Eat your cart out, Canada. Vancouver's sensational street food experiment has become the envy of the rest of the country. From Calgary to the CBC Radio headquarters in Toronto - where Q host Jian Ghomeshi dedicated one of his morning essays last week to the city's multicultural food-cart success - they're all looking Vancouver's way and licking their lips.
The phenomenon just keeps growing: Now there's the Vancouver Foodie Cart Tour (www.foodietour.ca), Street Food Vancouver, an iPhone app to locate nearby carts, a newly formed vendors' association and Food Network Canada's Eat St., a reality show that has featured Vancouver in a past episode (Eat St. also has its own app).
But have the flavours of the food carts gone downhill? The fare from this season's second batch, all of which rolled out in recent weeks, isn't as impressive as the early arrivals. That said, there are still many more vendors set to hit the street - 15 a year, for the next three years to be exact. So let's not count our chicken-fried sandwiches before they hatch.
The only real problem we see? The lack of street-side seating space. If only the City of Vancouver would provide more outdoor benches where people could comfortably eat all this fabulous street food. Seriously. The shortage of places to sit down is becoming a real drag.
TWO THUMBS UP
Baja-style fish tacos
Mobile vendor: Check www.tacofino.com or follow on Twitter @TacoFinoCantina for location and hours.
Barely seared tuna "ta-takos," garnished with a standout mix of sharp wasabi-ginger mayo, soothing seaweed and sweet mango salsa, make it worth chasing this bright orange truck all over town. Light and crispy tempura-battered ling-cod tacos and cheesy pork gringas are darn tasty too.
Wholesome factor: In addition to all this lovely local, sustainable seafood and made-from-scratch goodness, lidded take-away containers cost an additional 25 cents each. If supermarkets can charge for plastic bags…
Value: $20 for four tacos buys a substantial dinner for two people
Service: Fast and friendly, though I really wish this phenomenal Tofino runaway would stay parked in one place.
Takeaway thought: Don't walk away without a fat, fudgy, chili-and-ginger flecked chocolate Diablo cookie. They're addictive.
ONE THUMB UP
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Main Street and Terminal Avenue: Monday to Friday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The grilled cheese-and-bread classic gets gussied up with such "shocking" flavour combinations as bacon and apple or chicken and chipotle. Presentation is sloppy, but the taste is oh-so-gooey.
Wholesome factor: Jalapeno soy cheese for vegans.
Value: $5 for specialty sandwiches; $2.50 for plain cheese. Cash only.
Service: Blaring metal music not particularly welcoming. Could use more love.
Takeaway thought: Is this what the kids eat these days? Lucky them.
Denman Street and Robson Street: Mon to Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Standard yet pleasing chicken, lamb and vegetable souvlaki wraps with homemade ingredients, including a generous schmear of thick, dilled tzatziki. Go for the crisp, flaky, beautifully herbed spanakopita (which is excellent, but not always available).
Wholesome factor: Chicken and lamb is free-run and non-medicated.
Value: $6 to $8 for souvlaki pita wraps
Service: Exuberant. Watch for passing bus drivers shouting "Opa!"
Takeaway thought: No mouthwash required - less garlicky than most.
It's All About Grill
Burrard Street and Davie Street: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Chicken, pork, rib-eye, lamb and bacon-wrapped sausage are fairly distinguishable meats. So why do these grilled skewers all taste the same? It's all about marinade, perhaps.
Wholesome Factor: The full meal deal, served with rice or pita, grilled corn and fruit "plate," covers all the basic food groups.
Value: $7.50 for five skewers and all the fixings
Service: They give free samples to the homeless. Nice.
Takeaway thought: Is it worth wasting a whole plastic container on three frozen blueberries and half a small strawberry? This isn't a plate; it's barely a bite.
Num Num Food Cart
Granville Street and 11th Avenue: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
There is simply no place for peanut sauce in a banh mi baguette, especially not when mixed with mayo. Massive rice-paper rolls, blandly stuffed with cold vermicelli, are too fat and floppy, and awkward to eat.
Wholesome Factor: Rice bowls and wraps include tofu option, plus plenty of fresh veggies and herbs
Value: $7.25 for choice of protein, carbohydrate and sauce
Service: Friendliest vendors around. The kind that make a point of asking your name - and remembering it.
Takeaway thought: Skip the fusion and go back to the basics.