Finding a great local street food scene offers direct insight into the very soul of a place. There’s kinetic energy to copping street food that cuts through all the pretense. Presentation is secondary, the goal here is capturing local flavors and techniques. It’s sensory overload at its most accessible. You can’t get more experiential than that.
Good street food is, by nature, the perfect source for cheap eats — filling you up affordably. Any cart or stall where a plate of noodles or a steaming bowl of rice with curry is about a dollar is a win for the weary traveler. But street food is more than that, too. It can be transcendent. It also gives you a chance to talk to locals and get a sense of a place. And, well, that’s what it’s all about, right?
With all of that in mind, we decided to reach out to some of our favorite travelers — folks who are on the road year-round — to ask them about where they’ve had their most transcendent street food experiences. The spots shouted out below are out there, waiting for you to visit, offering you a chance to eat some amazing food and, more importantly, a chance to broaden your understanding of the world.
SOHEILA HAKIMI (isthatsoh) — MONTREAL, QUEBEC
It may be my French Canadian roots talking, but, for me, the best street food is definitely poutine. I mean, what’s not to like about crispy fries covered in big curds of melted cheese and scalding hot savory gravy?! I literally grew up on this cultural staple and every time I see it, I’m guaranteed to steal some from whoever dares to order one — the temptation is just too much.
My favorite poutine truck is Greg’s Diner in Montreal because of their cute classic diner aesthetic and the fact that they take their poutine offerings to a whole other level with additional toppings like pulled pork, popcorn chicken, or ground beef with cheddar cheese that you can double down on. Every time I’m in Montreal and I need something to warm me up, fill my belly, and hit every gluttonous food desire I have, you know I’m going to be ordering poutine!
MEG KEE (megkkee) — CUSCO, PERU
The best street food I have eaten was in Cusco, Peru. I love picarones. I can never have enough sugar. I know it is a bad habit, but there is nothing more satisfying than a warm dessert from the locals when you are in a foreign country — much like having a warm cookie from your neighbor or grandmother.
It just feels like home.
FORREST GALANTE (forrest.galante) — THAILAND
Oh this is easy, it’s Thailand NO QUESTION! I’ve been so many places and eaten the local cuisine, but every dish on the street in Thailand is amazing.
When you complement that with the aromatic smells of spices, the crazy hustle and bustle of the cities, the mouthwatering noodles and fresh colorful ingredients … Well, I’m getting hungry just wiring about it. I’m definitely having Thai food for dinner now.
MARK STEVENS (markcstevens_) — EL REY DEL CHORI, BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
Tucked into a lot sometimes used for parking, El Rey del Chori is everything you want from Argentina’s highest echelon parrillas at 1/10th of the price. A stone’s throw from San Telmo market, the scent from this meat-centric wonderland can be detected in the nearby quarter, La Boca.
A tactical assault on the senses awaits the first time visitor to El Rey as the phalanx of chorizos on the parrilla come into view. The choriPan (a grilled chorizo sausage on specialty bread) is the classic move to start your culinary journey. From there, move onto a bife de chorizo — Porteño equivalent to a strip steak — and then meander the neighborhood for a Fernet and Coke. This is street food to make your meat dreams come true.
ERIN ROSE BELAIR (roseblacque) — CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
I knew this answer right away. Chicken skewers in Cartagena in Getsemani on Holy Trinity Square. I was there for days and I ate those chicken skewers every night, drunk on rum and sweat-soaked after dancing in the bar around the corner. The square was always lively, filled with locals and a few tourists, all gathering under the glow of the church, smoking cigarettes and eating street food.
Eventually, we would always end up there, standing on the corner chatting and smoking, having a skewer or three and trying to decide where to go next. The music would filter down the alleyway and call us off in another direction to another sip of rum. But for those few moments it was the only place to be — salty, sweet, and probably the only reason I survived that city.
CAMERON LEE (thecameronlee) — TAIPEI, TAIWAN
So many great choices. If I had to pick one, I would say Taiwanese Fried Chicken in Taiwan. I lived in Taiwan for 12 years as a kid and Taiwan is known for its street food and night markets. A trip to the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan should be on every foodie’s bucket list. From stinky tofu to oyster omelets to pig’s blood rice cakes, the one standout for me will always be Taiwanese Fried Chicken, which in Chinese translates to “salt crispy chicken.” It’s typically tossed with salt, pepper, and basil leaves, and is dusted with five-spice powder.
There’s something about the atmosphere of being at a night market that just makes the food taste even more special. They are usually sold at a street cart and come in popcorn bit size for easy consumption. You walk everywhere in Taiwan, hence why there are so many different types of street foods there. The whole idea is really being able to grab a little something on your walk home, to your friends, or between meals. There’s actually a term for it in Chinese called “xiaochi” which translates to “small eats”.
The best part about it is the price. They should never be more than $10 US. There are now restaurants around the world that have Taiwanese Fried Chicken on the menu, but nothing will ever be as authentic as Taiwanese fried chicken from a street cart in Taiwan.
KARL WATSON (karlwatsondocs) — HANOI, VIETNAM
I’m not sure about the “best” but I can tell you the most significant street food I’ve had.
Back in 2013, my best friend James and I were doing a nine-month round the world trip. About two weeks into it we’d arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam. We were still finding our feet with traveling and we found ourselves in a very western bar, eating western food, and we looked at each other like “what the hell are we doing?”
