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Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Street food in Tallinn – eat, enjoy & keep coming back for it

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By Noora Karppi  •  29.05.2017

Tallinn is a rising star on the culinary map of Northern Europe. Good quality food made of pure, local ingredients can be found everywhere in the city. 

Fine dining and slow food restaurants are mostly located in the Old Town; fast-growing and trendy places can be found in Kalamaja. Which is also the place to go if you are hungry for easy-going and tasty street food.

“To experience Tallinn street food culture, the best place to visit is Kalamaja and Pelgulinn. If you are in town during the Street Food Festival, you are in luck, as the festival offers a great opportunity to get an idea of the local street food scene.“ suggests Raimo Matvere, the head of Tallinn Street Food Festival.

During the last few years the street food culture in Tallinn has taken giant leaps from small beginnings to the diverse and exciting variety we see now, constantly evolving to meet changing local lifestyles. The biggest influencers and game changers have been the Tallinn Street Food FestivalDEPOO, and the Balti Jaam Market street food courts.

The first Tallinn Street Food Festival took place in 2014. The initiator was Raimo, whose daily work involves managing content for Telliskivi Creative City. ”I got the inspiration from Thailand, about two years prior to the first Street Food Festival in Tallinn.”

“Later I started working in Telliskivi Creative City and it felt right to organise our own Street Food Festival, because we understood that people don’t really get what street food is all about. That it is no longer unhealthy French fries that took a swim in fat, and suspicious burgers, but is actually a colourful and diverse culture.”

The first Tallinn Street Food Festival took only one month to organise, from the decision to have the festival to the opening of the gates. It was a quick start and got the ball rolling.

 “We can say with confidence that street food culture in Estonia and especially in Tallinn started to evolve faster after the first festival. In the years that have followed, there has been an increase in food trucks, while interesting street food cafés have been opened and operate all year round.”

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Before the big bang in Tallinn street food culture

Tallinn Street Food Festival was the driver that motivated many new vendors to lift up their shutters and start offering street food. Before 2014 street food in Estonia occupied a tiny niche market. Few vendors tried opening the eyes and taste-buds of Estonians to new emotions.

Some of the first ones serving international street food in Tallinn before the big bang were Papa Joe and Bueno Gourmet. Both enjoyed quick success because of a perceived gap in the market for good-quality street food.

Papa Joe’s story started in 1997 when Joseph Abou Raad opened the first kebab place serving Lebanese specialties like hummus and falafel in Tallinn. “The idea came when I visited friends here in Estonia and saw the fast food market was not as developed as in other cities in Europe, and so I found an opportunity to start a restaurant.”

“During the years we have slowly developed our concept based on real life experience. We have observed the market and the needs, what people want. Then came the idea of a proper falafel and hummus take-away bar. We felt the time is right and opened our falafel place in 2013 in Sadama Turg. We also have a food truck we have used for the last couple of years for summer events.”

All the items on the menu, such as falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush and shawarma are prepared by hand from fresh ingredients. Joseph’s personal favorite is falafel. The falafel wrap is also the most popular item on their menu.
Right now, Joseph says, they are working towards opening a new outlet: “The (street food) scene is growing and getting more and more popular. People are more open to trying new street food. This I have noticed clearly! Beforehand it was only places where you sit and eat, and now it is seen as ok to eat on the go!”

Jorge Hinojosa, founder of Bueno Gourmet, agrees with Joseph that a big change has happened in the local street food culture in recent years: “In 2013-2014 the street food scene was basically non-existing, if you talk about food trucks. Not too many operate 12 months of the year like I do. In general, the scene tends to be or look at as bit hipster, in the sense that it provides alternatives, not food found in restaurants. This is also unique to Estonia. In most other countries street food vendors deliver mainstream food.”

Jorge’s Bueno Gourmet is the original food truck in Telliskivi Creative City, opened in 2013. Bueno Gourmet excels in affordable, quick and tasty sandwiches to go.

