It was one of my most memorable meals in Canada: fried, profoundly sweet local beets; a spicy stir-fried mélange of brussel sprouts and cauliflower; and British Columbia haddock served with naan and rice in a coconut curry. And it all came from a truck — actually, two trucks, to be precise, Le Tigre and Vij’s Railway Express, both of which were parked in a vacant lot just off Vancouver’s False Creek, where around 20 food stalls assemble each Sunday for the Food Cart Fest.
It was one of those impossibly clear, sunny days that make BC summers so spectacular, and as I sat on a curb, plastic fork plunging into styrofoam container, I thought about how improbable these trucks really were. Like most Canadian cities, street food in Vancouver was for years limited to precooked sausages reheated on a barbecue. Serviceable enough, but this was food to fill your belly, not stimulate your appetite, the unfortunate byproduct of health regulations that saw sodium-packed, industrially-processed cylinders of beef as somehow safer than freshly-prepared meats and vegetables. Then came the first sign of innovation, in 2007, when recent Japanese transplant Noriki Tamura began serving seaweed-laden hot dogs at his Burrard Street stall, Japadog. At the time, Vancouver had 120 street food carts, all of which were restricted to selling hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks. Japadog pushed the limits of that regime as far as they would go. In 2010, they finally gave way. Following in the footsteps of the gourmet food truck boom in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Vancouver opened its streets to a panoply of delights normally reserved for bricks-and-mortar restaurants: Taiwanese pork belly sliders, fresh Pacific seafood, Australian meat pies.
I spent most of the past month in Canada, travelling not quite from coast to coast, but at least from the Georgia Strait to the shores of the St. Lawrence. (“What are you, on a fucking grand tour of Canada?” asked Steve Welch when I walked into his bookstore last week.) Food trucks followed me wherever I went. In Parksville, a small beach town on Vancouver Island, I passed by a wood-fired pizza truck. I got a milkshake from the dubiously-named Mr. Soft and Delight in downtown Toronto. And I scouted out the new fleet of food trucks that are cruising the streets of Montreal, the first time in 66 years that street food has been allowed in the city.
There’s a good case to be made that food trucks have jumped the shark (or perhaps more accurately, rolled right over it). “Despite the inherent attractiveness of cute trucks and clever food options, the business stinks,” noted Adam Davidson in the New York Times earlier this year. And while the financial equation differs from city to city, depending on the local market and regulatory environment — New York seems like an especially bad place for food truck entrepreneurs, while Portland is much more fertile ground — there’s also the sense that food trucks have become the punchline to an oft-repeated joke, from Stu’s Stews in Portlandia to a throwaway gag about “Nutella-and-peanut-butter fries” in a recent episode of Dexter. Still, even with all of that in mind, the basic conceit of good food served in a mobile device — be it a truck, a pushcart or on the back of a motorcycle — seems pretty universally loved. It’s the details that matter.
And in Canada, the details that count are in the fine print of city bylaws. The success of street food depends largely on how its purveyors are allowed to operate. Vancouver is a success because it has adopted a policy of encouraging rather than limiting the expansion of street food options: you can sell waffles out of a small trailer on West Georgia or dim sum from a truck on Burrard. Montreal’s new food trucks are beset by a more restrictive attitude, owing in large part to pressure from the restaurant industry, which is the biggest reason why street food was absent from the city for so long. 27 trucks have been issued permits to sell food at nine locations around the central Ville-Marie borough; there are another 17 unlicenced trucks and stalls that ply their trade at street fairs, festivals and locations like the Lachine Canal, which is managed by Parks Canada.
Many trucks have an innovative local spin — there are a couple of cheese trucks, a truck serving ployes, a type of buckwheat pancake from the Madawaska, a truck serving meat and fish tartares. Unfortunately, the flip side to that coin is that only food trucks deemed sufficiently gourmet by a seven-member jury are allowed. That, combined with a maze of red tape, has limited the food truck market to established players; most of Montreal’s licenced trucks area affiliated with bricks-and-mortar restaurants. The 17 unlicenced ones aren’t any less worthy, but they have been arbitrarily relegated to second-class status. All of this has conspired to create a situation that Vice branded, in typical fashion, as “a symbolic ‘fuck you’ to poor people and immigrants.”
It reminds me in some ways of Toronto’s disastrous experiment with expanding street food options. Launched in 2009 in an effort to bring more diverse food options to the streets of a very diverse city, a street food pilot project went so badly it drove some of its 15 participants bankrupt. Part of the problem was that the program was run by Toronto’s health department, which imposed onerous restrictions on vendors: ingredients had to be local and “sustainably produced,” no signage was allowed on the uniform food carts — which weighed 360 kilograms and were, astonishingly, immobile — and cart owners had to be present 70 percent of the time. Vendors were also limited to a handful of poorly-trafficked locations and charged up to $15,000 a year in location fees. By the end of its two year run, even the city councillor who pioneered the project said it had become “ridiculously formalized.” Now things are back to square one: Toronto is filled with trucks selling oily junk food and nothing else.
Given the enthusiastic response to its introduction of food trucks, Montreal seems more inclined to take the path of Vancouver than of Toronto, especially if it reduces the number of hoops vendors must jump through to become licenced by the city. But I can’t help but feel that, as usual, Canadian cities are being far too fussy about the whole thing. One of the most memorable food trucks I encountered last month was in Bellingham, a small city in Washington less than an hour’s drive south of Vancouver. Parked just outside the cinderblock office of a locksmith was that most American of street food institutions: a taco truck. I had already had lunch, but was curious to try their tacos de lengua, so I ordered one for $1.25. It was ready a few minutes later, the beef tongue as tender as any I’ve had, sprinkled with fresh cilantro. Simple, fresh and cheap: street food as street food should be.
Tags: Food Trucks, Informal Space, Montreal, Regulation, Small Towns, Street Food, Toronto, Vancouver