In Netflix’s newest installment of their Street Food culinary docs, they say that the heartbeat of a city is in its streets and that, if you want to know what a place is all about, eat what the locals do. Over six episodes highlighting six different U.S. cities, Street Food: USA tries to show us this along with the contrasts, constants, and contradictions of being a food vendor.
Street food is a local thing but usually the product of immigration. It tends to be family-run and steeped in tradition, but it can cause friction between generations when new and novel innovation happens. It preserves cultures and blends them together.
In LA’s Boyle Heights, Romulo Acosta’s youngest son, Billy, makes carnitas the same way Romulo’s father did back in Mexico. Vegan-friendly Portland has been the perfect place for free spirit Thuy Pham to create plant-based versions of her mom’s recipes from Vietnam. Two Bald Guys lunch counter in Oahu became Da Bald Guy lunch truck when a father couldn’t wrap his head around his son’s new school ways of doing poke and plate lunches.
The fabled New Orleans hangover cure ya-ka-mein is a combination of Chinese know-how and soul food ingredients. The Earle family brought the hot dog cart tradition with them from NYC and turned it into a landmark storefront on South Central’s Crenshaw Boulevard. Hawaiian cuisine has elements of Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese all mashed together like the boiled taro root used to make the doughy, pasty starch known as poi. A slice and a soda on the streets of New York is a must but, in Mando’s chicken & rice, “the way” is halal kosher flavored by spices his father traded in his native Egypt. Miami is famous for its Cuban influence but remains one of the biggest melting pots of the African diaspora.
The restaurant business is a tough one, but it always has the potential for opportunity. Harlem’s Chef Tami Treadwell saw her business shut down during the COVID-19 outbreak and resumed business having lost her husband from the same. Unlicensed vendors on the streets of LA and the fabled Hot Dog King of New York have had their issues with law enforcement and city regs. Still, Two Portland pals opened the 105-square-foot Ruthie’s after getting laid off during the pandemic to become “never so broke but never so happy.” Larry Reaves was a drug dealer, addict, and deadbeat dad on Miami’s streets until he mastered grilled ribs and the vinegary brothy stew known as “souse” with a recipe he attributes directly to The Holy Spirit.
Food is a story. It tells you who someone is, where they’re from, and how they feel. In Street Food: USA, Netflix has the foodies, the chefs, and the locals tell us how the city can make the story.