While Toronto city hall squabbles over mobile food carts, the city's street-food lovers have moved on, and then some.
Toronto's gourmet truck scene has exploded in the past year, with a dozen trucks operating around the region this summer and new entrants either announcing their intentions or launching almost every other week. (The latest: a dosa truck by the end of August.)
Where just 12 months ago you were lucky to find anything better than warmed-over hot dogs streetside in the city, today the options include fish tacos, crab and lobster rolls, Southern barbecue, Jewish brisket sandwiches, fried calamari pitas, kale and arugula salads and South American frosties made with sugar cane juice.
At the Royal Bank Plaza at Front and Bay streets, there's a rotating cast of trucks (and famished people clad in shirts and ties in lineups) every weekday. The former lunch-hour food desert at Queen and Mutual streets has four or five food trucks daily, and there are one-off pop-up festivals in and around town most weeks as well. The best way to find the trucks is via @ontfoodtrucks on Twitter, or follow them individually.
But which ones to try on your lunch hour? Read on to see our picks for five of the city's best food trucks. You'll want to get to them fast, before the lines get any longer.
Buster's Sea Cove
When the popular bricks-and-mortar St. Lawrence Market fish shop launched its truck this spring, most people focused on the news that they would be able to get street-side lobster rolls at lunchtime. But there's more to it than that. The shrimp tacos, especially, are fantastic: two corn tortillas stuffed with fat, sweet and juicy shrimp in ultralight batter, topped with gently spicy tomato and cilantro salsa. The fish tacos, made with hunks of top-grade halibut in crunchy, British-style batter, run a close second. Both are served with a simple jalapeno- and lime-spiked slaw. The lobster rolls are good, by the way, if a little small (a person with an appetite could eat two of them, easily) and pricey at $13. The key lime pie is your standard key lime pie, which is to say it's crazy decadent and delicious, particularly when you were supposed to be back at your desk 10 minutes ago.
All the focus in the past few years on regionally specific, just-like-in-Italy Italian has been nice and all, but few things are more satisfying than Italian-Canadian-style spinach and ricotta manicotti or a plate of mozzarella-draped veal parm. John Verdile spent 30 years in the construction industry before launching this love letter to his Molise-born nona's cooking seven weeks ago; his wife and business partner, Theresa, was an interior designer. They've found their calling, it appears. Mr. Verdile's beef and veal meatballs are some of the best in the city. They're fat, juicy and beautifully seasoned with cheese, fresh herbs and garlic; he serves them with long-simmered marinara sauce and a parsley, herb and olive oil emulsion that tastes like the greatest mayo ever. The veal and eggplant sandwiches are all good, if not entirely life-altering. The manicotti – scratch-made pasta tubes, the usual cheeses and a knob of voluptuously creamy mascarpone – are brilliant. And in case you forget this is Italian-Canadian, there's shaker parmesan and freeze-dried parsley over top.
Another brand-new entrant from a pair of food lovers who dropped their day jobs to get into the business, this month-old Southern barbecue truck draws some of the city's longest lunchtime lineups. It took nearly half an hour just to order when the truck was parked at Front and Bay streets a couple of weeks ago, then 10 minutes more until the orders were ready. Are the long waits worth it? Definitely, depending on your feelings about meat and smoke. The poutine, made from hand-cut, skin-on fries that are topped with pulled pork, pulled smoked chicken and brisket, is the best dish on offer. The beans and cornbread that come with many of the menu items are also excellent; the beans are made with root beer, which gives them a fruity, caramel pop. The smoked meats are fine, for the most part, though they can't compete with a proper barbecue place like The Stockyards on St. Clair Avenue. This doesn't much matter, though, particularly when it's drenched with sauce and it comes to your office door. So what if it isn't textbook barbecue? It's moist, fatty, sweet, sour and sublimely meaty – five delicious steps backward on the human evolutionary scale.
El Gastrónomo Vagabundo
This St. Catharines-based truck was the region's first when Adam Hynam-Smith, a former restaurant chef, and his wife, Tamara Jensen, launched two years ago. It's also one of the most successful; el Gastro has become a go-to film-industry and backstage concert caterer in recent months. The menu, built largely around tacos and international street hawker staples, changes continually. The names are always cheeky: Crispi Yamaguchi tacos made with tempura sweet potatoes, pickled ginger and wasabi aioli, as well as German-style Dirk Diggler ones made with weisswurst, braised cabbage and bacon. The Kim-Jong Illin' chicken wings, dressed with fermented ssamjang soy and chile sauce, black and white sesame seeds and coriander, are good. There was also a superb fried-chicken taco the other week and decent fish ones (Buster's Sea Cove's were better). Tanya Kim, the perky etalk television host, worked a guest shift taking orders in the truck's window last week as Bay Street titans gawped. The event was good for the truck, but better for Ms. Kim, I'm guessing. El Gastro has all the star power it needs.
Zane Caplansky, the Jewish deli enthusiast whose eponymous restaurant brought small-batch smoked meat, kishkes and Passover-style brisket back to downtown Toronto five years ago, doesn't sit around much. Mr. Caplansky's year-old truck, named Thunderin' Thelma after his grandmother, is the first in what he hopes will become a fleet of several. With staples like his brisket sandwich, he just might do it. Mr. Caplansky pot-roasts the brisket with tomatoes and aromatics, classic style, then reduces the cooking liquid with molasses and cider vinegar, and serves the Hebrew-Hillbilly mash-up on an oniony challah bun. The smoked meat poutine is delicious (the chips are exceptionally dark and tasty). There are great maple-bacon doughnuts (don't worry: it's beef bacon), and heart-stopping oddities such as latke pakoras, served with apple chutney. The signature smoked meat is the weakest link, though; fatty and full-flavoured some days, dry on others. That said, it's nothing a little mustard can't fix.