Susan Feniger didn’t invent street food, but she has celebrated global street fare throughout her three decades in the restaurant world. She is perhaps best known as the co-creator, with Mary Sue Milliken, of the popular Border Grill concept, which has three locations and spawned the Border Grill food truck.
In 2009 Feniger opened her first solo venture, Street, where global small plates are the order of the day. Her latest cookbook, Susan Feniger’s Street Food (Clarkson Potter 2012), is a natural outgrowth of her passion for casual international flavors. We spoke with her about how this casual style of cooking and eating is transforming restaurant menus.
What are your favorite street food destinations?
That’s such a challenging question. I would have to say probably my heart would be in India, which probably influenced my food career more than anywhere else. I trained in French kitchens for so many years at CIA and in the South of France. But I took my first trip to India in 1981, and honestly it was such an incredible experience for me in terms of flavors that I had never tasted, the cotton materials, the pots and pans, walking through a market seeing all the spices and colors. During my first trip to Mexico I found myself very drawn to strong flavors; that shaped my career and moved me away from the French kitchen also. After Mary Sue and I took our first trip Mexico in 1984, we started Border Grill.
There is something about eating in the street, off a stand, being in some cool neighborhood where someone is cooking in an alley….there is an inspiration that I don’t find that often when just eating in restaurants. There is a connection with people. I like eating in tiny little places or on the street—if it’s great food, you don’t care if it’s fancy. You end up forming great relationships with people. You find out about cultures in a way you don’t get when you eat in a fancy restaurant.
Food is about sitting, enjoying flavors, talking about politics.
What do you see as the appeal of eating at a food cart?
When you are eating at a stand or visiting a market stand where someone is making a fantastic dish, you can see how they make it. Are they cooking on a hot griddle or fire? Do they sear something? Are they putting mayo or acid on it? One of the first times I visited Mexico I watched someone making a taco. I saw him drizzling it with olive oil, squeezing lime juice on it, adding a slaw, maybe some caramelized onions. It gives you a sense that it’s going to be an interesting dish. There’s something very authentic about this experience that I love.
What’s the best thing you ever ate on the street?
There are so many. The first time I was in Mumbai, trying panipuri or bhelpuri. All over the streets people are doing chaat—snacks with puffed rice, potatoes, tamarind chutney, like a fried tortilla gets tossed together at last minute with cilantro. You eat it out of a paper cone and it’s so incredibly flavorful.
In Singapore, I had Kaya toast, a hangover cure that’s made with coconut curd, eggs and pandan leaves.
And I ate probably one of the best cubano sandwiches ever outside of Guadalajara at 11 at night. A woman there made cubanos with pork, carnitas, hot dogs, you name it. They are fabulous.
You’re in L.A., where sourcing some of these esoteric ingredients isn’t a challenge. What about the rest of us?
Street Food includes recipes that allow the user to produce these very interesting dishes without being forced to find exotic ingredients. And there are suggestions for substitutes. Also, instead of a glossary, we provided little pictures of all these ingredients, so if you walk into a market and no one speaks English, someone can help you.
Food trucks aside, do you ever see street food gaining ground in the U.S.?
I think people come up with creative ways to get out there. A truck is less expensive than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and a food stand is even less expensive. But local health departments make it challenging to have those around. I think there are great things that can happen without needing a truck. We’re challenged in L.A. because everyone drives. But in places like New York City, we are starting to see a lot more ethnic foods pop up, things like dosas and papusas. I think more and more we’ve embraced global cuisine—way more so than 20 years ago. And maybe all the excitement about the trucks is changing opinions. We’ve had food trucks around a long time—they used to be called roach coaches. Now in L.A. alone there are 100-plus gourmet food trucks, and the health department is on top of them.
What’s next on your to-do list?
The cookbook just came out, so I’ve got a heavy-duty media schedule now. And there are a bunch of food festivals still going on here. We’re looking at what the next book might be; it will probably also be street-oriented. We are looking for another Border Grill location in Southern California. And I’d like to expand Street as well.