Taking It to the Streets

Global street foods are driving food and format excitement at catered events

By Deanne Moskowitz

When he started B. Lin Catering five years ago, it was the “goal and food vision” of Founder and CEO Ben Lin to incorporate lots of global street foods into his menu, because they weren’t being done in Washington, D.C., where the company is located, he recalls.

American-born but of Cantonese and Taiwanese extraction, Lin concentrated originally on Asian and Southeast Asian dishes because of his background, but also was influenced by the foods of his Filipino, Puerto Rican, Greek and Korean neighbors growing up. His menu expanded along with his multicultural staff and now also encompasses a diversity of dishes from their home countries.

Today, global street foods are big movers at catered events everywhere. Typically items that are “packed with flavor,” and can be eaten with the hands with minimal cutting or fuss, as Nikki Olst, innovation chef at Denver-based Epicurean Group, explains, they lend themselves to passed hors d’oeuvres, action stations and late-night snacks. She says that they are “so popular” at Epicurean, because they transport people back to a vacation, treasured memory or “the best morsel they ever ate.”

Seattle-based Foodz Catering—influenced by its location in a technology hub that attracts transplants from around the world—offers stations that mimic street foods from more than 12 countries and 15 regions within those countries, says Shelby Sewell, CEO and culinary director.

Catering by Michaels in Chicago has produced “tons of all-street-food events,” including the 2015 and 2016 NFL Draft events, for which the company won several awards, reports Jeff Ware, director of operations.

And Pinch Food Design in New York City models many of its “pop-ups and interactions” after global street foods, reveals chef/owner Bob Spiegel. Usually handheld, addicting and comforting, global street food “is what works,” he asserts.

Contemplating the reason for the rise of street food, Elizabeth Goel, executive chef/owner of Bite Catering Couture in Los Angeles, observes that “its transient nature means it can keep up with ever-changing consumer demand for new flavors, textures and winning combinations.” The fact that it’s “renowned for being in the forefront of food innovation,” as she says, also makes it an invaluable menu development tool for catering chefs.

Also fueling the street food trend is the growing desire to personalize events, speculates Kaylin Wilken, director of marketing and public relations for Attitude on Food Catering (AOF) in Omaha, Neb., where global street foods “are very important.” They are “a great way to add that special touch!” she notes. And Mary-Beth McDowell, director of wedding planning for Connecticut Wedding Group in Middletown, Conn., observes a trend to personalizing weddings and says that street foods can often be part of it.

Bite Catering Couture’s Buddha Bar, an Asian stir-fry station with made-to-order accompaniments.

Another reason that street food is on a roll is its ability to energize service.

“It touches all the senses, and often it requires last-minute finishing and chef performance, so it really allows us to offer a ‘wow’ factor to our clients,” declares Goel.

At AOF, the street food trend has made presentations, usually as stationed small plates or heavier hors d’oeuvres, “more fun, unique and trendy,” says Wilken.

And Ware finds that it is a great way to incorporate exhibition cooking, which is the most popular format for street food service there, he says.

Convinced that the flourishing of food trucks paved the way for greater attention to street food, some caterers have purchased their own food trucks. But caterers we contacted called them “big investments” and saw more limitations than advantages. Without kitchens, a major drawback is their inability to keep up with food service for large groups.

To help chefs get food to guests faster and shorten lines, Goel prefers to create a mix of stations. She tries to give guests the impression that they are walking down a busy food street, seeing “all the different things the chefs are doing” and smelling “all the different aromas.”

AOF purchased a truck primarily as a “marketing tool” to sell food on the street but also to bring to its own events. Wilkens says that “it worked to a point,” but ultimately the company decided that the ancillary business didn’t fit its main model as a full-service off-premise caterer, and that the high expenses and time commitment involved in staffing, training, maintenance and breakdowns didn’t justify continuing to run it.

Epicurean’s food truck “is still in rotation…for certain events,” admits Olst, but it is giving way to a newer idea, conceived by the company’s chairman and founder Larry DiPasquale: the mobile pop-up station, a concept that grew out of the pop-up restaurant phenomenon. Essentially a mobile kitchen on wheels with the ability to fry, griddle and roast on site, the pop-up enables Epicurean to enhance events with focused menu items (such as tacos and dim sum) and to offer hot, fresh food continuously.

