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New York City Street Food Guide – 500 Years of History

It’s time to dedicate a few words to the history of New York City’s food scene, especially its street food and its incredibly varied offer. Grab a bite and follow us through five hundred years of tasty history.

From the first settlers to today’s food trucks, this history lesson gives us reason to appreciate the New York City food vendors.

New York City is well known for its fast-paced lifestyle, its crowded roads, its iconic skyline, and its food. The metropolis is a cultural hot pot that caters to every conceivable diet, 20,000 street vendors cover every cuisine imaginable; the best pizza, the best tacos, the best halal, it’s all here. New York City’s street food vendors are as fiercely competitive as brokers on Wall Street.

The First Settlers

The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle around the harbor around the year 1600. The explorers found that New York City’s harbor was home for millions of oysters. Native Indian’s joy for the shellfish permeated into the settler’s colony soon. Wrapped and thrown to the fire, oysters are unquestionably the first street snack of the newfound land.

New Amsterdam was properly established in 1652, but the Dutch didn’t have much time to savor their new acquisition. The British absorbed the colony soon after, and the city became part of the British rule definitely in 1674.

The American Revolutionary War changed the scenario altogether; so did a couple of massive fires that turned the city into ashes. All this made the city reinvent itself, but street food always comes back. As long as people live in NYC, there will be something to eat on the roadways.

The First Immigrants

Fast forward to the nineteenth century, the German immigration that gave the next push in the city’s street food history. No one makes better sausages than the German, and their staple food eventually became New York City’s own iconic hot dog. Germans sold Sausages along with milk rolls and sauerkraut from carts through the city. Pretzels anyone?

Around the same time, the first big wave of Ashkenazi Jews landed in New York City. The delicatessen concept, based on cold 2 meats, bagels, and pickled goods established itself as a pillar for NYC cuisine.

The new settlers made an entire economy based on pushcarts that sold every good imaginable, including various snacks still common today.

Well-established pushcart markets became popular on the Lower East Side and had a reputation for fair prices and great food, the open markets were crowded and loud, not very different from today’s touristic landmarks.

Did You Know?

Did you know the hot dog as we know it, is credited to Charles Feltman, who allegedly made the first sausage on a bun in 1867?

The 20th Century

The twentieth century brought bad news for the thriving hawker community. The prohibition of street food vending pushed businesses indoors, in what would later become New York’s famous food halls, but no one could prepare the city for the next tough years.

The great depression pushed thousands of unemployed men to sell apples from street carts by the penny. Although, quite a successful program, it was sadly the only thing available to eat in the impoverished, gray streets of New York.

The First Chinese Wave

Let’s look back for a moment. The resurgence of today’s NYC thriving food scene came from the help of vital communities, now part of the heart and soul of the city.

During the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants established in today’s Manhattan Chinatown. Chinese restaurants are iconic, but it’s street carts, offering both, fried and steamed goods are legendary.

The Latin Incursion

Latin America also holds a big part of The Big Apple’s street food scene. The beginning of the 19th century saw significant changes in the American continent.

As Latin America Spanish colonies broke free in a wave of fierce, bloody independent movements, many found in the land of the free an opportunity to start a new story.

Cuba first took hold on NYC. Its sumptuous cuisine permeates the streets, now also merged with Chinese in a Chino-Latino spectacle that holds a special place in New Yorker’s hearts.

Food Trucks

The first ice cream truck, the father of food trucks began rolling just in the 1950s. The food truck craze began in Los Angeles when Raul Martinez converted an ice cream truck into a taco truck and parked it outside a bar.

The movement soon cached on and stormed the entire country. New York has released around 5000 street food vending permits, and food trucks own 500 of them.

There are no two food trucks alike, from Bangladesh chicken over rice to fish tacos, everything goes. These are the modern pushcarts, and with the help of social media, street food is back in the forefront of good eating.

New York city is vibrant, from Michelin-starred gastro-temples to the humblest street food stalls. There’s something to please every palate, and there’s a history behind every hot dog, every pizza slice and every taco.

The next time you’re in the Big Apple, pay your respects for the hard-working men and women that keep the bountiful streets alive and well; each from its jealously guarded corner.

Now, let’s take a look at one of our food day guides starting with Midtown Manhattan.

Food Guide Summary

This summary on the history of street food in New York City is a good way to learn about how culture and hard work has influenced the street food scene today.

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Edmund C
Edmund C

Co-founder of We travel as a family, with a mix of activities to go along with our foodie adventures.

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