The inside story
Published: July 1, 2012
Chefs continue to jump aboard food trucks, taking to the streets with moveable versions of their signature dishes. But the popularity of street foods is spawning a reverse trend, as restaurants adapt iconic items to tabletop dining. Grilled and spit-roasted meats seem to be leading the charge.
Middle Eastern shawarma, Turkish kabobs, Greek gyros, Mexican tacos, Asian sates, Peruvian anticuchos, and Indian flatbreads enclosing lamb, beef and chicken—street vendors around the world have been selling meaty snacks-to-go forever. Now American carnivores have more options to sit down and enjoy these global foods—sometimes with knife and fork in hand.
When Mike Kamio opened the first Anna’s 16 years ago, not many Bostonians knew what a taqueria was, so he focused on burritos—more of “an American invention.” Fast forward to 2012, and the menu at all six locations features tacos filled with the likes of lengua (tongue), carnitas and chile verde in fresh corn tortillas ($1.95-$2.85 each)—just like the ones sold by Mexican street vendors. One of Anna’s greatest hits is Tacos al Pastor.
“Tacos al Pastor actually originated with a Franciscan pastor at a California mission,” Kamio relates. “He marinated pork and spit-roasted it over an open fire.” The recipe Anna’s uses today starts with pork butt, which is sliced and marinated overnight in chipotles, guajillo chilies, oregano and cinnamon. It’s then alternately layered with onion slices on a spit until the many layers form together into a giant ball of meat—like a gyro or shawarma, Kamio explains. “We skewer fresh pineapple on top and as the pork rotates in the vertical roaster, the pineapple releases an enzyme that tenderizes the meat.” To order, the outer layer of cooked pork is shaved off and finished on a griddle. Then meat and pineapple are layered on a warm, 4-inch tortilla and garnished.
With 40 to 50 seats and takeout counter service, Anna’s may look like a fast-casual eatery, “but this isn’t fast food,” asserts Kamio. “Everything is prepped and cooked in authentic street food tradition.”
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill
“Guests have been asking us to add kabobs for awhile,” says Josh Blanchard, director of operations for the 14-unit Garbanzo concept, “and we figured they would complement our Mediterranean menu. The R&D team came up with a house-made marinade based on rosemary, oregano, lemon juice and oil—similar to that used with Garbanzo’s shawarma. Two meats—chicken breast and beef sirloin—as well as portobello mushrooms are marinated in the mixture, then threaded on skewers and cooked to order on a char grill.
“Our founder [Alon Mor] is native to the Mediterranean region and authenticity is essential to every menu item,” Blanchard notes. The kabobs were launched in June, available as platters along with house-made hummus, vegetable salad, rice and pita; chicken and portobello go for $8.99; steak for $9.99. Patrons can also order up a kabob with pita bread as a snack for $3.99. “Open-ended modification and customization are Garbanzo’s signatures.”
New York City
Americans think of kabobs as street food, but in Turkey—where they’re spelled “kebabs”—they are served at sit-down meals, says Galip Ozbek, owner of Turkish restaurant Savann. The most popular are the Chicken or Lamb Shish Kebab ($14 and $18 respectively). “We use domestic leg of lamb, a more expensive cut but very tender,” says Ozbek.
Close runners-up are the Adana Kebabs, made with lamb or chicken, ground in–house and seasoned with black pepper, dried red pepper, bell pepper, parsley and sumac. The mixture is mounted on a wide skewer and grilled. “Adana takes its name from a city on the coast of eastern Turkey,” Ozbek explains. While skewered meats are ubiquitous in the Middle East, Adana Kebabs are very unique to Turkish cuisine. At Savann, they are served at lunch, dinner and the newly launched brunch.
Brunch kebabs are served over baby arugula salad with pomegranate vinaigrette or shepherd’s salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, mint, dill and parsley in a red wine vinaigrette). “The kebabs sell 50-50 right along with the omelets,” Ozbek notes with surprise.
Tom Pizzica takes it outside
“Big Chef” Tom Pizzica worked in restaurants for 15 years before starring in Food Network’s “Outrageous Food.” “On the show, we were constantly searching for the biggest, boldest, spiciest foods,” he reports—an experience that prompted him to launch Big Chef Tom’s Belly Burgers in 2011. The company specializes in street food—specifically pork belly burgers with fried pepper aioli (blended with poblano and serrano chilies) and Mexican tomatillo pickles. He works out of a commissary in San Francisco, where he grinds the pork belly, preps the components and takes them on the road. “We do a lot of pop-ups, events and catering,” he says.
The richness and versatility of pork belly make for a better burger than beef, Pizzica claims, and is a perfect foil for the bold flavors he loves. The 3-ounce burgers sell for $5. “Street food should be cheap and unique,” he believes—unlike the $15 burgers some chefs are selling these days.