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Born and raised in Chile, Jorge grew up surrounded by fresh fruit and vegetables, at home his mother made the most delicious sandwiches with homemade bread. Jorge’s background makes him an expert on how to prepare amazing, tasty sandwiches.

Now he runs a team of six people, striving to deliver the best sandwiches in town: “Our line of food is South and North America.  We provide some of the best-known sandwiches from the American continent.”

Local enthusiasts create classics with a twist

Street food culture broke through to mainstream Estonian awareness in 2014 and the same year Uulits was founded. Uulits started off because the founders wanted to bring some new ideas to the local street food scene. First Uulits was a food truck serving street food with a gourmet twist, but because of the amount of positive feedback, Uulits opened their own café in Mustamäe district already in fall 2014.

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

“When we opened our gourmet street food restaurant in Mustamäe we didn’t imagine that street food would become so widely popular. At that time street food culture in Estonia didn’t seem to exist. People are more and more aware of different food trends, and the more time goes on, the more they appreciate fresh, good quality, handmade, a la carte street food. This is exactly what we want to offer at Uulits.” says Artur Parm and Mario Pärn, the men behind the brand.

Today Uulits has two more restaurants offering gourmet street food; one in Kalamaja and the other one at the recently opened Balti Jaama Market.

The menu includes classics, such as burgers, wraps, salads and fries. “We prepare on the spot everything needed for a good gourmet burger, starting from the beef patty to the sauces.”  According to Artur and Mario the clients’ favorites are cheeseburgers and beef burger with onion jam.

There are also more healthy choices available for example a burger with local rye bread. A big hit is also the fitness burger, created in co-operation with nutrition specialists. “The fitness burger is low in calories; it has chicken and light cheese.”

May the street feed you!

You’ll recognise Hungry Karl by the colorful truck, easy-going attitude and slogan “May the street feed you!” (Tänav sind toitku!). Hungry Karl was created by two Karls (Karl Mäe and Karl Ahun) and Tarmo Mustonen in 2015. Every summer they are at Kalamaja days, Tallinn Street Food festival, Uue Maailma street festival and other events, to help street-food-hungry people.

Photo by: Hungry Karl

Hungry Karl has quickly gained popularity and hasn’t gone unnoticed even by the elite in Estonia. Head chef Karl Mäe has even prepared delicacies for the formal reception held by Estonian President on Independence Day.

“Our food needs to be fresh, tasty, interesting, and easy to eat from the hand on the go,” Karl Mäe says about the food Hungry Karl offers. “The food is prepared with good quality ingredients, right in front of the client. Each dish is a unique item, created for Hungry Karl, and we try to make sure that we offer dishes not available anywhere else.”

“We mainly offer different kinds of exciting burgers. The pulled pork burger has been our customers’ favorite since the beginning. But pulled pork has become quite mainstream, so we don’t offer it that much anymore. Other popular burgers are the goat cheese burger, without meat, and this season’s hit smash-burger. For true gourmands we occasionally offer a tuna burger made with real tuna steak. Besides burgers our menu includes also wraps, tacos, quesadillas and other delicious items that our chef Karl has created.”

Karl also feels that street food culture in Tallinn is relatively new and hectic as new vendors open all the time. He hopes that in the future street food could even more be a part of the everyday city life in Tallinn. “Hungry Karl will make an effort to change and develop the street food culture in Tallinn, to reach a more modern and Scandinavian style.”

Photo by: Hungry Karl

Vegan wave in street food

With the new wave of diverse street food, we have also witnessed the rise of vegan food trucks in Tallinn. Both Herbi and VegMachine started out with vegan food trucks in 2016.

“I had had the idea of having a food truck for a long time. Once, in Belgium, I met in with the vegan catering company Just Like Your Mom, they cater at different festivals, and do it so well and in a cool way. I offered them a helping hand. That probably gave one of the biggest pushes for me to start something similar on my own. In some way they are my idols.” explains Mikk Mägi, owner of Herbi food truck. Mikk is also the head chef of V vegan restaurant, one of the most popular restaurants in Tallinn.

