Skip to Content

Street Food

On American city streets, suburban boulevards and country crossings no one type of food is more widely sold out of mobile food carts, trailers and trucks than the ubiquitous hot dog in all its variants: chilidog, corndog, or anything dog. The New York City hot dog cart, with its welcoming umbrella and billows of steam, is as distinct an image of the city as the yellow taxi; Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without its own fleet of hot dog carts and stands. Even in remote rural areas, hot dog trucks and trailers, some crudely made, others gleaming with modern chrome, tempt passing drivers at all times of day.

The hot dog is a winner for street food because it is easy to prepare without elaborate equipment, and even easier to eat on the run, but almost anything that can be eaten quickly without making a mess is sold on an informal basis on American streets. In New York, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, St. Louis, Miami or any sizeable American city, street food is a cuisine in itself, the menu choices are limited only by the imagination of the vendor. The Memphis resident may grab a quick sandwich of barbecued pork, the Philadelphian a cheese steak, the New Orleans diner a fried oyster Po’ Boy, but in any of these cities, and in dozens more, the diner may just as easily dine on skewered Korean chicken, skewered Jamaican jerk chicken, skewered Indonesian Satay chicken, or (if not in the mood for skewered chicken), a Chinese egg roll, a Greek gyro, a Puerto Rican empanada, a hot Italian sausage, a plate of Japanese sushi, or a hundred other items, all on the run, all on the street.

Many varieties of Mexican and Tex-Mex food are sold from mobile locations, but out of these, the easy-to-eat burrito, a flour tortilla filled with meats, chili, beans or other combinations, is especially popular among the general public. Instead of umbrellas, specialized burrito carts and stands may use oversized versions of the colorful Mexican hat called the sombrero to provide shade and attract attention.

Street vendors sell salted and roasted nuts, sweet treats, popcorn, bagged snack foods, candies and sodas out of carts all over the United States. Honey roasted nuts are a particular favorite; they are self-advertising with their appealing aromas.

For an especially quick snack, many carts and small stands sell soft pretzels; in New York and Philadelphia, the soft pretzel is as important a part of the street food culture as the hot dog.

Ice cream carts, trucks, and trailers situate themselves in parks, at events, and on busy streets and routes, selling pre-packaged ice cream or soft ice cream from specialized machines. With the advent of gourmet super-premium ice creams, some carts and trucks have taken to offering these treats by the scoop and the cone. In addition to the trucks that stake out stationary sites, specialized ice cream trucks move through neighborhoods. Traditionally these trucks jingled bells to attract children; today they almost always play recorded music to herald their arrival. The look of the trucks has changed over time, but the arrival of the ice cream truck has always been one of the key memories of American childhood, in city, country or town. In the heat of summer, small carts in cities and at events sell flavored snow cones and Italian-style ices.

While carts, trucks and small stands offer ethnic and regional specialties almost anywhere in the United States, it is common to see food trucks or trailers in rural areas that stick to a tried and true American menu: hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, sandwiches, snacks like potato chips and pretzels, candies, and pre-wrapped ice cream or frozen treats.