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World's Best Street Food

By Marisa Robertson-Textor
May 10, 2010
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The ultimate cheap eats in 14 cities around the globe.

Anyone who's ever bought fresh steamed crab from a Bangkok canal boat or sampled hot, crisp frites on a Brussels sidewalk knows that not all stellar meals are served in courses—or even come with silverware. In fact, certain cities around the globe have cult followings built entirely around their street-food cultures. Below, a definitive guide to seeking out the best bites in the world's most bountiful (and greasy-fingered) destinations.

1. Portland, Ore.
With more than 400 carts selling everything from Korean tacos to Carolina-style barbecue, Portland is a microcosm of mobile meals. Lunchtime crowds gather near SW 10th Avenue and SW Alder Street; later on, night owls head across the river to SE 12th Avenue and SE Hawthorne Boulevard for deep-fried cherry pies and savory crepes, served until 2 a.m.

2. Los Angeles
Talk about a turf war. Near L.A.'s MacArthur Park (at South Park View Street between Wilshire Boulevard and West 7th Street), old-school vendors trade in Salvadoran pupusas plump with cheese and edible loroco flowers while a new wave of roving trucks tweet their daily locations and dole out custom ice cream sandwiches (@coolhaus) and buttery grilled cheese (@grlldcheesetruk).

3. Ensenada, Mexico
It's a rare city in Mexico that doesn't have great street food, but the tacos de pescado in the Baja port town of Ensenada, demand a special pilgrimage. Join the masses at the city's fish market for corn tortillas piled high with battered fried halibut, shredded cabbage, pickled onions, avocado, jalapeños, and sweet-tangy crema-mayonnaise sauce.

Street Smarts: Look for the long lines. Certain vendors are more popular than others for a reason, and a few extra minutes of waiting will almost always be worth it.

4. Philadelphia
The nation's first capital is also home to some of its oldest and most beloved portable fare: soft pretzels, Italian ices, and, of course, cheesesteaks, now being reimagined in Vietnamese and Mexican versions. Locals get theirs at the century-old, seven-block-long Philadelphia's 9th Street Italian Market, open daily (italianmarketphilly.org).

Street Smarts: When local water quality is in question, opt for hot drinks, and watch the preparation closely (did that tea boil for a full five minutes?).

5. Puerto Rico
The food stands along Piñones Road about 30 miles east of San Juan make some of the island's best frituras, or fried snacks: coconut arepas, piononos (plantains stuffed with beef), and bacalaítos, a mixture of pancake dough and salted cod. If you hit the strip around sunset, you might even catch an impromptu salsa-thon.

6. Rio de Janeiro
Health-conscious Cariocas, as locals are known, hit up Ipanema's Sunday market in Praça General Osório square, open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., for grilled-shrimp skewers and the occasional dessert splurge: churros stuffed with dulce de leche. The less guilt-inducing alternative: a fresh coconut drink or an açaí shake from one of the stands along Copacabana Beach.

7. Marrakech
In the city's rambling medina, grilled-meat hawkers will cook to order any cut you bring from one of the many nearby butchers. In the evening, head to the night market at Jemaa el-Fna and settle in at the communal tables for chickpea stew, boiled snails, and strong mint tea poured the traditional way: from a pot held perilously high above the glass.

8. Brussels
Art nouveau architecture, the European Union headquarters: Who cares? Brussels is all about the frites (which, we assume, account for the bulk of the nearly 250 pounds of potatoes a typical Belgian consumes annually). At the city's standard-bearer, the Maison Antoine kiosk in Place Jourdan, the secret to success is in the sauces: pineapple ketchup, beer-flavored carbonnade, and mayonnaise so it's almost a dish unto itself.

9. Vienna
Stroll the city center and you'll encounter numerous Imbisses, stands selling sausages and sliced Leberkäse (a baked loaf of ground beef and pork) topped with mustard and folded into Semmel rolls. And to try the local caffeine fix of choice, head to the cafés of the 18th-century riverside Naschmarkt for a Wiener Melange, an espresso drink with steamed milk and whipped cream.

