Eat Street: James Cunningham Celebrates Street Food ... Not Here, Of Course

Eat Street leads with one of its many trump cards when it starts out each episode with chrome-domed host, James Cunningham, just taking up some space on a city sidewalk, shooting the breeze. Cunningham may have been a comedian in a previous life, but Eat Street could be his speedy vehicle toward any number of on-air hosting possibilities. He's that pleasant to be around.

And Eat Street is as polished as his pate. One of Cunningham's greatest attributes is that he, unlike so many other egos-run-amok on other Cooking Channel or Food Network shows (paging Robert Irvine, courtesy call for Bobby Flay), wisely cedes the floor to showcasing some of North America's most evocative street vendor food.

What that means is a viewer is properly sucked in to Eat Street's simple agenda by its rabbit-fast editing, saturated color palette, incredibly nimble camera work that makes every food shot a money shot of vibrant sensuality, and the charming, even off-kilter, testimonials of various customers and foodies in mid-bite.

A typical Eat Street itinerary rivals Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives barnstorming routine. In a mere 30-minutes, in a recent episode, Cunningham introduces the viewer to food trucks in the left coast's Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia before heading to old food truck faithful in New York City, and then backpedaling to Texas' mecca for street food, Austin.

And the food spotlighted is as varied as the four ZIP codes visited. Really good fish and chips, outside of England? Not possible, mate .. .except when one happens to frequent Victoria's Red Fish Blue where the great working class British standard is served to such pleasing effect that several of the positive testimonials come from real, live Brits on holiday.

Eat Street is wise to make the most of describing the improbable origins of some of its street vendors. In the case of Red Fish Blue, the talented pescatarians work out of a converted shipping container once used to deliver a Hummer from Singapore.

Nowadays, Red Fish Blue is being put to infinitely better use as it churns out all manner of fishy dishes using nearly every sea species: Scallops, salmon, halibut and cod, all with the great "green" credential of being sustainably, locally caught.

Red Fish Blue's chefs put their own fiery spin on what might be a bland catch-o-the-day as they combine Thai red curry or spicy edamame to jump start their finned dishes. Oysters are grilled to perfection before being dressed up with pickled onions and a lemon-honey drizzle. And never one to ignore customer requests, Red Fish Blue responded to so many pleas for a hot dog that they created a cod dog, served on a toasted Portuguese bun, and lathered in a dill Dijonaise sauce.

Eat Street then compactly illustrates just how coast-to-coast the street vendor phenomenon is by winging away from British Columbia to the mean streets of midtown Manhattan. Naturally for this polyglot city, it's an Indian vendor who takes center stage as his biryani cart is blowing customers' taste buds away with his spicy take on just about everything.

The great thing about a street vendor is that he or she is free to invent a niche of food and just monopolize it. In biryani's case, it's Indian comfort food, but it seems like chef Meru Sikder's main agenda is to hot sauce his customers into a very pleasant coma. Witness his adding of a notoriously flammable mint habanero sauce to just about everything -- from his Bombay spicy chicken biryani, where the cooling yogurt marinade is no match for its spice components, to chicken tikka, heavy on the traditional Indian spices of cumin and cardamom, along with ginger paste and garam masala.

This New York interlude has some of the best customer reactions to the level of lethally pleasurable spicing. Some describe the sweat beading on the brow with every bite; others masochistically revel in the heat lining their cranium. Still others are rendered speechless as their taste buds ignite.

As far as Eat Street is concerned, when it comes to pure food-fusion, nothing beats the shotgun marriage of Hawaii and Korea. And presiding over the vows is Marination Mobile in Seattle.

For Marination's two lady chefs, their primary ingredient of choice is lowly Spam --- apparently an absolute de rigeur food group among Hawaiians, surfers and surfing Hawaiians. Spam, from this street truck, comes as sushi, stuffed into tacos and dressed up with a sauce of soy, garlic and sesame seed oil. Spam also marries well with a teriyaki glaze, as a slider or with chicken, beef and spicy pork. And what Korean fusion food experience would be complete without kimchi, in this case a kimchi fried rice accented by everything from a fried egg to green onions and something called furikake, which everyone knows is seaweed sprinkle.

Eat Street shows it has some serious food ingredient ambitions behind it when it wings off to Austin for, purportedly, some of the best authentic Mexican dishes ever served in that state capitol, in or outside a restaurant.

Dubbed El Naranjo, this truck is run by Iliana de la Vega, one of Austin's most worshiped Mexican chefs, and a patron saint of the obscure art of the mole sauce. Attempting to list some of the possibly 100 ingredients that some moles require, the mole Coloradito presented here contains various chiles, garlic, tomatoes, almonds, sesame seeds, bread, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and oregano. Then we are treated to an almost comical sequence where the chef is caught in an infinite cycle of adding a bit more salt, then more sugar, then more salt, and then more sugar until finally, finally, she is content.

As an extra Mexican cuisine bonus, viewers can see how "nopales," or cactus, is stripped of its needles, and its notoriously slimy aftertaste is off-set through the judicious use of salt. Then it is the featured ingredient in a cactus-stuffed taco dish that includes a bracing salad of cilantro, tomato, green onions, and lime juice.

Demonstrating its true romantic side, Eat Street finishes up this episode by first running through the basic paces of how an Austin food truck makes a killer cold cucumber soup, accented by the tang of yogurt and the crunch of fried tortilla chips. And then the show finishes off with a chaste smooch between the husband and wife team that has made this Austin institution of a food truck hum.

(New episodes of Eat Street air on the Cooking Channel Tuesdays at 7 p.m.)

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.

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Andrew Marton