Street Smart

We take a look at the rising street food scene, alongside a few of the Bay of Plenty's regular players.

From authentic noodles to Caribbean-influenced burgers, the next gen
of food lovers are jumping behind mobile stoves to drive an exciting coming of age for Tauranga’s street food.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s been somewhat of a food revolution taking place in our streets, alleyways and green spaces — a Che Guevara figure in the form of food trucks migrating from location to location. An attempt to overthrow the capitalist exploitation of fast food chains?

An overstatement, possibly, but there has been a change in what we eat and the way we eat it.
And the ingredients have been sitting in the proverbial chilly bin just waiting for it to happen.
In the early 90s, I remember being conscious of a gastronomic wave of change. Cafes were experiencing a resurgence, and the humble salad and its essential components of iceberg lettuce, tomato and grated cheddar was being outshined by adventurous successors with exotic ingredients such as sun-dried tomato and brie. This was no doubt influenced by a generation of well-travelled, largely middle-class proprietors, who saw cafes as a lifestyle choice as much as a business.

Fast forward to now, and the growth in Tauranga’s population over the past seven or so years has similarly played a big part in the metamorphosis of its food scene. There’s an array of ambitious
new cafes, bars and restaurants, all with their own unique proposition. This changing landscape
has had an influence across all facets of life — not only behind the newly sign written windows but
also on the streets, at events and community gatherings and, in particular, what we affectionately refer to as street food.

The early concept of street food in New Zealand may trigger memories of eating potentially carcinogenic meat, lovingly impaled on a stick, deep fried and laid to rest in a bag of tomato sauce. And maybe limp hot chips with enough salt to catapult your blood pressure beyond the stratosphere. You’ll still find these stalwarts at the usual haunts of sports grounds, fairs and A&P shows, but they
are being challenged by a new wave of nomadic adventurers on wheels.

One of the first out of Tauranga’s taxi rank was a graffitied Nissan Atlas going by the name of Tag Burger. A slick, almost military approach to managing the various cooking stations within about 3sqm was something to be admired, not to mention the calibre of product that was coming out of
the gas-axed opening. Throw in some cool kids behind the aprons and an innovative approach to marketing that screamed street cred, and people’s imaginations were captured.

Charaine Hadeed, co-creator of Tag Burger, knew the monumental challenge would be changing local perceptions of value, as their burgers were worth at least three punnets of salt-laden chips.
But their vision of restaurant-quality burgers utilising locally sourced ingredients and never compromising on quality won them an impressive following, not only here in Tauranga, but beyond the Bombays at Auckland’s Silo Park Markets.

Charaine hails from the Caribbean, which is a melting pot of cultures, including Indian, African, Middle Eastern and Asian. She drew on these roots when creating her menu — the Tag Burger sauce, for example, is a barbecue sauce recipe passed down like a family heirloom from her grandmother. And although she has now sold the business, this cosmopolitan condiment is still a hook that keeps fans coming back in droves.

Unsurprisingly, multiculturalism is one of the major influences in the rise of street food. Johney Zhou, for example - the face and personality behind Johney’s Dumpling House - is of Chinese descent.
He’s taken his ancestral dumpling mastery to new levels by frying and steaming his way to the
Bay Hospitality Awards hall of fame, where he’s won the Outstanding Street Food/Takeout category two years on the trot. Using his business nous, he’s ensured his tried-and-true selection, including
pork and vegetable and The Tiki (kale and shiitake), have genuine mass appeal.

“The dumpling’s aren’t just a food, they’re a feeling,” says Johney. And with that passion, you can understand how he’s been able to successfully expand from a solely mobile business, to also having a fixed abode, with the perfect marriage between Johney’s Dumplings and his craft beer spouse,
The Rising Tide in The Mount.

Johney Zhou, of Johney’s Dumpling House, pan-frying up a storm at The Little Big Markets.

The culinary identity doesn’t necessarily need to match your bloodlines though. Aaron Kirkland, from Paella Pan, originally moved to Southern France from New Zealand to pursue a career in professional league, but he soon discovered that, due to the limitations of the human body, the high-impact sport would likely restrict his earning ability beyond the age of 35.

He understood he needed to bring a new skill home and it started with him knocking on the door
of the local horse butcher, who was also a Spanish chef.

Aaron points out that big fast food chains struggled in French society due to the way of life — eating traditional foods readily available at weekly markets was more appealing than the all-too-familiar glow of the golden arches or any of its equivalents. This inspired him to master traditional paella (pronounced ‘pie-yay-ahh’) and bring it back to our shores in an attempt to plant that same seed
in local psyches.

Aaron fired up the gas burners for the first time eight years ago and, with his ‘honest food’ mantra, soon turned humble beginnings at Auckland’s La Cigale market into a fully fledged street food business. The aromas of saffron, rosemary and paprika soon drifted down the country and he’s
since become a regular at Dinner in the Domain.

When Lucky Lucky Noodle pops up around town, you can be sure their online fans are in hot pursuit.

Lucky Lucky Noodle owners Jesse Jackson and Sarah Chase are well travelled through mainland Southeast Asia and, rather than the ubiquitous holiday bracelets and sarongs, brought the taste of Asia back with them. Their traditional street food cart was made locally, but it might as well have arrived off the back of a Thai long-tail boat, such is the authenticity of the design.

The pair have approached their honest-to-goodness business by embracing the reverberating
theme of fresh, locally sourced products, using them to create a simple, effective menu, then dropping it all into a pot of boiling hot social media. When they pop-up with their massaman curry noodle soup with braised free-range pork shoulder, bok choy and roasted peanuts, you can be
sure the crowds of online fans are in hot pursuit.

Of course street food vendors rely on a regular convergence of people to maintain a working
model. The growth of events in the Bay of Plenty has fuelled the appetite for this mod-take on cheap eats — most notably the advent of the Dinner in the Domain in Papamoa and Mount Maunganui’s Gourmet Night Market. An adaptation of the traditional artisan market, these highly popular food-focused events are strategically timed around the latter part of the week, when household supplies could be running low or the thought of actually having to cook is making you sob.

Without a doubt, we’ve moved beyond the greasy street food ‘science experiments’ that were
mainly consumed under the influence. Just like my memories of 90s cafes and their fancy new dishes, another generation of food lovers has drawn on their experiences in other lands and, combined with a serious approach to produce and preparation, has elevated their offerings to a whole new level. They’ve seen an opportunity to not only create a more nutritious and sustainable food system, but to pursue the freedom of a mobile storefront that’s as at home in a carpark as
it is at a wedding party.

Importantly, this evolution is providing the community a platform to come together, engage
and express their own sense of food identity. The future of street food in the Bay of Plenty is
looking very appetising indeed.

First published in issue 1 of Our Place magazine

Story by Christopher Duffy
Photography by Alice Veysey