Through the side hatch of a 1970s Citroën H van, a man stands tongs at the ready to flip a pile of greens over an electric griddle, pre-charred halloumi standing guard at the side. "That's not what you expect when someone invites you out for street food," gestures Richard Johnson.
We wait as David Bailey, who left professional kitchens to start Wholefood Heaven with his wife Charlotte Bailey five years ago, assembles our Buddha Bowl: brown rice, soy and maple-glazed tofu, kale, sweet potato, pineapple and peanut massaman curry, and that squeaky halloumi as an optional extra. "I don't want to oversell it, but your life is about to change," Johnson adds.
Minutes later, standing on a busy east London pavement to scoff our spoils, the founder of the British Street Food Awards points at the van: "That's why I got into the business; for that. It's so cool, and cute, and individual. And it's got bunting." Not forgetting some seriously delicious food. "I used to think [street food] couldn't be as good as restaurant food," says the former fine-dining critic who gave up expense-account lunches to champion meals cooked from transportable kitchens, "but in a lot of cases it's better." Think about it: no stressing over a rapidly cooling plate on the pass that no one has noticed; the chance to chat with the chef; and change from a tenner.
We meet in Whitecross Street, near London's Barbican, which is lined with vans and stalls selling everything from falafels and burritos to burgers and curries, but we could just as easily have picked a similar-smelling street in any number of British cities. Tasty street food, as Johnson is at pains to point out, isn't about wearing skinny trousers and living in Shoreditch but "making good quality food from a van available to everyone".
The most thriving scenes are in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol: places with big student populations. But before memories of late night cheese-and-chilli soaked chips from a grotty Oxford kebab van can take root – "street food was just drunk food" – Johnson is eulogising about the alternatives. That mainly means burgers and hot dogs, sorry, haute-dogs, which remain the big sellers for carnivorous Brits, but at least they're no longer all stuffed with frozen patties or canned sausages. And there are other options.
The trick for aspiring traders is to make their dishes provide an edible hug. "Something comforting. Food on the street has to appeal in a different way to food in restaurants. On the street it's more primal. You're making snap decisions." Something that's quick to serve is also vital: people get hungry queuing, especially when there's a choice.
But get it right and a van, or even cheaper, a stall, can be the best way for thwarted foodies to fulfil a dream. And forget about trying to pinpoint a typical trader: that can be anyone from Stan Wood, the 13-year-old snow-cone aficionado from Lewes, East Sussex, who won best young trader at last year's awards, to Gillian and Keith Wyles, a couple in their sixties who have perfected the buckwheat galettes they sell from their converted Citroën H van.
Johnson estimates that around 10,000 people make a living selling street food; festivals remain the big money-spinners, but on a good lunchtime traders can rack up around £500 in sales. That said, festival pitches don't come cheap: there is much grumbling about the thousands of pounds Glastonbury charges for the honour.
The other plus is flexibility: a fusion twist too far – think Viking Soul Food, a combination that failed to tickle Johnson's tastebuds on a recent trip to the United States – is reversible with a simple wipe of a blackboard menu. And vans are easy to move. Well, relatively: it took Niklas Bolle and Nikola Adamovic two days to drive their bright pink El Taco Truck, which majors in soft-shell crab tacos, from Stockholm to the UK last year.
As well as the British Street Food Awards (see panel, below) that Johnson started in 2009 and which begin this week, the food writer is working hard to develop the industry's business side. That buzzword "brand" crops up, although it must be hard to brand something that's so multifarious. Often this means helping those dreaming of four solid walls to swap their vans for bricks and mortar.
Last year's winners, former art students Katie Houston and Kim Glegg, who stunned the judges with their warm cheese scones and custard tarts served from a converted horsebox, are opening a site in Bristol this week. They follow in the footsteps of Meat Liquor, Pitt Cue, Pizza Pilgrims, Yum Bun and Lullabelle's, which have all migrated to solid premises.
Johnson is also trying to bring street food in off the street. In Leeds, Trinity shopping centre has transformed its food court by offering month-long residencies to five of the UK's best street-food traders. Somehow the centre manages to lift trucks in and out to chop and change what's on offer to shoppers. And the big operators are starting to pay attention. SSP, which is part of food services giant Compass and owns the Ritazza and Upper Crust chains (yawn), is looking to the street for alternatives, firstly to put into Euston station in London.
If this all makes the foodie dream sound too easy, there are plenty of pitfalls, as Johnson points out while we wander down Whitecross Street. He points to a man smoking – smoking! – next to one of the stalls, and is quick to condemn traders who merely serve something pre-cooked and warmed up in big metal catering trays. He's also bored, sorry, with converted Citroën vans, unless you got in on the retro vibe ahead of the pack, like Wholefood Heaven. And Airstreams are a cliché too far.
Above all, the key is having "pizzazz". He's a sucker for all the frills that he reckons have put the UK in the street-food vanguard. "Americans are too obsessed with junk food and fatty foods, plus their trucks all look the same. And in the Far East, the food is wonderful, but it's just quick and workaday. I want a DJ and a bucket of beer and fairy lights."
And, of course, by definition, something damn tasty to boot.
Roll up, eat up
The Independent on Sunday has joined forces with British Street Food to sponsor awards that seek out the very best dishes being served from trucks and stalls around the country.
For the first time since the British Street Awards were founded in 2009, there will be regional heats at which members of the public who go along on the day decide who wins, by voting on the British Street Food app (details at britishstreetfood.co.uk/app). The winning street-food vendor will then go forward to the Grand Finals in September, when they will be joined by top traders from across Europe. The finals will be judged by the public and a panel that includes Richard Johnson and Lisa Markwell, editor of The Independent on Sunday.
Each event offers the chance to sample the huge variety of delicious dishes that our most imaginative street-food entrepreneurs can provide, from Mexican and Taiwanese to classic British baking, ox-tongue sandwiches to pizzas and hot dogs, by way of grown-up ice-creams and candy floss.
Here are the local heats:
2 May Central heat, Birmingham
10 May West and Wales heat, Bristol
14 June South heat, Brighton
14 June North heat, Manchester
19 July London heat
20 July Scottish heat, Edinburgh
31 July East heat, Norwich
These are followed by:
26-28 September Grand Finals, Leeds
For more information about the BSFA in association with The Independent on Sunday and the regional heats, visit: britishstreetfood.co.uk
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies