Creation Trends: Humble inspirations, impressive destinations

Celebrating the elegant simplicity of street foods

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By Marc Halperin, Contributing Editor

If you want to figure out what the nation's style mavens will be wearing this season, you could scope out Milan's runways, take note of the jackets and hemlines on display during any given episode of "Sex and the City," or talk to buyers for the nation's largest retail apparel chains.

But if you want to get a sense of what people may be wearing a bit further down the road , say, say, in a year or so, you'd probably need to lace up your hi-tops and venture out to fashion-forward areas in urban neighborhoods, to the places where trends originate. Simply put, you've got to hit the streets. After all, hip kids from Seattle to the South Bronx attacked their jeans with scissors and razor blades years before branding gurus thought of selling denim with strategically placed rips, holes and tears in the fabric.

In many ways, the same principles apply when you're trying to forecast food trends. Some of the most enduring and beloved staples of the American diet, as well as many of the hottest dishes on today's restaurant menus, trace their origins not to fancy restaurant kitchens or gourmet cookbooks, but to street foods, simple, quick, portable dishes served from carts, trucks, sidewalk stands, roadside grills and other pedestrian sources.

Speaking of pedestrians, they're the reason street foods came to be in the first place. Without foot traffic, the Central Park hot dog hawker, the Singapore satay seller, the Delhi samosa dealer, and the Venezuelan arepa vendor would all be, well, "out on the street." But virtually anywhere in the world where throngs mill and meander along crowded city streets, you'll find enterprising entrepreneurs waiting to serve them. The convenient, creative and delicious foods have a habit of showing up in wonderful, surprising ways in wonderful, surprising places.

Take, for instance, San Francisco's Destino, recently named one of the 50 best Latin restaurants in the nation by Hispanic magazine. Owner and chef James Schenk says the street foods he has sampled on his 22 trips to Peru over the years exerted a profound influence on his palate and culinary ambitions. On his menu today, for instance, are anticuchos de Corazon -- marinated skewers of beef heart in a tangy aji panca sauce -- representing his elegant, inventive twist on a traditional Lima street corner favorite. Elsewhere, Schenk offers empanadas -, another Latin-American Main Street mainstay -- filled either with grilled chicken, black mint and currants, or with pork loin picadillo, pimiento stuffed olives and cinnamon mojo.

Down to the Mission

So where does Schenk look for ideas and inspiration today? Hint: There are no white tablecloths. "I go down to the Mission [neighborhood in San Francisco] to see what the vendors there are up toI'll wander around and talk to people and see what's new." What's caught his eye lately are trucks of vendors selling grilled corn on the cob doused with parmesan, butter and cracked pepper. "I've been thinking that we might be able to play around with that," he says.

Like Schenk, Farina Wong Kingsley, author of "Asian" (published by Williams-Sonoma), also watches what people eat on the street during her travels. "In many Southeast Asian cities, street food is all about eating inexpensively and in small portions all through the day," she says. "It's so hot that, much of the time, people simply pour into the street. And it's social; they visit with vendors."

Kingsley notes that vendors typically specialize in one particular dish, such as fried or steamed dumplings served with dipping sauces, or marinated meat or vegetable skewers, items you can "grab as you're passing by on a bike or on foot."

"Many Asian street foods transfer well to upscale dining in the U.S. because they're basically simple foods that can be refined," Kingsley observes. "There's an appreciation of the various sweet, sour and salty flavors at that level of dining."

Here in 21st century North America, where all but a handful urban centers lack the foot traffic needed to sustain vibrant, thriving street-food markets, fast-food restaurants have more or less stepped in to take their place. Cheeseburgers, fries and chicken nuggets are freeway foods for a freeway culture. As more and more manufacturers and quick-serve operators scramble to find new ways to serve a culture whose quickened pace has spawned a whole new market for "dashboard dining," we'll continue to see variations on the ubiquitous breakfast bar, hot pocket, sippable soup and other transit-friendly fare that has transformed the meaning of a "quick bite."

One fellow I know actually has a patent pending on a way to fold a pizza slice, a twist that could make this quintessential convenience food even more convenient. It may not be what they're eating in Milan this season, but it just may catch on with the ripped-jean set.

As culinary director and partner at San Francisco's Center for Culinary Development and as a trained chef, Marc Halperin assists leading food and beverage companies with new product development and consumer research. E-mail him with your questions or suggestions for future columns at mhalperin@ccdsf.com.

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