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The Raja Con Crema (roasted poblano peppers with corned cream tacos) is served at La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop in downtown Vancouver. (Laura Leyshon/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)
The Raja Con Crema (roasted poblano peppers with corned cream tacos) is served at La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop in downtown Vancouver. (Laura Leyshon/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)

ALEXANDRA GILL

2010 was the year of the sockeye Add to ...

For some restaurant owners in British Columbia, 2010 may have been the worst of times. They were hit with a 7-per-cent tax hike, confusing new drunk-driving laws and increased food costs. But for diners, especially in Vancouver, it really was the best of times. Going over my columns for the past year, I was shocked to discover that although I reviewed a few duds (Café Barcelona, Cork and Fin, McLean's), there weren't any total gong shows. Well, except for Poor Italian. All in all, it was a great year that started off with the bang during the Olympics and kept going strong.

Meals-on-Wheels

With all due respect to my colleagues in Toronto, they're wrong about Vancouver's street-food pilot project [Note to editor: please insert this link]/note>. It isn't a failure - it's the success story of the year. Yes, there were problems in the lottery process. (It's a pilot project, for Pete's sake. The wrinkles will be worked out.) But I don't see how anyone can say the variety of food is "limited?" From cheesecake-stuffed croissants to pork belly sliders on steamed mantou buns, the choices are vast. While quality varies from cart to cart, several vendors are smoking hot. My favourite is Fresh, Local, Wild at Robson and Granville, which makes terrific fish and chips, using sockeye salmon in a light tempura batter. Chef Josh Wolfe's habit-forming poutine drenched in chanterelle gravy (he foraged the mushrooms himself!) will be the bane of my new year's weight-loss resolution.

Fishy sockeye stocks

After collapsing last year, the Fraser River sockeye stocks rebounded in record-breaking numbers. With an estimated 34 million fish returning to the river system, it was the biggest run in nearly a century - and arguably the most important Canadian food story of 2010. The harvest was so plentiful, this former luxury ingredient is now being fried up as curbside fish and chips (see Meals-on-Wheels above). Feast on this sweet, brilliant-red delicacy while you can because the still-perilous fishery isn't out of hot water yet. The Cohen commission is studying the mystery and will present its findings later this year.

Let the Danes eat dirt

It wasn't just the best meal of the year - it was one of the best meals of a lifetime. Sooke Harbour House really should be ranked right up there with Copenhagen's Noma as one of the top restaurants in the world. This remarkable inn outside Victoria has been following the same hyper-local philosophy as the Danish upstart since it opened 31 years ago. The kitchen may not serve yogurt spun into "snow" or other molecular feats of wizardry, but the cooks do have many tricks up their sleeves such as laminara, a local seaweed and natural thickener (used to bulk up my wild stinging nettle soup) and lemony Mabel Grey geranium (in the luscious butternut squash agnolotti), as a substitute for citrus fruit. Who wants to eat radishes potted in edible dirt, a signature dish at Noma, when you can have fennel baked into an ambrosial sponge cake filled with layers of rhubarb, angelica and apricot mousse?

The best thing since sliced bread

2010 was the year of the taco. And not just in the United States, where the Chicago-research firm Technomic recorded a nearly quarter per cent rise in the number of tacos found on restaurant menus in the first half of last year. In Vancouver, the taco fad wasn't limited to Mexican fare - although the authentic, double-wrapped, soft-corn tortillas at La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop are really quite divine. (Go for the tenderly braised beef tongue or roasted poblana pepper, cheese and creamed corn fillings.) The new street vendors went crazy for tacos in a (ahem) wide variety flavours - bulgogi (Cartel), rotisserie pork and chorizo (Arturuo's Mexican to Go) and Korean beef short rib (Roaming Dragon). There were also great hot-pressed barbecue duck tacos at 100 Days and delicious pulled pork and pickled onion tacotinos at the new tiki bar in the Waldorf Hotel.

Asian food for white folks

If Vancouver is a bellwether for Canadian dining trends writ large, then all signs are pointing to a modern-retro Asian invasion. In the past year, we've enjoyed a surge of traditional Asian street food and home cooking in contemporary digs with dim lighting and swanky décor. These are the kind of places that Chinese grandmothers shun and hipsters adore. To wit: the sour-plum cocktails and crispy dried fish "schnacks" at Bao Bei (my favourite new restaurant of the year), Vietnamese banh mi for the midnight munchies at the Keefer Bar and shoyu ramen with 24-hour braised Berkshire pork at Oru in the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel.

Downscale is on an upswing

The recession may be over, but affordable dining is still very much in style. Diners, delis, lunch counters, gastropubs and cafeterias dominated the seemingly never-ending list of new restaurant openings last year. With the Outpost Café, Dirty Apron Delicatessen, Big Lou's Butcher Shop and Deli and La Ghianda Italian café all having recently launched, the casual gourmet trend shows no sign of abating.

High end bottomed out

On the flipside of the bargain-dining equation, it's getting hard to find a reliable special-occasion restaurant with all the bells, whistles and white linen. Three of Vancouver's fine-dining destinations, Diva at the Met, C Restaurant and West, hired new chefs in the past eight months and are now trying to re-establish their footholds in the city's top tier. For all that Vancouver offers, it still doesn't have a world-class, three-Michelin-star worthy restaurant that combines excellent cuisine and service with show-stopping design. Although they're all close contenders, Lumière is too small, Bishop's too sober and Cioppino's too warehouse-casual. Hawksworth Restaurant, opening in March in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, will attempt to rectify the situation. Oh, the anticipation.

R.I.P. Yaletown. Long live Gastown.

Vancouver's culinary epicentre has shifted from Hamilton and Davie to Gassy Jack Square. Gastown still has some serious problems with late-night shootings, heart-wrenching poverty and an open-air drug market. That hasn't stopped new restaurateurs and diners from swarming the neighbourhood. (I really dig L'Abattoir, Sea Monstr Sushi and Meat & Bread.) It's especially vibrant during the day, when all the kids are at art school. Poor Yaletown. If it weren't for all the chain restaurants moving in, the only establishments that can still afford the rents, Vancouver's historic warehouse district would look like a ghost town.

Follow on Twitter: @lexxgill

 

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