Over the last five years, street food has been viewed in a whole new way in our area. The flavorful foods of peddlers' carts all over the world seem to have acquired a certain cachet. Perhaps it has to do with television programming that whisks us all across the globe in search of authentic, down-home treats. Maybe it's the penurious tastes of local diners eschewing upscale trappings and looking for a place where they can relax and eat with their hands. It could have plenty to do with the food truck craze sweeping our region. Or perhaps it's simply the way street food packs so many rich flavors into a small package that account for its newfound visibility.
Whatever is driving this change of perceptions, the evidence abounds. You see it in the tasty little dishes churned out in the kitchens of food trucks, but also indoors. One need only look at the brisk business at Ferndale's Imperial, where street-style tacos are all the rage, or up at Royal Oak, where KouZina Greek Street Food puts the formerly humble fare on the marquee. Even the chains are getting into the act, with Piada Italian Street Food staking a claim up in Troy.
Street food has become loaded with appealing connotations, whether it's the gloriously casual idea of buying food on the run or the sun-splashed locales where a person can operate a cart year-round. The reality, of course, is that anybody in Michigan who is serious about serving street food will have to do something seemingly antithetical to it: Open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. But the warm undertones of street fare are so indelible even a restaurant carries some of the fond associations indoors.
For instance, eight years ago, when Rikesh Patel and his partners opened Neehee's Indian Vegetarian Street Food (45656 Ford Rd., Canton; 734-737-9777), it was never a question that they would serve it in a traditional eatery. At his Canton location, which has been there since 2009, he says the only factor wasn't weather. Patel says he needed a large, full-service kitchen to serve the broad array of Indian street foods. "There's a vast variety," Patel tells us, "because all the food comes from different regions in India. Each region is very different — in language, in culture, in clothing. They also do a very different cuisine in each state, so each state has its own unique street food. We try to keep everything under one roof over here, but there are all kinds of regional people from India."
And to put even more strain on the kitchen, the growing local vegan community convinced Patel to offer "a big variety of vegan options and vegetarian options."
All in all, the kitchen prepares a variety of about 150 different dishes, ranging from the north, west, and south of India.
The actual dining experience, Patel says, is "comparable to a Panera Bread type of concept where you order at the counter but your food is picked up at the counter."
Although the exotic treats — and their vegetarian treatments — draw a dining crowd that's about 40 percent native-born Americans, a lot of the customers are born in India, seeking out food that brims with warm associations of childhood, family, and upbringing.
Patel sets the scene for us, saying: "Everywhere you go, there is street food. The culture is so popular, from childhood to adulthood, everybody knows all about street food. When they migrate to the United States, they don't find it over here. But when we started this business, people started coming here just to relive their own memories of what they used to get."
Those warm memories of street food play a central role at another eatery, Hut-K Chaats (3022 Packard Rd., Ann Arbor; 734-786-8312), but with a different twist. It was a brush with Type 2 diabetes that prompted Swaroop Bhojani to learn to eat healthfully. That's what inspired him to return to the comfort food of his youth, but given the most healthful preparation possible. For the last three-and-a-half years, Hut-K Chaats has served vegetarian dishes that comfort and cure.
Echoing Patel's remarks, Bhojani tells us that, in Indian culture, street food is often the first meal students have away from home, and that they're jammed with flavor. "These are foods that have a multitude of tastes in a single bite. They are all over: sweet, sour, salty, fresh, spicy, with some components soft, some crunchy, some warm, some cold. The majority of us, taking our recess, would visit this stand outside the school, and we would be looking forward to recess," he says, adding with a laugh, "especially for this!"
Bhojani's mission, then, was to take these comforting foods and turn them into something "nutritionally dense."
He explains, telling us, "What I did was, I took the traditional Indian street food then modified them to remove all the processed sugars out, sweetening our sauces only with fruits and dry fruits. Then we added in a lot of raw greens like mint, cilantro, organic spinach, organic kale, organic chard, and we also modified the deep-fried components of these kind of street foods and looked at the baked versions."
That's why it's more accurate to say that the fare at Hut-K Chaats is "inspired" by authentic Indian street food. Bhojani says, "It's not real Indian street food, but it's more like healthy Indian street food."
It makes sense why the food has to come indoors. If you had a cart on the street in India, it would make sense to use flash-frying or hot oil to make dishes taste rich right away, as opposed to using the tricks a full kitchen can pull of to ensure more healthful preparations.
Bhojani spells it out for us: "It's much more easier to, let's say, fry a samosa than to bake it. First, the process itself takes very long; baking takes me in between two to two-and-a-half hours, whereas frying samosas, you could take it out of the hot oil in five minutes. It's also more expensive to bake than to fry."
What's more, Bhojani strives to pack his dishes with beneficial ingredients. "My goal," he says, "was to create food that would provide a lot of anti-inflammatory agents and a lot of anti-oxidants, so the inflammation in the body would be reduced while tasting good. That's why we call our food 'nutrilicious.'"
Another Ann Arbor eatery offering dishes inspired by street food is Frita Batidos (117 W. Washington St., Ann Arbor; 734-761-2882), which has been open just four years. Owner Eve Aronoff tells us, "Ours is a little different because it's kind of like a hybrid. It's not traditional street food; it's still like my style of cooking as a chef involved with the slow food movement, but also inspired by street food and traditional methods of cooking.
"The menu revolves around traditions that are core parts of traditional Cuban street food: the Frita and the Batido. Traditionally, fritas are Cuban burgers made of chorizo — a spicy pork sausage — served on an egg bun with shoestring fries on top. And then batidos are chocolate milkshakes. That was kind of the starting point and the inspiration. What we serve is my interpretation of those, and that's what the menu revolves around, using the ingredients that are prevalent in Cuban and, more broadly, Latino cultures."
Aronoff's street food style, much like Indian street foods, involves unusual mixes of flavors. She says, "We have four different ways we prepare plantains, but the most popular is the twice-fried ripe plantains. Traditionally, twice-fried ripe plantains would be served as a dessert, but I like to combine sweet and savory and spicy. We serve ours with garlic and cilantro butter and a sweet chili mayo. I dress plantains usually sweet, savory, and spicy but more on the savory side."
While many return to street food for a taste of their home countries and their childhoods, most diners find a meal at Frita Batidos to be an experience full of novelty. "But at the same time," Aronoff points out, "we have so many people who come from India or Pakistan and they say that my food reminds them more of the food they grew up with than the traditional Indian restaurants here because of my style of cooking, just bringing together the different ingredients to create something kind of complex but harmonious and slowly bringing together the flavors, so it's pretty interesting for me to hear that over and over again. The flavor profiles are totally different but there's something in the philosophy and approach to my street food that really is reminiscent to them of the food they grew up with, even though the flavor profiles are totally different."
It also doesn't hurt that the dining environment at Frita Batidos is a few picnic tables that mimic an outdoor setting. "That's the spirit of it,"Aronoff says, "I see people connect with each other. It's kind of a contagious spirit: it's fun and lively and warm. It feels good. I think people appreciate it too. It's fun too. It might be a little bit of a splurge, but it's not. It's a good value, but it's not something where you feel like you're being taken advantage of. You're paying for good quality ingredients so that we can pay farmers and different things, but it's something you can come to a couple times a week and have fun and feel good."