Chef and restaurateur Sai Pituk inside the recently acquired Marcello's Italian restaurant at 5380 N. Mesa. Pituk will remake the restaurant. "Ruby," the large mural in background will stay, she said, although somewhat altered. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times)
The best food of your trip won't be served in a restaurant.
At least not if your traveling partner is El Paso restaurant owner/chef Sai Pituk.
"The best food in the world is not made in five-star, stainless steel, picture-perfect kitchens," Pituk said. "They are made on the streets of the world."
To adventurous travelers like Pituk, street cooks are magicians who create their culturally enriching meals with little more than a cart and a griddle, mortar or deep-fryer.
Pituk, who owns Tara Thai Restaurant at 2606 N. Mesa and is in the process of opening two more restaurants, The Kitchen (5380 N. Mesa) and the Gastro Pub (1360 Lee Treviño) - both former locations of Marcello's Ristorante Italiano - is going to chronicle her travel and culinary adventures on the Cooking Channel.
The working title for the series is "Savory Streets with Sai Pituk."
"The show is a travel cooking show," she said. "It's going to explore the real cooks of the world; the cooks on the streets."
Two pilots were filmed - one last summer during the annual Music Under the Stars concerts at the Chamizal and another at the Whole Enchilada Fiesta in Las Cruces.
Filming for the series will begin this summer, possibly in Spain, with the first show airing in the fall.
"I wanted to go to Thailand first but, you know," she said. "I'm going to go all over the world and find the most interesting street cooks and discover the stories behind them. Then I'm going to learn how to cook what they are cooking and the viewers are going to be able to watch the process and learn with me how to cook these types of food."
The idea for the travel/cooking program came to Pituk during a three-month visit to Thailand.
"I walked the streets of Thailand and asked the people, 'Hey, who makes the best curry? Who makes the best noodle dish' or whatever I was learning how to make and they would tell me and I would go to that street vendor and I would barter with them to teach me."
Sometimes she would pay them with a pair of Levi's Jeans.
"Those guys have been doing those recipes for generations," she said. "They are the masters of what they do. That's how I learned how to cook."
What impresses Pituk the most about street cooks is the way they conjure up not just a delicious snack or meal but the very essence of a place.
"Every city has it's own culinary swagger," Pituk said. "It's my job to get into those nooks and crannies of that swagger and bring it home to the viewer."
From banana leaves stuffed with sticky rice sold on a Thai train to harira soup, a traditional Moroccan broth of chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and turmeric - the cuisine of the people - is found in practically every country.
"Any country that is big on street food I want to visit," Pituk said.
"Places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, Alaska and of course New York. I want to go everywhere."
Pituk said she is also going to share her experiences in dishes at her two new restaurants.
"It's nice to have an outlet to everything that I have seen, smelled and tasted," she said. "At Tara Thai I'm restricted to just Thai food but at the other two kitchens I'll be able to share more experience with different ingredients with El Paso diners."
The El Paso version of street foods is not as extravagant as international cities.
"You would be hard-pressed to find an outside food vendor in El Paso because of the city regulations," said Nick Gomez, a pharmaceutical salesman who travels around the country. "My favorite street foods are in Chicago along the walking paths in the northern part of Lincoln Park."
Gomez said you'll come a across all kinds of vendors selling chicharrones, tacos and cups of freshly cut pineapple, mango, watermelon and melon tossed with lemon and orange juice, cayenne pepper and salt.
He said he would love to see more food trucks, carts and even hot dog vendors around San Jacinto Park downtown.
"I really think street food is a window into a city's soul," Gomez said.
"The closest thing we have to clump of local vendors like that are the ones at the Fox Plaza swap meet on Sundays. I know it's not the most glamourous place but the food is good and authentic."
Because of its proximity to Mexico, street food such as elote en vaso (corn in a cup) served with butter, lime juice, crema Mexicana chili powder and lime wedges are very popular.
"I remember going over to Juárez when it was safe to do so and eating tacos on the corners of Juárez Avenue," said Larry Mendoza, who used to go over the bridge with friends while a student at UTEP in the '90s. "They used to have different kinds of meat on a steel rod and the vendor would cut it off and make tacos right in front of you."
It is memories such as those that Pituk wants to share with viewers of "Savory Streets with Sai Pituk."
"Germany, New York, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan each has its own food swagger," she said. "It's fun to pick up on some of the ingredients they use in a particular country like in Thailand where fish sauce is very prevalent. It's fun to take those ingredients and use them in American cuisine or Mexican cuisine."
And El Paso's food swagger?
"El Paso doesn't really have one right now, but it's up and coming," she said. "With the new talent of chefs that we have coming into town, El Paso would be accommodating to the new cuisine that's coming into the city and they will be a part of the culinary revolution in El Paso."
Victor R. Martinez may be reached at; 546-6128.