When I visit cities around the world, it doesn’t matter to me whether my food comes from a cart, stand, a truck or a shop — what I want is the great portable comfort food that particular city excels at. It’s a taste of the destination you can’t get in other places, and a handheld snack that keeps the urban traveler fueled while pounding the pavement, between museums, sightseeing, shopping, or whatever you are there to do.
Take Paris for instance. I can’t visit without a detour to the Left Bank, where the city’s sizable Middle Eastern population collides with the French tradition of baking and results in one of the world’s greatest street foods — gyros or doner kebabs served on baguettes rather than pita bread. This multi-cultural bliss thrives in the maze of tiny pedestrian streets around the Sorbonne off Boulevard Saint-Michel (where there are also plenty of street front window creperies, Paris’ other great street food).
When it comes to handheld delights, London excels with its wide variety of meat pies, including Cornish pasties and the many variations on this classic, full of everything from curry to Stilton cheese. I’m partial to the West Cornwall Pasty Company chain with lots of choices (corn and apple chicken and chorizo) and locations all over town, including pretty much every train station. Rich, meaty English bacon makes America’s seem weak by comparison, and at breakfast time, a traditional bacon roll will make you forget the Egg McMuffin forever. This simple but delicious sandwich is just real bacon on a roll with “brown” sauce and it shines in its purity.
But you don’t have to go overseas to relish such urban comfort foods. While Philadelphia’s most famous culinary contribution, the cheesesteak, has been copied all over the world and is now ubiquitous, there’s another only-in-Philly institution worth seeking out — the Italian roast pork sandwich with wet and brothy slices of slow cooked pork, provolone and the secret ingredient, slow cooked broccoli rabe, on a hoagie roll. It’s a weird but delicious white and green combo (some places add spinach) that’s juicy dripping fun and can be best found on foot at DiNic’s Pork and Beef, a stall in the ultra-popular Reading Terminal Market.
In a very similar vein, Chicago has its signature sandwich, the Italian beef, consisting of equally wet roast beef heavily seasoned with Italian spices (garlic, oregano and more) and roasted in broth. This can be ordered “dry” (beef shaken with tongs), “wet” (dripping), “hot” (with spicy peppers), “sweet” (sweet peppers), or “Half & Half” (adding a hot Italian sausage link inside). Try it wet, hot and Half & Half for the full experience. Italian beef sandwiches to go (or eat at stand up counters) are best found at rivals Mr. Beef or Al’s Italian Beef. Chicago is even more famous for its unique take on the hot dog, found all over town, starting with a Vienna brand all beef frank and adding a lot of toppings, but what makes it the distinctive Chicago style is the green relish, celery salt and fluffy poppy seed bun.
Of course, few cities can touch The Big Apple when it comes to street food, with a dazzling variety, but the one that no rival can approach is pizza by the slice. New York has reigned in that category for years. You can’t get decent pizza by the slice in Italy let alone other U.S. cities, and if folded like a true New Yorker, this becomes the most portable of all snacks. Globalization or no, you still can’t get a great bagel anyplace else. Outside of New York, people seem to think a bagel is just round bread with a hole in it, rather than its own unique treat. I’m partial to Murray’s and Ess-A-Bagel in Manhattan, while pretty much any old school neighborhood bagel shop in Brooklyn or Queens will make old-fashioned bagels that will rock your world.
Photo Courtesy of iStock-Nikada