“I have been vegan for more than 10 years and it’s my life. I also like to make good vegan food, so it was an easy choice for me. I’m happy that I have so many friends who are willing to help and drive around with me and Herbi. I want to offer the possibility to all my friends. Who wouldn’t like to have a summer job with vegan food, gangsta rap and plenty of fun?”

Mikk says that the menu has so far changed for each event, but the customers favorites are yam potato fries with cilantro mayonnaise, kimchi vegan hot-dog and chickpea-beet burger.

“The street food culture in Tallinn is gaining more and more popularity. More food trucks come along and other takeaway street food cafés are opened. It’s really good that new vegan places are also opening. Or if not totally vegan, many places have vegan options on their menu. Sometimes I wonder what street food I would be doing if there were not Herbi. I have some ideas, but we’ll see what life brings us. I think that street food is a super cool thing to do and also really good to eat.”

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Maarja Laineviir, founder and owner of VegMachine, also feels that the street food scene in Tallinn is changing and people are really going along with it. “It is cool to see the street food culture evolve so fast. There are many different type of foods offered and it makes the events and scene even more exciting.” says Maarja.

Things have escalated quickly for Maarja, who started touring on events with VegMachine food truck last autumn. In May 2017 VegMachine opened a booth at Balti Jaama Market. But there’s no reason to slam on the brakes, as vegan food and street food is something that people are yearning for.

“The story of VegMachine started with a dream and quick action. I have ambition, and I’m ready to go through fire and water to achieve my goals. The greatest motivation came out of the possibility to promote vegan food and bring it closer to people.” Maarja says of the story of VegMachine.

According to her the most popular foods from VegMachine menu are Mother trucker burger, made of pulled yam, and Not Dog. She is renewing the menu for Balti Jaama Market, but Mother trucker burger is available at the market also.

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Quo vadis street food?

Street food vendors and cafés all affirm the change that has happened in Tallinn street food culture. Some vendors were here before the change and some were born as the result. The change is still continuing today.

What will happen in the future? “New vendors open and get more professional. The stronger vendors, with good, working conceptions, have opened new cafés (Uulits and VegMachine) and smaller, interesting cafés that do their own thing open doors to customers. These small cafés are usually limited to two or three dishes, but they do them so perfectly that people will travel across the town to have a taste.” says Raimo.

He also believes that the number of food trucks won’t grow so quickly from now on. “Many vendors do street food as a hobby and probably don’t have the energy to do it several summers in a row. Those who have been able to make profit out of it will continue.”

There is still room for improvement and new vendors. “Asian food culture in Estonia is not developed. We have noodles, curries and now also bao, but Asian cuisine has much more to offer. You won’t find any African cuisine in Estonia either. African cuisine could certainly have a place in the food scene.”

“On the sweeter side, this summer will be the summer of homemade ice cream, waffles and ice cream rolls. In the summer La Muu ice cream café will open in Telliskivi Creative City and at the Street Food Festival, we will partner with the best street food vendors once again.“

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival

Tallinn Street Food Festival brings vendors and fans together

Tallinn Street Food Festival will take place in June in Telliskivi Creative City. On the same weekend you will have also the opportunity to take part in the TaDaa! Street Performance Festival that takes place in Tellisikivi.

The festival is focusing on environmental issues, as approximately 13 000 to 18 000 visitors are expected each year. “All the food is served on biodegradable or reusable dishes and we will calculate the carbon footprint of the festival and compensate for it. In 2016 the Street Food Festival was the first big carbon-neutral festival in Estonia.” says Raimo.

At Tallinn Street Food Festival you’ll have a chance to meet with the local street food vendors, and get to know the culture and tastes they are known for. Bueno Gourmet, Uulits, Hungry Karl, Herbi and VegMachine will all be presenting their best dishes mentioned above. Be sure to check them out and be part of the change.

As Jorge says “Street food in Tallinn is not just to calm your hunger, it is food that you want to come back to.”.

Photo by: Tallinn Street Food Festival