10. Istanbul
Happily for all the travelers who make their base in the Sultanahmet district (home to the Hagia Sophia), the stalls beside the nearby Grand Bazaar can compete with any in this food-rich city. Have your pick of mussel skewers in garlic sauce, grilled corn, roasted chestnuts, and permutations of kebab too plentiful to count. (Feeling adventurous? Try the kokoreç, chopped lamb intestines seasoned with hot pepper and oregano.)

Street Smarts: Bring your own plates and utensils. Illness is often spread through improper washing; this is one way to cut the risk. If you see locals doing the same, consider it a must.

11. Tel Aviv
Mouthwatering falafel abounds throughout the Middle East, but this waterfront city is also home to a unique treasure: the Iraqi Jewish specialty of sabich, a pita sandwich stuffed with fried eggplant, chopped hard-boiled egg, and pickled cabbage and beets. To get right to the source, head to the stands of neighboring Ramat Gan, where the dish was invented.

12. Bangkok
For centuries, Thai food sellers operated out of boats along the canals that formed the city's main transportation system. In recent years, roadside cafés have all but supplanted the custom, but at Taling Chan floating market on the western edge of the city, vendors still grill fish and steam crabs directly on their boats every weekend from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Street Smarts: Fruits and vegetables with edible skins are only as safe as the water they've been washed in, so stick to the ones that you can peel yourself (like bananas).

13. Hanoi
The narrow alleyways of the city's Old Quarter yield a treasure trove of breakfast delicacies for the jet-lagged traveler. Street vendors set up as early as 5:30 a.m. to prepare sweet green rice wrapped in banana leaves, sesame- and coconut-filled dumplings in ginger syrup, and rich coffee poured over sweetened condensed milk (but watch the ice).

14. Singapore
In its many hawker centres (or food courts), such as Chinatown's Maxwell Food Centre, Singapore delivers a civilized street-food experience—complete with table service. Patrons can usually ditch their belongings at one of the marked tables, browse the offerings (ranging from Chinese fish ball soup to spicy Malaysian pork-rib prawn noodles), and give their table number at the counter.

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Confessions Of... A Disney Cast Member

Robert Niles spent five summers working on rides such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World. He currently edits the site Theme Park Insider. Excuse me, young man, are you pregnant?What's more terrifying than the 38-foot drop on Disney's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? Having to ask women in line if they're pregnant. It's for their own safety, but forget a woman scorned—hell hath no fury like a woman who's been mistaken for being pregnant. Once, when I was in training, I watched a coworker approach a larger female park visitor and ask, "Excuse me, ma'am, but are you pregnant?" "Pregnant!?!" the woman screamed, her voice turning heads at the happiest place on earth. "No! What are you saying? Do I look fat to you?!" She turned to her friend and screamed some more: "They think I look fat. Let's get out of here!" I was so traumatized by that incident I crafted a plan to avoid offending anyone. Whenever I spotted a "suspect," I asked everybody in the vicinity—including teenage boys and women in their 70s—if they were with child. If the woman I suspected was actually pregnant, she left the ride quickly. If she wasn't, she just thought I was working a gag. I sure am Randy todayDisney made the "first name" name tag famous, but the tag doesn't always match the person wearing it. One day, as I was steering the raft to Tom Sawyer Island, my name tag dropped into the river, forcing me to get a new one. There wasn't a single "Robert" left, so until a replacement could be made, I pretended to be "Randy," a name that amused visitors from the U.K. to no end. Elderly English ladies lined up to have their picture taken with me. One screamed when she saw me, grabbed her friend, and yelled, "Is that really your name?" Being a good Disney cast member, I lied and said yes. The friend said, "You know, we love a good randy man back home." But lady, even I'm not that good a cast member. To get onstage, dress the partA few attractions choose audience volunteers to be part of the show, but the selection process is far from random. Typically, you need to be a certain gender, size, and age for each of the different roles. You might even need to be wearing a specific item of clothing. On my off days from work, I used to go over to Universal Studios, and I would get picked all the time to play "Mother" in the old Alfred Hitchcock show. They needed a guy my height and weight who happened to be wearing the same type of plain white tennis shoes I always wore. Also helpful for getting picked: cuteness and enthusiasm. Curious kids who ask nicely and look excited often get extra attention, along with thrilling perks like riding up front and introducing shows. Stroller relocation programDisney's a family place, but the people who work there come to loathe strollers. It's part of a cast member's job to keep strollers in nice, orderly lines and to make sure they're only left in designated areas. But park visitors keep their strollers in an appalling condition, loaded up with dirty diapers, rotting bottles of milk, and half-eaten PB&J sandwiches. Others see no problem with parking their strollers right in front of an attraction's exit or entrance. Sometimes thoughtless individuals like this incur the wrath of the stroller police, and their precious Bugaboos and Maclarens are intentionally relocated to a place "far, far away"—at the very back of the area cordoned off for strollers. Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of (confiscated) rumOn special Grad Nites, when Disney hosts loads of freshly graduated high school kids, the park puts extra staffers inside Pirates of the Caribbean and other rides as lookouts to monitor less-than-legal activities. Our focus was mostly on what the kids were consuming. Booze, cigarettes—you name it, and a Disney cast member has confiscated it from a 17-year-old at one time or another. One clever kid, forced to hand over his bottle, noted the irony of getting busted in the middle of a ride that celebrates a drunken pirate orgy. "Hey, don't the pirates have enough?" he asked. "They need mine, too?" Please keep your happiness to yourselfThis attraction has been camera monitored for your safety. That's the spiel Disney broadcasts over its loudspeakers for many rides. But the cameras are also meant to protect you from yourself. One night, while most parkgoers were watching the fireworks display, a couple strolled over to Pirates of the Caribbean, where I was working. They not only had a boat to themselves, but empty boats all around them. The real fireworks display, it turned out, was visible on the security cameras to all of us working that night. Let's just say the show the couple put on wasn't exactly G-rated.

