Kittery residents Chelsea Green, left, and Sharon Morrill dine at Street in Portsmouth, N.H. Morrill, who eats at Street “every chance I get,” said she hasn’t done much world traveling but the menu has made her “more aware of what’s out there.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

At Woodhull Public House in Yarmouth, you won’t find traditional fish and chips, ploughman’s lunch or shepherd’s pie. Instead, owner Seth Balliett has filled the menu with street foods from different cultures – lots of Mexican options, such as fish tacos and street corn fritters; and Asian options, such as Korean fried chicken and Thai Pak Moh rolls. Occasionally, a braised lamb barbacoa entree will make an appearance.

Woodhull is one of a growing number of restaurants focusing on street food – traditionally cheap, hand-held, easy-to-eat foods that are sold by vendors on the street or in public markets. Some of these restaurants began life as a food truck, but others are simply choosing to bring these dishes, representing a wide range of cultures, indoors from the start. Street food is “the food of the people,” said Michelle Lozuaway, quoting her husband, chef Josh Lanaham. The couple founded Street, a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that serves street food from India, Thailand, China, Korea, Mexico, Vietnam and other countries – including American burgers. (Street has just been sold, according to a report in the Portsmouth Herald. The new owners don’t plan to make changes.)

“It’s typically big, powerful flavors that really smack your palate,” Lozuaway said.

Korean-style sweet-and-spicy fried chicken at Street in Portsmouth, N.H. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Boda, a Thai restaurant that opened on Congress Street in 2010, was one of the first Portland restaurants to focus on street food. Since then the city has welcomed restaurants such as Slab, which serves Sicilian street food; Bao Bao Dumpling House; Cong Tu Bot, which specializes in Vietnamese street food; Luis’ Arepera & Grill; Bird & Co., which has a Mexican menu; and a proliferation of poke shops. Other street food spots first had success as food trucks, such as Mami (Japanese), Eaux (Cajun) and Baharat (Middle Eastern).

And the number of food trucks in Maine that serve street food continues to grow in number and style of food. One of the most recent additions is Kuno, which serves Southeast Asian street food, including Peranakan cuisine (a mix of traditional Chinese and Malaysian dishes).

Street food taps into our culture’s growing preference for international flavors and casual restaurants, where curious diners can explore new dishes with friends and family. As with tapas-style dining, people can sample several dishes without blowing their budget, and can pass dishes around the table to share. A lower bill at the end of the night means diners can enjoy a restaurant meal more than one night a month, said Clay Norris, chef/owner of Baharat.

“As far as consumers are concerned,” he said, “it’s an accessible type of food, and I think it prompts sitting down with friends and being social more than a long, coursed-out meal.”

Norris added that the “classic French experience” isn’t going anywhere. “I think (street food) is the natural evolution of the business,” he said.

Balliett said that in his restaurant, customers will come in and ask about the taco of the week. “They’ll hang out for a couple of hours and order things one at a time.”

Martha Leonard and her husband, Niky Watler, opened Maiz, which serves Colombian street food such as arepas and empanadas, in the Portland Public Market House in 2017. Three weeks ago they opened a second location, also called Maiz, at 621 Forest Ave.

Chicken Bahn Mi with cilantro, carrots, cucumbers, Asian-spiced pate and Sriracha mayonnaise at Street. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“There’s a movement right now for quick, fast casual food that is fresh and good quality that won’t break the bank,” Leonard said, “and we try to accomplish all of those goals.”

Watler grew up in Cartegena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Leonard is from New Hampshire. The couple met in Colombia and made their way north because Leonard wanted to be closer to her family. Neither had restaurant experience, she said, so the idea of Maiz was “a pipe dream of ours, something we talked about a lot.”

“We took our time and worked and saved, with this in mind,” Leonard said. “We loved Portland and we felt like it could be a good fit.” The city seemed supportive of new small businesses, she noted, as well as “new kinds of foods.”

The Forest Avenue location has a slightly expanded menu, with some bowls and such, but most of the dishes are still street food, Leonard said. She added that their food is naturally gluten-free, a quality she appreciates because she has celiac disease.

“It’s a lot of what we know and love,” she said. “My husband grew up eating this food. It’s very daily food.”

Leonard said customers at Maiz ask a lot of  questions about the food and the way it’s made traditionally. People who plan to travel to South America come in to prepare for their trip.

“We try hard to be open to conversation,” she said. “We really like to share the story behind the food.”

Street food is simple food but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to prepare, several restaurateurs said.

“It’s all handmade,” Leonard said. “It really requires manpower.”

Norris noted that while a more conventional restaurant might need 16 portions of salmon for a night, he might need 1,600 portions of falafel. “The volume on specific items can be hard to predict,” he said, “and they’re usually a large number.”

Street food menus, he said, are often more diverse as well, with many more types of dishes to prepare than might be found on a more traditional menu.

In the case of Bird & Co., a Mexican street food restaurant that recently opened in the Woodfords neighborhood, the owners knew they wanted a casual neighborhood restaurant with a bar. Tacos and other Mexican street food seemed to fit perfectly into their plan, co-owner Jared Dinsmore said, especially since they could “have fun” with tacos by putting their own creative twists on the fillings.

“There’s a high level of creativity with what has been considered previously to be low-level foods,” Dinsmore said. “There’s a lot of room there for fun.”

Gobi 65 – Indian-spiced fired cauliflower with tamarind glaze and a yogurt dipping sauce at Street. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

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