A bag of tortilla chips smothered in chili, cheese and sour cream might seem more at home eaten in haste on the streets or while curled up on a couch. But the taco in a bag will soon take the spotlight on the menu of a forthcoming Station North cafe.
Chef Daniel Horwitz became familiar with the "taco in a bag" idea at his daughter's swim meets. Now, he's forming a menu around the concept for Showroom, his new restaurant at the Motor House artist incubator space.
"I started thinking to myself, what if we are able to offer a food that is something that could be approachable and all the pretense gets dropped?" Horwitz said. "We're able to serve taco in a bag and step it up a notch."
Horwitz is among the local chefs endeavoring to bring food from the streets under restaurant roofs as street food makes its way from curbside vendors to white tablecloths. The prevalence of the word "street" on menus has increased nearly 40 percent in the past four years, according to the Chicago-based research firm Datassential.
That much has been true in Baltimore, where street food's popularity transcends cuisines and has become ubiquitous on menus with a range of price points. Latino-influenced dishes like street tacos and Mexican street corn (elote) can be found on menus such as the Food Market and sister concept La Food Marketa, and entire concepts, such as the Verandah, have been built around food that got its start as street snacks.
Cypriana, the Mediterranean restaurant that opened in Roland Park in February, has an entire section of its menu dedicated to street food like gyros, pitas, sliders and flatbreads — hearkening back to its owners' previous food cart. The owners took street food off the menu when they cut lunch service to focus on dinner, but added it in about three weeks ago based on customer requests. Chicken pitas, falafel pitas and gyros are among the best sellers from its street food menu.
"We added the street food because people know us for our street food," said chef and co-owner Maria Kaimakis. "They want that nostalgia. They want to remember and feel and taste."
Chef Chad Gauss has been elevating street food since he opened the Food Market in Hampden in 2012, and he has continued integrating street eats at his newest restaurant, La Food Marketa. He said nearly every table orders the street cauliflower at the Quarry Lake restaurant. Topped with cotija cheese, taco spice, tortilla and chili lime mayo, the cauliflower was originally a substitute for street corn when corn was out of season, but became a hit on its own.
Street food is meant to be communal and convenient, and it provides a way for restaurants like La Food Marketa to mix in lower-priced items for guests who dine out often, Gauss said.
"As business goes people are realizing that you have to be more up-to-par, down-to-earth to have a larger audience," Gauss said. "Street food just comes across as approachable."
And it meets diners where they are.
"The No. 1 benefit is you don't have to go to the streets to get it," Gauss said.
Kaimakis said it's also a benefit for restaurateurs, who don't have to rely on good weather for business.
"People really want to be adventurous now and eat from the food trucks, although food trucks are not widely available everywhere. But restaurants are," she said. "Having done both, food trucking is very difficult."
The Verandah, another Hampden restaurant, also got its start on the street. Owner Radhika Sule started serving Indian street food at farmers markets, and opened her eatery on the Avenue in 2011 because she needed a commissary kitchen.
Sule, who is from India, said when she launched the Verandah that she wanted to introduce Baltimoreans to lesser-known street food like chaat and parathas.
"The bigger dishes are always popular here in the U.S.," she said, "... but the smaller dishes weren't known enough. People thought chicken tikka masala was the only thing."
Now tikki chaat has become one of the most popular dishes from the Verandah, which still operates at farmers markets including the Baltimore Farmers' Market and Bazaar on Sundays, and the Pratt Street Market on Thursdays.
"They've really caught on and now I don't have to explain to anybody," she said.
Claire Garvin, 21, and Scott Bacon, 27, were among the recent customers at the Verandah grabbing a bite on a Monday afternoon. They were waiting on orders of vegetable samosas and papdi chaat, a cold dish of potato patties served over tortilla chips with red onion, cilantro and several different chutneys.
Bacon, a sous chef at the Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon, said he sees street food as a major influence on chefs across the country.
"It's just an inspirational kind of food because it's a lot of really honest flavors," Bacon said.
At the Brewer's Art, Bacon said he sees executive chef Andrew Weinzirl drawing on Thai and Vietnamese street cuisine for influences on the brewpub's menu.
"A lot of those things are easily elevated because they're really simple and to the point," Bacon said.
Horwitz, who owns Pantry Catering and has cooked in restaurants ranging from Ze Mean Bean in Fells Point to the upscale Ryland Inn in New Jersey, said he sees customers craving more comfortable dining experiences without sacrificing the quality of food.
"The thing that motivates me is to give food to everybody," Horwitz said. "Through all these years you start to realize that everybody deserves food that is tasty."
Horwitz's "bolsitas" (Spanish for "little bags") will put a global spin on the taco in a bag. He plans to use different types of chips — from potato strings to plantains — and top them with braised meats. Central and South American flavors first came to mind when Horwitz started crafting the Showroom's bolsitas, and he drew on popular dishes from his catering company, including coconut-milk braised pork served with jasmine rice and mango salsa. He's also considering offering a ropa vieja-style taco in a bag, similar to the Cuban stewed beef with black beans, yuca and rice. Carnitas is another chip topping option he may offer.
Horwitz will offer four or five bolsitas to start, about $10 each, with a few core flavors that will remain on the menu as other special bolsitas come and go. He envisions serving them in metal buckets that people can share.
"I want this to be food that creates conversation," Horwitz said. "I want people to share and I want it to be social. I mean, the whole idea is to keep people happy and comfortable."
Bolsitas will be served alongside pressed sandwiches, breakfast fare, coffee and local beer when Showroom opens this fall. The cafe will also house a stage for live music and performances.
"Twenty-five years ago, there's no way I would be able to do these bolsitas," he said. "Today some of the food you can get at a farmers market is as good as you would get in a restaurant 20 years ago, so that's what we're trying to do with this."
Horwitz said he sees the spread of cooking and food knowledge, especially through television, as partly responsible for the embrace of street cuisine beyond the street.
"I think people like Anthony Bourdain opened up a lot of different people to ethnic food — and Andrew Zimmern — and we all started becoming far more aware that Mexican food was not just the enchilada," he said. "That made it so that food was less pretentious and far more approachable."
Approachability was evident at the Verandah, where Nikole Satelmajer, 43, and her daughter Marie were enjoying vegetable samosas and paneer parathas, flatbreads stuffed with Indian cheese, peas and potato. Satelmajer, a Hampden resident, said she's been coming to the Verandah for the cafe's simple vegetarian eats since before her daughter was born. Now 3-year-old Marie noshes on the Verandah's samosas and breads, too.
"We're kind of foodies," Satelmajer said.
Sule said she has seen customers become more receptive to trying new dishes during the 17 years she has been in the U.S., while restaurants are more willing to offer food without pretense.
"I find that the best flavors are simple, down-to-earth. On the streets they don't need the hoopla that goes with it," Sule said. "Bigger restaurants are realizing too that it's easy to keep food easy."
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