Chef Richard Sandoval remembers walking through the outdoor markets of Mexico City as a child, begging his parents for change to buy warm sopes cooking over fire pits.
Today, Sandoval makes the same corn-based sopes for his restaurants, Maya in New York, Tamayo in Denver and Ketsi at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, Mexico. But instead of filling them with shredded chicken or beef, he uses decadent toppings like duck confit and huitlacoche (a mushroom grown on corn, considered a Mexican delicacy).
"I like to call it 'old ways, new hands,' " he says. "It's taking traditional Mexican recipes, but serving them in a modern way."
Today, many top-trained chefs are reaching back to the street food from their home countries and giving it an upscale twist. No matter how dressed up these dishes get, they evoke memories of simple comfort food — just like a grilled-cheese sandwich or meatloaf does for many Americans.
Chef Jose Garces, a Mexico City native, was excited to add esquites to his menu at Distrito in Philadelphia. The traditional dish uses cut-off-the-cob sweet corn, warmed in a saucepan and topped with chiles, onions, salsa, mayonnaise or sour cream. It's considered a "to-go food," served in a plastic cup with a spoon, Garces says.
At Distrito, esquites is served in tall flute glasses and arrive layered with queso fresco and chipotle mayonnaise, topped with a chile pequin powder and lime zest.
In Tabriz, Iran, where chef Hoss Zaré grew up, street vendors served up lots of sheep and lamb. The most popular part of the animals, he says, was the jigar.
"That's the liver," Zaré said. "You'd see small barbecue places on the corner, cooking jigar over charcoals and serving it kabob style with jalapeños and tomatoes."
For his San Francisco restaurant, Zaré at Fly Trap, the chef created a "liver three ways" dish, dubbed Ménage à Fois. Served with toast points, the dish includes a serving of sheep liver with marinated jalapeño and tomato confit, chicken liver over onion marmalade and aged balsamic, and foie gras over huckleberry compote.
Pho noodles have always evoked memories for chef Michael Huynh, a Vietnamese native who runs BarBao restaurant in New York. "You buy a bowl for about 30 cents to a dollar at any corner shop, any time of day," he says. His version costs $14, but it's made with Waygu Kobe beef.
From the streets of southeastern France and northern Italy, socca— a crispy chickpea pancake — is prepared in small brick ovens, topped with olive oil, black pepper and served hot. Chef Andy D'Amico, a New Yorker with family ties to Italy, says socca began as the merenda meal, a mid-morning snack brought out to laborers.
At Nizzain New York, he has dressed up the dish, topping it with sage, caramelized onion and Parmesan cheese sprinkles. Socca pizzas offer even more toppings, such as red onions, bacon and crème fraîche or arugula, onions, tomatoes, vinaigrette and a thinly sliced Italian pork sausage called hot coppa.
"The French would turn over in their graves if they knew that's what I was doing with their dish," he says.
The humble Cuban sandwich has become the perfect pre-hangover food at Boca restaurant, inside the recently relaunched Conga Room in Los Angeles. The sandwich was first popularized in Tampa, meant to be a quick, hearty meal for Cuban immigrants laboring in Florida's tobacco fields.
"Now, it's a great staple of Cuban cuisine, even back in Cuba," says Alex Garcia, executive chef for the hot spot, which is co-owned by several celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez, Shelia E. and Jimmy Smits.
Garcia's high-brow Cubano is made with hand-carved ham, pepper-encrusted pork loin, and Gruyère cheese on a grilled French baguette —and offered only on his late menu.
"That's because people love it after a night out," Garcia says. "The perfect meal for laborers is now the perfect meal for drinkers!"