Saturday, July 17, 2010

How to pick a food stand

I've been blessed with many obscure talents in this life.  I like to think this is the universe's way of making up for my total lack of athletic ability.

One of those talents, and probably the one that comes in the handiest during music festival season, is my uncanny ability to face the usual dizzying selection of food carts available at such events and pick the best of the lot.  I hadn't ever thought about it until last weekend at the Forecastle Festival, when it struck me that not everyone shares this knack.

Eager to drop the knowledge, I started brainstorming about what makes a great food stand and came up with some decent guidelines.  I can think of exceptions to each of these rules, but as Robert Fulghum said, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.

Good food stands have hand-written menus. If there's one rule that towers above all others, this might be it. Printed, painted, or carved-in-stone menus may look more professional, but professional isn't necessarily a virtue in the world of street food. If part of the menu is pre-printed but there are hand-written additions, that's usually a pretty good sign. But a full-on whiteboard (or, better yet, chalkboard) is the best sign of all.

The best food stands are often from local restaurants. When a local joint sets up a cart at an event, they're not really doing it to make money--they're advertising.  The guy who sets up at a dozen festivals every summer could give two shits if you like his food or not, but the folks from the local restaurant have the chance to gain (or lose) year-round customers.  I specify "local" restaurants because you occasionally see stands from the big chains, and you should steer clear at all costs--they're just bad versions of food that was mediocre at best to start with.

Ethnic foods are often best, as long as the stand features a single ethnicity. I've never had a burger at a street fair that turned my crank, but I've had samosas and tacos that were transcendent. Let's face it, America--the rest of the world has more interesting street food than we do. What you want to avoid are the mega-stands that sell gyros, pad thai, shrimp creole, fajitas, and fried catfish, because somehow all of those things will taste exactly the same.

People standing around waiting after they've ordered is good. It doesn't necessarily mean that people consider the food worth waiting for; they probably didn't realize they'd have to wait.  But it means you're getting food that hasn't been sitting back there all day.

Charity/local organization booths are a gamble. They can be a good value, since they often get their ingredients donated.  But at the same time they start with the sort of ingredients that get donated, and they usually don't have people with the expertise to make those lousy ingredients into culinary gold. If I'm going with middling fare like a burger or a hot dog, I'll always go with a booth supporting a charity over one that doesn't (assuming the charity is worthy, and not, like, Pedophiles for Drunk Driving).

If you want pizza, and there's pizza, get pizza. There are times (and particular levels of drunkenness) at which the body just calls out for pizza, and if you find yourself at such a point and there's a pizza stand, give in.  It might not be the best pizza ever, but it's what you want, and a mediocre version of what you want beats a great version of something you don't.  This is especially true of pizza because, as Woody said, it's like sex--when it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad it's still pretty good.

Wraps suck. This is universally true, not just in the realm of the food cart--anything described as a wrap, or really anything wrapped in a flour tortilla that isn't described as a burrito, will suck ass. You might think you've had a wrap in the past that was great, but some people think they've been abducted and probed by aliens, too.

Avoid "bourbon chicken". It seems like a no-brainer. Bourbon chicken? How bad could that be? But ultimately it's like sleeping with the head cheerleader--it sounds great, and people will smile when you tell them about it, but the experience itself is pretty disappointing and you'll probably end up with some horrible disease. (Places that sell bourbon chicken always look sketchy to me. Sketchiness is not an absolute reason not to buy from a food stand, but sketchy + poultry = Danger, Will Robinson.)

In fact, just avoid chicken. Poultry represents, by far, the best chance for food poisoning in the questionably refrigerated world of street food, and there's almost certainly more interesting fare to be had.

Stay away from anything labeled as "Southern". Another rule that transcends the food cart world.  Real Southern food doesn't have to say so.

Finally, ask people! Fairs and festivals are made for mingling with other people, and there aren't any easier icebreakers than "Hey, that looks tasty! Where did you get it?" Scan the picnic tables and it usually won't be hard to spot the good stuff, then find out where it came from.

So what are your tips for finding a great food cart?

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