Because people love watching street food vendors cook and compose food, Pinch plays up the performance value of pop-ups, surprising guests with company-designed carts that are essentially temporary action stations rather than mobile kitchens. Among the pop-up possibilities are The Ramen Noodle Cart (described on p. 34) and Oysters in a Wheelbarrow, a sort of rolling raw bar delivering a mound of oysters with a choice of sauces, including Thai melon salsa and ponzu.

At Michaels, food truck façades reign, rather than actual food trucks. Ware thinks that they are “corny and overdone” now but can’t eliminate them because they are so popular with clients, especially for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.

Actual street food preparation may need to be adapted in order to suit the needs of large catered events. For example, to produce 500 orders of al pastor tacos, Lin braises 300 pounds of pork rather than doing it on a spit to be cut off individually as it is at a street cart. In addition, Lin, McDowell and Olst agree that street food can be messy and unwieldy, needing to be repackaged in a manner manageable for fancy dressed guests, who may also be carrying drinks.

Olst says Epicurean does “a lot of research” to produce street food that will “translate in a creative way for the guest experience.”

As the following dish round-up suggests, Asia and Latin America are the most prevalent influences on street food now, with Chinese, Japanese and Thai dishes among the contributors, and tacos appearing everywhere. But the street food trend shows no signs of slowing down, and inspirations keep coming—Indian, South African and Mediterranean among them. Olst looks forward to island fare, such as kalua pork sandwiches; and Spanish tapas, including empanadas. Lin expects Filipino to go mainstream and Mexican to move beyond tacos. And while South American already is one of the “steady drivers” at Bite, Goel predicts that more street foods will come from the region, as appreciation grows for the cuisines and ingredients of different countries and cultures within Latin America.

The Italian Cone Station from Epicurean Group affords diners the choice and mobility that they expect in street food.

Attitude on Food piles on flavor for this twist on a Mexican favorite, Smoked Buffalo Chicken Nachos, made from Buffalo Ranch Chips topped with smoked shredded chicken, blue cheese sauce, blue cheese crumbles, bacon, celery and shallots. Given a rub of paprika, salt, brown sugar, pepper, cumin, chili powder, chipotle cinnamon, dried mustard and garlic, the chicken is placed in a cooler overnight before being smoked over applewood chips and shredded. For the sauce, heavy cream is simmered, combined with chicken base, roasted garlic and blue cheese crumbles, and allowed to thicken.

A newcomer at Attitude on Food, Bunny Chow is a staple of Durban, South Africa, voted world’s best street food city by CNN in 2016, but the concept comes from Indian culture and the influence of locals. The dish features a spicy lamb, beef or chicken curry, served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread or large roll. Guests dip the “lid” of the bread, and use it along with their fingers to devour the dish in its entirety.

A Mexican specialty, Gorditas (“Little Fat Ones” in Spanish) translate perfectly to a small plate station at Bite Catering Couture. Freshly made with masa and formed into rounds, the pastries are cooked on a griddle (not deep-fried), stuffed with house-smoked chicken or carnitas and cilantro lime crema, and accompanied by guacamole and pico de gallo.

Wok fun! Bite’s Buddha Bar is an Asian stir-fry station with made-to-order accompaniments, snacks and tapas. The assortment includes bao chicken and vegetable sandwiches; Asian pulled pork sliders with Asian slaw and kimchi pickle; Vietnamese-style summer rolls with peanut sauce; and edamame hummus crostini with cucumber, pomegranate jewels and sesame. Adding to the action, Asian noodle salad is served in takeout boxes with chopsticks and peanuts served on the side.

B. Lin gives vegans a taste of the street food trend with its Vegan Garden Rolls, produced live at the station. Rice paper wraps are dipped in hot water and layered with basil and a julienne of firm tofu, followed by a combination of green cabbage, red cabbage, scallions, red pepper and julienned carrots, and finally by rice vermicelli.

Katsu Gyoza, a dumpling with a Japanese heritage, is one of a multitude of Asian-influenced street foods on the menu at B. Lin. To make them, Lin chops shredded Napa cabbage, garlic, ginger, carrots and shiitake mushrooms in a food processer; and then adds ground pork, seasons with curry powder and salt, stuffs the filling into round wonton skins and pan-sears the dumplings before service.

