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Institutional Dining: Street food in the Yucatan Peninsula

Women selling tacos in San Pedro, Belize.

I’ve just re-entered the U.S. after two months abroad in the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize, and aside from the drop in temperature and lack of palm trees there’s one super-marked difference I’ve noticed right off the bat: Where’s all the street food? 

I’ve written in the past about the Twin Cities’ lack of an actual street food scene, in spite of the advances both cities have seen when it comes to allowing food trucks in designated areas. You only have to go downtown on a Tuesday lunch hour, or attend one of the local food truck rallies to notice people’s hunger for street eats. Eating on the move, for a reasonable price, is a mark of a forward-thinking food city, and I’m grateful we’ve at least moved out of the dark ages when it comes to this important amenity. And when it’s working well, street food can be a multi-generational living for entire families who do one thing, and do it well. 

But even in big American cities, street food is only a shadow of its full potential.  Even Los Angeles, a city known for its excellent street food, just legalized the widespread practice last month. Before this milestone event, vendors had to pack up their setups and be able to move on in a matter of moments if it was rumored that inspectors were coming through the area. 

I have a theory about why street food works so well in the countries where it thrives, such as Mexico and Belize. In many of the cities where you’ll find a bustling street food scene, you will not also find institutionalized dining services, such as commissary kitchens churning out inexpensive, grab-and-go meals for busy workers on the move, or ubiquitous fast-food chains competing for the all-important cheap and quick eats category. In a certain sense, street food vendors are the institutional dining options serving the masses. 

In the tiny river town of San Ignacio, Belize, I met a woman who has been serving tamales in the same spot for more than 30 years. She came recommended to me by a bartender who said he had been eating her tamales since he was a little boy, and he said that while they may not be the absolute best tamale he had ever tasted, they were always consistently the same. A sure taste of home, he said. When I visited, it was actually the woman’s daughter who was running the stand, but not without the watchful gaze of her mom, the original founder. “My body gave out and I can’t do it anymore,” she told me, but her daughter picked up the family business—without missing a beat of her mother’s original recipe. And mom was there to make sure of it. 

In the same city, the weekend market was not only a clearinghouse for all of the restaurant produce that would be necessary for the week, but row after row of prepared food vendors kept the city fed for weekend brunch, fueling the busy market itself, but also surrounding taxi stands, tour guide businesses, hotels, banks and even schools. Instead of grabbing a bagel and cream cheese at the cafeteria, lunch counter, or

A typical street food set up in Caye Caulker, Belize.

Bruegger’s, the community grabbed brilliant pupusas, empanadas, tacos, and tamales from individuals who’ve perfected the recipes, at a cost of less than a buck per piece. Volume (plus quality) keeps prices low, and customers coming back weekend after weekend, year after year. 

At my 9-year-old niece’s elementary school in the ever-growing, ever-bustling beach town of Playa del Carmen, instead of a central cafeteria, a lone “lunch lady” makes a short menu of street food classics and simple sandwiches that the kids can purchase from an on-premises window. And on Thursdays, the courtyard is open to families of the kids to set up and vend their own household specialties. Everything from esquites, to handmade pizzas, to fruit-infused water and hand pies. And if those don’t suit your fancy, countless street food vendors around every corner keep the city well-fed when a restaurant or home-cooked meal is not on the agenda. 

And even better, in many places the street eats come to you. If you happen to be in a part of town not dense with storefronts or restaurants, keep an ear perked for a horn, a bell, or even just the sound of a voice advertising for conch fritters, pastries, or fruit. Makeshift carts, bikes with a cooler or basket affixed to the side, and even just sometimes a person on foot with a cooler bag can mean breakfast, lunch, or that all-important, too-long stretch between the two. 

For all of our sleek American advances in foodservice—food courts, cafeterias, lunch counters, coffee shops, UberEats, pizza deliveries, chains, grocery store wars and endless opportunities to eat ourselves silly—we may be selling ourselves short on one of the greatest eating inventions ever: a single person selling a single item to another single person in a bare bones, inexpensive, but most beautiful model. 

And one of the great tragedies of that short-sell is that the person who simply wants to bring her mother’s coveted tamale recipe to the people, cannot. Not unless, that is, she has the money and the desire to open a full-service restaurant, or to bring a packaged product to the marketplace, which, let’s face it, is not the same as having the personal one-on-one connection and low overhead of street-food vending. A food truck is a potential middle ground, but as we are learning, the behemoths are expensive, and the chances and places to operate are still strict. 

This is the part where I’m supposed to offer a neat conclusion that allows our food culture to be our own, and another culture’s to be theirs, and to be cool with them both. And while there are glimmers of hope—see the Hmong marketplaces, the burgeoning food hall trend, and loosening constrictions on food trucks—I’ll never not be sad that my own city doesn’t have a real street food scene. 

When I wake up in the morning I want to hear the promising bellow of a pushcart vendor, and before I hit my pillow half-drunk I will, and will always, want the abating cushion of a one dollar, 2 a.m. taco (or three) in my gut. 

Thank goodness for plane tickets. 

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