Stranded by the Volcano: 6 Lessons Learned

Go to the airport every day for the best shot at open seatsWhen the ash cloud lifted, I was on one of the first flights out of London. How did I escape faster than most of the 40,000 other Americans stuck in Britain? And even more mysteriously, why did my London-to-Seattle flight have…lots of empty seats? (A lot of them?!) Here's what happened: The passengers holding tickets for those seats were stuck at other airports and had missed their connections. Americans stranded in London could have grabbed those empty seats had they been at the airport, willing to rebook onto an earlier flight at the last-minute. But they stayed at their hotels instead, or had already been re-ticketed on flights later in the week. The few Americans who did slip onto the early flight with me got on because they were waiting at the airport, waiting. The moral of the story: Chance favors travelers who hang around the airport hoping to take advantage of last-minute opportunities. Write down the names and addresses of everyone you meet while you're travelingI have zero friends in England. But my laptop happened to have the contact information for a British friend I had met when traveling in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang in 2003, and for another Briton I had met while touring Germany in 2007. When I contacted them, each offered me a place to stay, which, as hotel nightly rates reached about £400 (or roughly $600) per night, was a lifesaver. In the future, I'll jot down names and phone numbers as I go, storing them in my cell phone, computer, or in notebooks—just in case. Bring extra medicationsMost of the horror stories I heard were from Americans with major health issues who were out of medication. Many had brought a few spare pills but simply never imagined they'd be stuck for upward of 10 days. They spent many anxious hours trying to track down additional pills and then paid through the nose for prescriptions. It was a stressful ordeal, even for people whose health care policies will reimburse them for their purchases. And, yes, ladies, this applies to you: Bring an extra month of birth control pills, always. Have a backup plan…for your family and your petsThe people who were most panicked were those with children and pets at home—and no backup plan. My dog sitter was fantastic, but she also had the name of a friend of mine with keys to my home who is kind enough to take care of Mabel the poodle anytime. Keep an extra house sitter, dog sitter, and babysitter on standby, and make sure they have all of the relevant keys before you go. Join Skype and Pingo ahead of timeYes, everyone knows about the free Internet-based telephone service Skype. But old-fashioned discount calling cards, such as those sold by Pingo or Nobel, may be a better way to call internationally, because you don't need Wi-Fi access. I was particularly glad that I was already a member of Pingo (with $5 in my account) the moment the first airports closed. I just picked up any pay phone, dialed the toll-free local access number, and called my boss's cell phone to tell him the situation. As the week dragged on, I reached out to others on Skype, calling people's cell phones and office lines to update them on my predicament and sending text messages for free (because texts on my cell cost 35¢ a pop). Savvy travelers may want to set up Skype Mobile on their phones or iPod Touches before they go abroad to take advantage of free texting-whether there's a crisis or not. Consider rebooking a flight on an airline with the largest presence at your airportA travel meltdown in one corner of the globe can create a ripple effect worldwide as planes and flight crews end up scattered far from where they need to be. Airlines make every effort to get their planes back to their hub (or "main airport")—and to get back on schedule. I was booked on British Airways, which was lucky for me because the airline spent the no-fly week running passenger-free flights to get planes back into position at the hub in Heathrow. On the flip side, my boyfriend, who was stranded in JFK en route to London, wasn't so fortunate. He was on an Air France flight, and the airline was trying to get its planes back to its home base…in Paris. Six hours after the airports opened, I was boarding one of the dozens of empty planes at British Airways' hub in Heathrow. My boyfriend was delayed for days. So what's my advice? If you're stuck at an airport, ask an agent which airlines have a hub there. If your airline doesn't have major operations there, consider cashing in your ticket for a refund and rebooking a flight on an airline that has a lot more planes available.

