Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio's take on what makes successful street food.

on Dec 15, 2008

After all, you speak grape.) During my kitchen walk-through, I questioned Harold and Lisa's choice of a seared tuna, which I thought would be a tough sell out on the street (although, since I was judging, I couldn't come out and say so). While rare tuna may be ubiquitous in restaurants, many Americans still veer away from fish that doesn't seem cooked all the way through. Harold dismissed my question easily, leading me to wonder -- was he optimistic? Or out of touch? It was a beautiful, sunny day when Katie, Gail, Chef Mike and I strolled outside for our own taste test. The pushcarts were set up in the heart of the Mission District, a largely Latino neighborhood that is also liberally sprinkled with students, bohemian intellectuals and homeless individuals. A real mixed bag. So what worked? Frankly, Andrea and Miguel's burrito was tasty, but hard to eat. For reasons I haven't figured out, they opted to serve the dish open-faced, making a fork and knife necessary. In my book, this more or less disqualified them from the realm of 'street food' which I feel needs to be portable and easy to eat. Lisa & Harold left the jicama salad they had prepared back in the kitchen. That left their dish incomplete - it needed the snap and freshness of the jicama to balance the flavors. But worse, more than a few pedestrians shied away from rare tuna. Of course, if Harold and Lisa had been thinking on their feet they would have recast the dish as 'ceviche' - a dish familiar to many Latino diners. But their own satisfaction with their dish blinded them to the larger idea of the guests' satisfaction, which was a crucial factor in this challenge. Stephen and Leanne's sopas were delicious - sloppy, but portable. The Chinese barbecue worked nicely with the texture and mild sweetness of the cornmeal, and the lychee mojitos were a nice touch. On the other hand, Stephen's ungovernable need to educate his guests, rather than delight them, clashed with both the neighborhood and his bright orange tie. Tiffani & Dave worked hard as a long line immediately formed alongside their cart. Their dish had it all - it was balanced and nuanced (the pickled vegetable on top of the Moroccan-braised pork provided the perfect topnote of acid) It was easy to carry and eat on the street, requiring no additional cutlery to be juggled with handbags, cellphones, etc.. In short, it worked. At the Judge's table, Lisa & Harold acknowledged that they forgot a key component of their dish and both seemed willing to take responsibility. Chef Mike was hardcore in his criticism, practically calling seared tuna with avocado a has-been on restaurant menus. But my issue was that their dish wasn't street food. And I felt that they lost this one by caring more about their own culinary goal then the street challenge presented to them. But where it all got most interesting was when Miguel and Andrea were called to task for their unwieldy, unrolled burrito. Miguel wasted no time in pointing a finger at Andrea. Andrea's response was to offer her immunity to Miguel (who had just sold her up the river) since she figured winning meant more to him in the long run. Miguel's shock made for the best photo op all day. Andrea is a class act, as Miguel (and all of us) learned. In the end though, we made our decision based on the weakest dish and the weakest member of the team that created it. Harold was clearly sad to see his partner go, and I was too. As Dave pointed out, Lisa is a person of integrity, a genuinely nice and decent person. She lacked the competitive edge to be a Top Chef, but not the heart.