One silver lining among the dark clouds of Covid restrictions has been the success of street food vendors. Despite recent sub-zero temperatures, queues lining up at shacks, trucks and trailers have remained consistently resilient.
The quality of street food has never been higher and the choice of gourmet cheese toasties, hot dogs, and tacos has widened to include classy heat-at-home casserole dishes, healthy, local lunches and winter-warming broths and soups.
Three street foodists which currently stand out include French Village's Baker Street takeaway just outside the company's massive bakery, the new Toast Office hatch and deli Ward & Co's dinners made by Michelin star chef Danni Barry.
Baker Street's menu includes a chilli dog and a mac'n'cheese both of whose enormous volumes create a man versus food challenge. And the quality of these matches the volume. The chilli dog is a celebration of what we love best: food you can eat with your hands, which features a large banger, crispy onions and a ladle of Mexican-style chilli con carne slobbered over the whole thing. It is a thing of intense beauty but one which must be eaten alone because you will have to open your mouth very wide to get your teeth around this thing and allow for spillage down your front. Alternatively, take it home, cut it up and feed the family with it using plates, knives and forks.
The mac'n'cheese is another wonder where quality meets heft. It's a classic with added crunch from the gremolata.
Over in Stranmillis, chef Danni Barry is in the kitchen at the back of delicatessen Ward & Co where she makes fish pies, risottos, chicken wings and much more. Neatly packed and oven-ready, these are the classiest pre-prepared fresh meals available in Belfast.
The fish pie weighs nearly 1kg and for £9 you get a substantial meal for two with all the Danni Barry magic. Rich, creamy, generously populated with smoked coley, salmon and cod, the pie's deep flavours are lifted by the dill, fennel, carrot, onion, celery, leeks and chives and topped with a thick blanket of mash which is further enhanced with grated parmesan.
There are some fabulous breads, cheeses, pastries, and tinned and chilled foods here including a range of Donegal-based Shines' tinned tuna and sardines and big fat chickens from McKee's. The fresh produce needs more attention, though, something I discovered after bringing home a tired savoy cabbage (I was in a rush) and stale garlic bulbs.
In the city centre, the little hatch in Hill Street formerly operated by coffee house Established, is currently in the hands of Toast Office chef Cally Carrigan. Here he makes cheese toasties so good people send other people to hold their place in the queue from the minute it opens (Thursday to Sunday) at 11am. £7 for a takeaway toastie may sound a lot but a closer look at what's inside quickly reveals the class. The "fancy ham and cheese" features slabs of ham hock from Corndale and melted, dripping Coolattin Irish cheddar. The heavily buttered white bread slices withstand a grill-to-gold heat and the whole wedge comes in a box accompanied by a little side of chilli tomato jam in a pot.
The special, a smoked chicken and brie, is a doorstep with added spinach for the health and nutrition that's in it.
The classic (£5) is made with Zac's sourdough bread, from one of the best bakeries in the north.
This is a cheese toastie with chorizo also from Corndale. Never mind the cheese: it's enough to make your heart melt.
Ward & Co Fish Pie.......................... £8.99
Baker Street Chilli Dog .................. £8.00
Toast Office fancy ham & cheese ..£6.00
Baker Street Food Shack Montgomery Road
Friday & Saturday 12 - 19.30
Hill Street Hatch,
Hill Street, Belfast
Thursday to Sunday 11 - 16.00
Ward & Co,
Lockview Road, Stranmillis, Belfast
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