San Francisco's Best Street Food

Note: The location of these trucks and carts varies from day to day. We've listed where you are most likely to spot the delicious grub, but if you want more-specific locations, sign up for each establishment's Twitter feed. Magic Curry Kart 'Hood: Mission District Pulled together from the spare parts of three bicycles and equipped with a checkered tabletop, two burners, and a Buddha statue for good luck, Brian Kimball's Magic Curry Kart is a roving, oddball kitchen serving up the former psychotherapist's Thai curry. Kimball learned to make the dish while traveling in Southeast Asia, and he limits his menu to chicken or tofu simmered with veggies in a homemade red, green, or yellow pumpkin curry paste, all heaped atop a bed of steaming white rice. Once a month, a Vietnamese rice porridge (or chao) covered with chicken, fried shallots, green onions, and mung beans makes it into the rotation. The best part: Kimball will deduct $1 from the meal if you bring your own food container. Twitter feed. From $6. Crème Brûlée Cart 'Hood: Mission District A carpenter by trade, Curtis Kimball was busy remodeling San Francisco's iconic Edwardian houses before he turned his attention to building the Crème Brûlée Cart over a year ago (inspired by his brother Brian's cart, which debuted one week earlier). Dressed in chef whites and armed with a butane torch, Curtis adds unusual flavors to the basic crème brulee recipe with splendid results: Try the orange creamsicle, the dark-chocolate peppermint, or the Baileys Irish Cream, all of which are listed on a bistro-style chalkboard on the front of his cart. Served in a three-inch tin, the creamy dessert has a caramelized top that cracks delightfully with a spoon. Fabric8 courtyard, 3318 22nd St., between Guerrero and Valencia Sts. 6 p.m–8 p.m. Fridays. Twitter feed. From $4. Liba Falafel Truck 'Hood: The base of Potrero Hill Amsterdam's falafel stands were the inspiration for chef Gail Lillian's 7-month-old Liba-mobile. Decorated with bright flowers and lime-green signage, the truck has a self-serve condiment bar with 15 different toppings made from scratch, like an olive-orange relish with thyme and a dill-and-cardamom pickle. For her own favorite falafel, Lillian uses a wheat pita and layers the organic chickpea fritters with hummus and a kicky harissa; then she adds pickled onions and homemade tomato ginger chutney before tossing in rosemary peanuts for extra crunch. A side of hand-cut sweet-potato fries with cilantro, garlic, and lime makes for a satisfying meal. 155 De Haro St. at Alameda St., 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Fridays. Twitter feed. (Also call 415/806-5422). Falafel sandwich from $5, sweet-potato fries $2. RoliRoti 'Hood: Embarcadero Thomas Odermatt grew up working at his dad's butcher shop in the Swiss Alps. He now operates the RoliRoti rotisserie truck, with its 26 smoothly rotating skewers that can roast up to 80 free-range chickens at a time. Odermatt cooks his meat selections (including seasonal choices like lamb in the spring and duck in the winter) at the same low, even temperature for up to two hours, and the meat bastes itself with the drippings from higher racks. But it's the porchetta sandwich—roasted pork loin wrapped in crisp pork belly and doused in pinot grigio—that has tourists lining up at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays at his Ferry Building Marketplace location. He can sell about 350 of the juicy sandwiches on a good day. Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Ferry Building, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Thursdays, 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturdays. Twitter feed. $6–$12. Kung Fu Tacos 'Hood: Financial District Traditional taquerias are plentiful in San Francisco, so when drinking buddies Jonathan Ward and Tan Truong decided to launch a taco truck last August, they went with a Chinese twist and dubbed it Kung Fu Tacos. Their weekly lunchtime spot (in an unassuming parking lot around the corner from the Transamerica building) draws hungry office workers who favor the tortilla packed with lean and juicy roast duck and topped with mango salsa, hoisin sauce, and green onions. Steak and chicken tacos come dressed in a spicy Asian salsa made with ginger and carrot; other taco options are char siu (barbecue pork), mu shu veggies, and the unlisted menu item "dork"—a duck-and-pork combo. Three tacos washed down with a Coca-Cola from Mexico—sweetened with real cane sugar—generally get the job done. Sacramento St. between Montgomery and Kearny Sts., 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Twitter feed. From $2. Pizza Politana 'Hood: Embarcadero Chez Panisse alum Joel Baecker and his chef-wife Naomi Crawford were honeymooning in Italy when they got the idea for Pizza Politana. Upon returning, they imported an authentic Neapolitan wood-fired oven and had it mounted on a motorcycle trailer. In no time, they were peddling perfectly blistered nine-inch pies outside trendy bars and at farmers markets in the Bay Area. The pepperoni—made with artisanal sausage—is a staple, and the farmer's pizza is topped with seasonal, local ingredients like Meyer lemon, stinging nettles (no ouch factor here—the nettles don't sting after cooking), and green garlic. Half the fun is standing curbside and watching as Baecker and Crawford stretch and top the dough on your very own pie. Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Ferry Building, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Thursdays. Twitter feed. $8–$12. Good Foods Caters 'Hood: Bernal Heights Good Foods Caters owner Dontaye Ball developed his famous pulled pork recipe while working as a cook at Google. He marinates the meat in a spice rub for two days, smokes it for six hours, braises it for another six and a half hours, then pulls it into shreds. The all-natural pork is slathered with a homemade, secret-recipe bacon barbecue sauce and spicy coleslaw, and served up in a dripping kaiser roll. To really up the ante, ask for "The Eliminator": pork, brisket, and bacon piled atop a whole-wheat bun. Ball works over his portable grill at the same farmers market he visited as a kid—when sizzling with hot links, smoked chicken wings, and pork belly chunks, the grill can reach a temperature of 600 degrees Fahreinheit. Alemany Market, 100 Alemany Blvd., 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturdays. Twitter feed. $3–$10. Sam's ChowderMobile 'Hood: Varies Manned by chef Kevin Ballantine, who trained at the California Culinary Academy, the big red truck known as Sam's ChowderMobile is the nomadic outpost of Sam's Chowder House, located in Half Moon Bay, 30 minutes south of San Francisco. The lunchtime specialty is a Maine lobster roll that's cooked on the spot and served "naked"—with no mayo to disguise the crustacean's natural flavor. It's a pricey $15, but the toasted hot dog bun is stuffed full of tender meat tossed in a drizzle of melted butter (Ok, so it's not totally naked). A clam chowder loaded with littleneck clams, Yukon gold potatoes, and bacon goes for a more affordable $5, and the delicious fish tacos, fish-and-chips, and calamari are reasonably priced at $5 to $11, too. Twitter feed.

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