Anyone who insists that food tastes better eaten off china has never tucked into a skewer of charred, juicy lamb handed to him from the inside of a beat-up truck. Street foodthe plump sausages, spit-roasted chicken, and warm, soft tacos made in tiny mobile kitchens from coast to coastis an American culinary mainstay. But only a handful of vendors belong in the pantheon of curbside cuisine. These spots turn out the kind of gloriously sloppy food that makes you wonder what fool would wait two hours for a table at a fancy restaurant when an equally transcendent meal is right around the corner.
Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
The road from repo man to sausage-slinger is not exactly well-traveled, but Jim Pittenger made it a smooth one. He started selling locally made game sausages out of a cart in downtown Denver three years ago. He’ll happily add sauerkraut, spicy mustard, or a dill-pickle slice to, for instance, a dog made with elk hunted in a Colorado reserve, but he prefers to use his signature condiment: cream cheese piped from a caulking gun. Whatever it’s dressed up with, the meat is charred on a hot grill, because, as Pittenger puts it on his website, “if you tried to serve me a boiled Reindeer or Buffalo brat, I would have to hit you.”
Skyline Park, southwest corner of 16th and Arapahoe Streets; no phone; bikerjimsdogs.com
In a city where pedestrians can get sausage-stuffed waffles and seasonal plum clafouti without setting foot indoors, you have to be pushing one impressive sidewalk snack to stand out. Monika and Karel Vitek, the friendly Czech couple who run this bright-red stall in a vendor-packed parking lot known as the Pod, do that with the Schnitzelwich. They cram a breaded, fried-to-order pork cutlet into a crusty ciabatta roll along with lettuce, caramelized onions, and smears of paprika spread and horseradish. Don’t expect to have room left over for the exemplary goulash, spaetzle, or sausage with sauerkraut.
The parking lot at SW Fifth Avenue and Stark Street, 503-997-5467; schnitzelwich.com
Long before Craig LaBan, Philly’s most fearsome restaurant critic, bestowed two out of four bells on this rickety truck, devotees of Tsz Pong’s cooking were making regular pilgrimages to the corner of 38th and Walnut. Those early fans know it’s better to call Pong’s wife on her cell and endure her famously frosty phone manner than wait in line to order sparerib tips tossed in tangy black-bean sauce or curry-powder-laced Singapore noodles dotted with bits of tender roast pork. It’s all scooped unceremoniously into Styrofoam containers, and none of it costs more than $5.
Corner of 38th and Walnut Streets, 610-812-7189
New York City
New York’s halal carts are legendary, legion, and nearly identical. They’re almost all papered with faded photographs of lamb in pita and chicken on rice and manned by one or more guys who toil for hours at a sizzling grill, tending to lines of hungry office workers. But Pakistani-born Samiul “Sammy” Haque Noor elevates the idiom, dispensing gyros and dark-meat chicken served over delicately spiced rice squirted with any combination of three sauces (mellow white, fiery red, and tangy, cilantro-packed green)both of which prove he deserves his coveted Vendy, the Academy Award for local street carts.
Broadway at 73rd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, and several locations in Manhattan, 917-446-9948