Given a triple blast of bold flavors and a sizzling presentation, Duck Fat Fried Chicken is one of Catering by Michaels’ top-selling street food selections. Brought separately to the site along with the other ingredients, soy mirin-marinated chicken thighs are breaded in potato starch at the event. A chef then deep-fries them to order, sets them over cheddar bacon popcorn and drizzles them with Thai chili aioli. A second chef uses a smoking gun to flavor the whole dish with bourbon barrel wood and present it to the undoubtedly-awed diners.

Guests love to grab a quick bite at the Tinga de Pollo station at Catering by Michaels’ events, where tasty shredded chicken is quickly griddled, piled into made-to-order tortillas, and finished with their choice of various toppings and sauces. In fact, a lot of advanced preparation goes into producing such profound flavor: Boneless breasts are browned in a sauce pan and later cooked in a sauce made from blistered tomatillos, Roma tomatoes and garlic, to which onions, oregano and bay leaves, and then cider vinegar and chicken stock are added. The mixture is blended with chipotle in adobo sauce, and the cooked chicken is shredded and simmered in the spicy coating until thickened. It’s one of the options offered at this Mexican-themed food truck facade.

Inspired by “a culinary journey” to a New England fair, Connecticut Wedding Group came up with a way to make eating tacos easier. Developed by Director of Catering Mary-Beth McDowell with Executive Chef Stephen Lisitano, Walking Tacos is a DIY customizable experience. Guests are instructed to grab a bag of Doritos or Fritos; crunch their chips and open the bag; add freshly made ground taco meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream; mix it up, dig in their fork, and “enjoy heaven in a bag!”

Especially with so many couples and guests coming from New York and New Jersey, the “Dirty Water Dog” Station, featuring the quintessential city street food, is a big hit for Connecticut Wedding Group as a late-night snack. Developed by Jersey-born Director of Sales Michelle Moody with Executive Chef Stephen Lisitano, the concept works as the ultimate hot dog bar, with buns steamed to order and paired with all-beef kosher franks, and guests given their choice of traditional toppings, including homemade beef chili, sauerkraut and chopped onions. Or for ballpark dog lovers, servers don hocker boxes and deliver the dogs to guests right on the dance floor.

A stunning display of cured meats and cheeses along with other Italian appetizer favorites, the Italian Cone Station from Epicurean Group affords diners the choice and mobility that they expect in street food. Among the grabbable goodies are prosciutto, salami and mozzarella packed in bamboo cones; and burrata with roasted grapes and mozzarella or prosciutto and arugula petite salads dispensed in tiny jars with utensils. Sometimes the meat is sliced live using one of the company’s vintage Italian slicers.

A huge assortment of small bites, Epicurean’s Dim Sum Station includes shumai, vegetable potstickers, char siu bao (pork) and chive pancake, all served with sriracha, soy sauce, ponzu and sesame chili oil. A number of items are made in-house, but everything is prepared in advance and laid out for ease of eating.

Foodz Catering gives classic meat patties Mexican flair with their Nacho Cheese Burger. Grilled outside and brought in to the station or cooked in the kitchen and hot-held, 4-ounce sirloin patties are napped with a béchamel-based cheddar and Monterey Jack sauce accented with minced jalapeños, and presented in a brioche roll.

At its Kimchi Fried Rice Station, Foodz Catering glorifies bowls of house-made kimchi and garlic fried rice. An attendant finishes the dish with pickled ginger carrots and marinated flank steak, which has been grilled in advance, but sliced at the event. Finally, the combination is crowned with a fried egg, which is cooked at the station for smaller groups, but pre-cooked and rewarmed on a griddle for larger ones.

From Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, Bob Spiegel, chef/owner of Pinch Food Design brings Hiyashi Ramen, a dish of fermented ramen noodles with a choice of pork-chicken reduction or sesame vegetarian broth, and toppings including ramen egg, smoked tofu, sous vide chicken, pork belly and cucumber. The dish is packaged in Pinch’s specially designed cart, like a pop-up food truck, unexpectedly appearing in the space when it is rolled in by a waiter and just as suddenly disappearing later.