There’s no questioning it. Vancouver is a fantastic food city. From vendors at the Granville Island Public Market, to what is arguably the best Chinese food outside of China, as a visitor to the picturesque city I had plenty to choose from. This time, I chose food trucks. Vancouver has garnered a lot of attention for its gourmet food truck scene of late; it was named the third best street food city in North America (after Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas) by Travel + Escape magazine in April 2013. Not bad for a city that welcomed its first food trucks as part of a pilot program in 2010.
If you, like me, visited Vancouver before the pilot program, you’ll remember that street food consisted of hot dogs and roasted chestnuts. Not to knock the dogs, but things have changed in the best possible way. Hot smoked salmon, naan kebabs, chicken karaage, pupusas (Salvadoran thick, stuffed corn tortillas), cassava fry poutine, and gourmet grilled cheese are all among today’s new breed of street food offerings. As of May 2013, there were 137 food trucks and carts on Vancouver’s streets, with 15 additional trucks expected each year from 2014 to 2016.
Celebrated chef Vikram Vij recently won the Air Canada enRoute Canada’s Best New Restaurants inaugural People’s Choice Award
for his food truck Vij’s Railway Express
, which he opened in the summer of 2012. Of the 35 new eateries shortlisted, Vij’s was the only food truck. Surely a sign that diners have recognized the virtue of dishes such as Lucknow Lamb Kebabs and Butter Chicken Schnitzel, and see the quality of food truck fare as being on par with the country’s best restaurants.
Michelle Ng, owner of Vancouver Foodie Tours
, says food trucks are a great way to experience the city’s multicultural culinary scene, and having been on Ng’s ‘World’s Best Food Truck Tour
‘ recently, I would have to agree. “We’re represented by Indian Cuisine – Soho Road [Naan Kebab]
– there’s the Pacific Northwest, for example The Kaboom Box
where you can have the hot smoked, wild Sockeye salmon on organic greens. There’s Le Tigre
and Eat Chicken Wraps
, which offer Asian fusion fare, and then you’ve got the Burger Bus
with organic and locally-sourced bison burgers. Mogu
has a really nice Japanese chicken karaage, and there’s Guanaco
for Salvadoran cuisine,” she says. “So it’s really, really multicultural, and it represents the cultural fabric of Vancouver quite well.”
Ng has been offering food truck tours since 2011 and finds that some guests don’t necessarily equate street food with gourmet fare. They’re surprised to see so many organic and locally-sourced ingredients, and biodegradable and compostable packaging and cutlery. Through the tours, she and her guides endeavour to communicate the hard work and long hours behind operating a food truck. Prep work and food storage takes place at a licensed commissary, or shared commercial kitchen, meaning early mornings and late nights six days a week for many vendors. “There is so much more to the life of a food truck owner than what you see on Eat St.,” Ng says.
She and her guides select the trucks for the tours based on the food, of course, asking: ‘Is it a unique experience?’ and ‘Is it delicious?’ But they also take the stories behind the food into account when making their choices. Sarb Mund, owner of Soho Road Naan Kebab and former accountant, has two tandoor ovens on board and makes naan bread fresh to order. Mund’s built-in tandoor ovens are definitely unique in Vancouver, and he thinks in North America as well. Originally from the United States, Andrew Fielding named The Kaboom Box after a friend’s band. Fielding uses only Ocean Wise-recommended seafood, and hot smokes wild salmon in a smoker in the truck.
“If you’ve ever cooked salmon at home you’ll know that if you cook it for a few minutes extra it can turn hard and it’s not very pleasant to eat; you just have to catch it at exactly the right time,” Ng says. “We’ve been bringing groups to The Kaboom Box for over two years and every single time they just nail it. I don’t know how they do it but every single time it’s soft and silky smooth.”
The accessibility and walkability of Vancouver’s food truck circuit is perfectly suited to sightseeing and wandering the city. I didn’t have to walk very far to hit more food trucks than I could handle; 1.6 km to be precise. Ng’s food truck tour offers an opportunity to try four courses and five tastings in two hours, which makes for a substantial lunch. Two new discoveries for me, and real highlights were Ana Manzano of Guanaco’s delicious pork pupusas with curtido (fermented cabbage slaw), hot sauce and yuca frita, and Tacofino’s
crispy ling cod taco with cabbage, chipotle mayo and salsa fresca served atop a lightly charred tortilla.
The hot smoked wild Sockeye salmon, served on organic greens, at The Kaboom Box was perfectly smoked and perfectly tender. Butter chicken and hariyali chicken were served on naan triangles at Soho Road Naan Kebab (and tasted like more). Mom’s Grilled Cheese Truck
offered some refreshment in the form of ginger mint lemonade, which was chased by one of Tacofino’s Chocolate-Diablo Cookies (recipe below). Sweet, salty and spicy all rolled into one. Sated, I wasn’t able to finish the cookie during the tour but after a 15-minute walk to the False Creek ferry dock I gave it a good home.