So we said from now on, only local food and local bars. We walked out and ate the first street food we saw. I can’t even tell you what it was, something like bread balls, served in a thick white sauce that looked like… well, never mind what it looked like. Neither of us were big foodies so this was a big first step for us. We then went and drank Bia Hoi with the locals and our adventure had properly begun.
CHARLOTTE and NATALIE (ourtasteforlife) — THAILAND
We get asked this question a lot, and it’s always a tough one to answer. After spending the past two years in Southeast Asia, where, let’s face it, street food culture is at its best; I could reel off over a dozen dishes that we are absolutely crazy about.
Having said that, if we had to decide on only one dish, it would have to be a mouth-watering Thai curry. Packed to bursting with tantalizing flavors and an amalgamation of spices, every bite is designed to send the taste buds wild. We are struggling to agree on which Thai curry is best, as one of us favors Massaman, and the other prefers Penang. But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter because all Thai curries are equally delicious.
Tasty street food is easy to find in Thailand, but for off the charts street food, you need to locate the areas where the locals eat. It may not be as atmospheric as the likes of Khao San Road, but it certainly will be the best dining experience of your trip.
CHARLES THORP (charlesthorp) — HONG KONG
No trip to Hong Kong is complete without walking through the streets for shopping, popping into the ancient temples, and picking up a few treats along the way. There are plenty of options, but my personal favorite is the sweet egg waffles, also known as eggettes, that are served out of little shacks in a wide range of flavors.
They have no shortage of places to try, but the family-run McQ was my go-to for their coffee and red bean matcha flavors. I paired my morning visits with a trail run on HK’s Dragon’s Tail path so that I could indulge in the soft carb goodness guilt-free.
WRITER’S PICK: ZACH JOHNSTON (ztp_johnston) — LAHORE, PAKISTAN
If you haven’t been to Pakistan yet, go. Like, now! Pakistan is one of the most eye-opening, hospitable, jaw-dropping, and delicious destinations in the world. I want to write 2,000 words about the Karakoram Highway and the awe-inspiring wilderness and mountains alone. But, that’s not why we’re here — this is about food.
Pakistani cuisine is a brilliant bridge between South Asian classics, Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, and the Mongol steppes. All of those cultures alone have phenomenal food scenes and Pakistan is where they all collide in a burst of flavors, colors, and ideas. Fort Road is a designated “Food Street” in Lahore, in Punjabi Pakistan. Restaurants fill the streets with tables, burners, fires, giant teapots, fruit presses, billowing shisha pipes, and throngs of locals looking to tuck into a great meal. It’s a pure experience that speaks to a single place and time that you literally cannot find anywhere else on this earth. The motley buildings, the men lounging in shalwar kameez (long shirts and baggy pants), the kids running around with cricket bats — all of this is still seared in my mind.
The play when you roll up to Food Street is to snag a table, order some fruit juice (try the mix of pomegranate and orange), order some freshly fired naan with garlicky yogurt dipping sauce, and order a Karahi. That’s a tomato-based curry with garam masala with either chicken or lamb with a nice dose of chili pepper spice and ginger that’s served in a karahi pan (kind of like a wok in shape). It’s a light and deeply flavorful curry that’s usually cooked over an open fire. Oh, and don’t forget the green tea.
Take in the smells, the energy, the way the air feels on your fingers. Let it all absorb as you eat one of the best meals of your life in the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. Then take a long stroll through the Old City, smoke some hash with some Sufis and dance, maybe get in a backgammon game going, and let the maximalism of the city flood your senses.
EDITOR’S PICK: STEVE BRAMUCCI (stevebram) — SOANIERANA – IVONGO
Not so much a scene. Just a story.
2007, I’m in Madagascar. My sister, living in Uganda at the time, has come to visit. She’s got a friend with her; I’ve got a girl with me. We’re a little travel crew. And we rock up to Soanierana-Ivongo in Madagascar, on our way to Ille Saint Marie, a famous pirate haven and one of my favorite tropical islands on earth.
My sister only had about a week to her vacation. I was traveling for more than a year and trying to save every penny.
Which is all to explain why, rather than taking a three-hour ferry to the island, I insisted on waiting for a cargo boat to depart. The ferry cost $10. The cargo boat $2. My way won out. The ferry left immediately — right on time, like a Swiss watch. The cargo boat lingered. The surface of the water was covered with trash and swirls of oil. There was no shade. We played cards and got progressively more sunburnt. That was it.
After five hours of this, I wandered into town. There I found a little hut selling zebu skewers. Little pieces of zebu meat cooked over coals. No sauce. No seasoning that I could see. It tasted like maybe it had seen a marinade, but nothing too distinctive. The cost a quarter and each skewer had five little bites.
I have never, in my life of writing about food and travel and visiting Michelin-starred restaurants and cooking, had a bite like these bites. They were… iron-rich and… more fresh and grassy tasting, brighter on the palate, than beef has any right to taste. In all the steakhouses in all the world, I’ve never had a better single bite. Never.
My travel partners and I ate about ten of those skewers each over the next five hours (the cargo boat left a full ten hours after the speed boat and arrived in port a full 12 hours later than it). We obliterated our savings with skewers and Cokes but we were living. We’d had an experience. And that, friends, is why I travel.