By Radha Marcum, Senior Editor
It’s a drizzly June morning at the farmers’ market in Red Bank, New Jersey. But the vendors and their patrons aren’t bothered by the rain. In fact, the Cinnamon Snail food truck already has a queue ten families deep. I’m here with my mother-in-law, author of Jersey Shore Food History (The History Press, 2012), who has been telling me how popular chef Adam Sobel’s truck has become here in New Jersey and in Manhattan. I’m about to find out why.
With a crowd of locals in front of us, we have plenty of time to contemplate today’s mouth-watering menu. I’m hooked by tantalizing flavors, from layered Asian-inspired sandwiches to American comfort foods. As a lifelong vegetarian, with more than a few options to choose from—that go beyond grilled portabellas, veggie burgers, or a surprisingly meat-free salad if I’m lucky—I’m overwhelmed by the fact that I can eat every main dish on the Cinnamon Snail board.
“I want to create food that, when you hear the description, makes you say, ‘Wow! I want to eat that!’” Sobel tells me later during a phone interview. In order to do that, he draws on cooking traditions from all over the world for the Cinnamon Snail menu, as well as his new book, Street Vegan (Clarkson Potter, 2015). And not just in theory. “I never went to culinary school,” he admits. “Everywhere I travel, that’s how I get my cooking education,” says Sobel.
By the time his daughter was nine, she had visited seventeen countries, including India, Mexico, Peru, France and Turkey. Sobel brings it all back to the Cinnamon Snail. “I try to learn traditional cooking methods, but I don’t try to make traditional food for the truck. I don’t want to just recreate great street food that you can get somewhere else. I learn what I can and create new interpretations—mash-ups of global techniques and flavors.”
Street food isn’t typically vegan. Sobel didn’t start out as a vegan cook, either. “When I began dating my now wife, I was working in non-veg restaurants but cooking vegan for her at home.” At the restaurants, when an order to modify a non-vegetarian dish came back to the kitchen, the cooks would often scoff at customers. “I would come to the defense of vegans,” Sobel relates, and one day he got called out by one of the other chefs: “So, why aren’t you vegan?”
“All of my excuses fell away,” Sobel relates, who stopped eating meat at that point but still ate eggs and dairy. When his wife had their first daughter about a year later, Sobel realized that he didn’t want to stand in the way of the mother-offspring bond for any animal. He went totally vegan at that point and has never looked back, he says. Their daughter, now almost fourteen years old, helps out on the truck.
Reading the food-truck stories scattered throughout Street Vegan, it’s clear that it has been a long journey with unexpected breakdowns (literally, figuratively) as well as triumphs. After being nominated five years in a row, Sobel and the Cinnamon Snail team won the coveted Vendy Cup at the 2014 Vendy Awards in New York City, what Mario Batali calls “the Oscars of street food.” “I had dreamed of this day long before starting the truck,” Sobel writes. “As we hoisted the glittering cup high, we felt like every broken generator and every parking ticket had finally paid off.”
Even so, says Sobel, “I still don’t consider myself a chef after all these years. I know how to make yummy food, but ‘chef’ is a badge that takes a lot to achieve. I’m just a cook, simply learning my craft. There’s a lot of room to improve.” Sobel won’t be looking to top NYC chefs for inspiration: “It’s the old lady making an incredible dumpling in northern India that has an impact on me—more than anything happening in New York City. There is incredible street food in developing countries.”
The queue finally dwindles to a few people and I have to make a decision. I simply can’t narrow my choice to just one main, so I quickly text my husband to let him know that I’ll be bringing home lunch. We split the Lemongrass Five-Spice Seitan Sandwich (with curried cashews and Szechuan chili sauce) and the Gochujang Burger (with kimchi, sriracha mayo and pickled veggies). Top these off with a Coconut-Thai Basil Donut and a signature Cinnamon Snail roll and we’re in heaven.
Intrigued? Try a recipe for yourself! Enjoy Cinnamon Snails from Street Vegan, courtesy of Clarkson Potter.