Think New Orleans needs more street food? This weekend's French Quarter Festival is teeming with inspiration for new ideas.
Street food is a term that has a lot of cachet in the dining world these days. I just wish we could get our hands on it a little more.
Street food is all over TV food programs, with telegenic hosts leading viewers on vicarious romps through the market stalls and homey huts of exotic destinations for thrilling food finds. And the mention of street food can hold happy memories for people who have witnessed it action elsewhere — whether it’s the crêpe stands of Paris, the dealers of those slim, simple, utterly satisfying bocadillo sandwiches around Spain, or even just the slice-on-any-given-corner pizzeria culture of New York.
The appeal is easy to see. It’s about efficiency, easy access and sometimes even a little adventure — a low cost invitation to try something tasty without getting tied in to a whole dining experience. And so, these days, savvy marketers have even started applying the street food tag to restaurant concepts where the only connection to the street is the fact that customers drove on one to get there.
When I think of street food, I’m not thinking of a take-out window or a waiting list to join the communal table. I’m thinking: I give you money, you give me food, and I walk away eating it. As hard as it normally is to find examples of this around town, there are certain times and places where something very close to the glittering ideal of grab-and-go street food blossoms all around us.
That’s festival time, and the spring version of it is about to explode. Festivals provide what street food needs to thrive, namely a high volume of passersby looking to eat without slowing down. They provide this only temporarily, and only in very prescribed areas. But when you’re in the thick of one, it’s tempting to look around and imagine the possibilities.
French Quarter Festival, now underway once again, is a prime example. This free festival is spread across the riverfront, and in addition to all the music stages it brings about four dozen booths representing New Orleans restaurants, from the grand to the grassroots varieties. All have the order, pay and eat rhythm of street food down pretty well, whether they’re serving prime rib debris po-boys, crawfish sausage, shrimp remoulade in cardboard boats, boudin links on sticks, meat pies in greasy little packets, vegetarian hot dogs, seaweed salads, lamb sliders, pork chop lollipops, turkey legs, fish tacos, bowls of gumbo or even a hand-held serving of baked Alaska. Seriously, it’s all out there on the streets this weekend.
Of course, the other thing festivals provide — again temporarily and in limited areas — is permission to do street food. The food truck operators who have been planting the flag for their own version of more street food around town can attest to the hassle of trying to start something different. That has not been a smooth road.
This French Quarter Festival setting is more a dream of what New Orleans street food could be than any realistic model. But maybe, somewhere between all the food stands and stalls massed for this weekend’s annual event, there are nuggets of inspiration for something else. Even if it proves an uphill battle, think how delicious the field research could be.
Click here for a roster of food vendors at this year's French Quarter Festival.