanda, offer four sweet versions, with the ultimate being La Leonardo. Named for their son, (and combining the ingredients of the La Nicolas and La Amandas, as is only fitting) the two crêpes, loaded with fresh strawberries, banana, Nutella, almonds, and whipped cream, will satisfy any sweet tooth.

These dishes may have all started in the streets, but the fans they have garnered are proof that greatness often rises from humble beginnings.