There was a time when street food meant burgers and hot dogs at the county fair. But across the world, it’s a way for people to showcase their skills, recipes and heritage.
Thank social media or an increased interest in worldwide cuisine, but street eats have finally made their way to America. Restaurants from high-end, white-tablecloth hotspots to grab-and-go food trucks have adopted their own versions of international street foods, so you can get everything from Thai chicken sate to Mexican birria tacos without getting on a plane.
In a region as diverse as Central Jersey, you can bet that we pretty much cover the world when it comes to street food. Here are just a few local restaurants offering their own takes on international street favorites.
Chinese food: Bao buns, Ani Ramen, New Brunswick and Cranford
Bao buns may originate from China, but the soft, pillowy buns filled with savory meat have made their way to many Asian cuisines, especially now as a trendy street food. That includes at Ani Ramen, a Japanese ramen house with Central Jersey locations in New Brunswick and Cranford known for its authentic fare with modern touches.
Ani Ramen’s bao buns are just as popular as its ramen. They sell more than 5,000 $9 orders — with two buns in each — every week throughout their seven New Jersey locations. Variations include buns filled with panko shrimp, soy-glazed chicken, fried tofu, pork belly, soft shell crab, beef brisket and Berkshire sausage.
“The bao buns at Ani are very special and unique,” said Julián Valencia, executive chef and managing member at Ani Ramen. “We came out with two special sauces — a spicy miso mayo and a sake soy glaze which complements beautifully with our buta kakuni, a Japanese braised pork belly. It’s topped with thinly-sliced cabbage and a homemade pickled cucumber, which is an unmatchable combination of flavors and textures inside a warm, sweet bao.”
Go: 37 Easton Ave., New Brunswick; 732-317-8200. 109 Walnut Ave., Cranford; 908-325-6156. aniramen.com.
Italian food: Arancini, Lombardi Pizza Co., Martinsville
Peter Lombardi, owner and founder of Lombardi Pizza Co., knows real Italian eats. Before starting his food truck and restaurant, he went to Naples to study with master pizza chef Enzo Coccia. More than 10 years later, arancini is still what instantly comes to mind when he thinks of Neapolitan street food.
Lombardi Pizza Co. has offered its $7 arancini — four fried Italian rice balls served with tomato cream sauce — since it opened in 2013. They make their version in-house, although without the typical meat or vegetable in efforts to attract more customers, and also with panko bread crumbs rather than Italian bread crumbs.
“Inside, they are creamy and you should taste the salty sharpness from the Pecorino cheese and a hint of white wine,” said Lombardi. “We serve them with a tomato cream sauce to add some acidity.”
Go: 1958 Washington Valley Road, Martinsville; 732-667-5290, lombardipizzaco.com.
Mexican food: Street corn, Red Cadillac, Union
As a roasted corn on the cob slathered with chipotle mayo, Monterey cheese and toasted bread crumbs, it’s no wonder that the $7 Cadillac Street Corn literally flies off the shelves at the Red Cadillac in Union — they go through 200 to 300 ears of corn every four days.
Don’t see it on the menu today? Don’t worry. They always have it, said general manager and working partner Jolie Montes, as a secret menu item at the lively, modern Mexican eatery with a red Cadillac always parked outside.
“It’s baked slowly to melt the cheese and give it the rich taste, and our homemade chipotle mayonnaise recipe puts it over the top,” said Montes. “Our method of roasting the corn makes it the perfect street-side complement.”
Go: 2258 Morris Ave., Union; 908-349-8411, theredcadillacnj.com.
Peruvian food: Papa rellena, Sabor Peruano, Rahway
Peru has nearly 4,000 types of potatoes and its cuisine reflects that, with tons of dishes mixing up the staple vegetable. One of the favorites includes papa rellena, a stuffed potato with chopped meat, raisins, onion and hard-boiled egg, which can be found on the menu at Sabor Peruano for $7.
It’s one of the most popular appetizers here, said Luis Fonseca, co-owner of the family-run restaurant.
“Personally, papa rellena has a nostalgic meaning because it reminds me of my country,” Fonseca said.
Go: 1576 Irving St., Rahway; 732-900-1396, saborperuanonj.com.
Thai food: Sate, Kuay Tiew Noodles, Somerville
The Somerville area has a few Thai spots, but what Kuay Tiew Noodles prides itself on is authentic cuisine straight from Southeast Asia. That includes its chicken or beef sate, which is marinated meat on skewers served with toast, cucumber relish and peanut sauce for $9 or $10.
Sate is the most popular street food in Thailand, said Kuay Tiew Noodles co-owner Thana Sermsuwan, and it’s similarly an extremely popular appetizer at the restaurant — almost every table orders it.
“We marinate our sate in several types of soy sauce, Thai herbs and coconut milk,” said Sermsuwan. “I would describe the taste of our sate as ‘wow!’ “
Go: 42 W Main St., Somerville; 908-393-9555, ktsomerville.com.
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.