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Chefs Join the Street Food Movement

Chefs Join the Street Food Movement

Solvej Schou | Associated Press

Peruvian rice, steaming Greek falafels, satay dripping with peanut sauce, doughy Salvadoran pupusas, slippery Thai noodles. In much of the world, they are just on-the-go eats for the masses.

But in the U.S., a growing cadre of chefs and foodies are savoring these so-called street foods, elevating them beyond their humble origins, and weaving the tastes and ingredients into their own menus and homes.

“We’ve been reclaiming flavors,” said Rick Bayless, winner of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters,” fresh off the opening of his new Chicago restaurant XOCO, based on Mexican street staples such as churros, empanadas and tortas.

“After we went through the ‘50s, in America, when food got so processed and bland, there’s been a backlash over the past 10 to 15 years,” Bayless said. “A lot of the 20- to 35-year-olds are into this big, bold flavor. It’s the antithesis of what you get in processed food, that balance of fat, sugar and salt. Street food has a tanginess to it. You get this thing that’s so incredibly exciting to eat.”

Ubiquitous across Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean, street food is becoming increasingly common in the U.S., thanks partly to chefs like Bayless and Zakary Pelaccio, whose Malaysian-inspired Fatty Crab in New York gives steamed pork and veggie buns serious treatment.

Credit also is due to the growing army of food trucks and carts from coast to coast. As in Los Angeles, where the roving Kogi BBQ truck and its Korean-Mexican fusion has amassed thousands of fans through Twitter.

The trend is being taken seriously. Street food is regular fodder for bloggers and glossy magazines alike.

John Willoughby, executive editor at Gourmet magazine, said he expects cross-fertilization between street food and restaurants to continue for years. He called a May 2005 issue on street food the magazine’s favorite travel issue.

“Here, street food has traditionally meant hot dogs, except in L.A. and New York,” said Willoughby. “People thought of it as unhealthy, and sort of lowbrow. It wasn’t something you thought about and looked forward to. That’s totally changed in the last five years. Street food has become a lot more interesting.”