One of the most thoroughly enjoyable food experiences to be found in Vancouver is alongside a Japadog sidewalk cart.
The crowds are huge and the lineups can be long, but I've yet to see anyone get upset or even mildly impatient while waiting for a fatty, flavourful Kurobuta pork sausage loaded with fried onions, teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and nori shreds.
Japadog, which first rolled up to the corner of Burrard and Smithe three years ago, has opened two new locations this spring: one at Burrard and Pender; the other at the Coal Harbour Community Centre.
In addition their delectable pan-Asian twists on the standard tube steak, the Japadog stands always offer a pleasant break in the sunshine, boisterous greetings from the friendly staff members, a bevy of incredulous smiles from curious onlookers and a few laugh-out-loud chuckles from the chalkboard promotions written in whimsical "Japlish."
"Top chef's special!!!" "You may need 911?" "Ice Cube loves this turkey."
And isn't it just incredibly heartwarming to see an innovative entrepreneur turn his humble sidewalk business into a rip-roaring success despite the city's archaic street-vendor regulations?
Japadog is the story of Noriki Tamura, a Tokyo ad salesman who came to Canada with his wife, Misa, in 2005, with the dream of opening a sidewalk crêpe stand, only to be foiled by civic bylaws, which limit Vancouver street vendors to soft drinks, plastic-wrapped muffins and precooked hot dogs.
"I was upset and confused," Mr. Tamura says through a translator. "The laws are too tough."
Determined to make the most of the sidewalk site licence that he had applied for and won by lottery, the intrepid street-meat hawker spent three months apprenticing at a traditional hot-dog cart. In his spare time, he began developing a menu of Japanized hot dogs garnished with grated daikon, soy sauce, seaweed and bonito flakes that would set him apart from the city's 100-plus sausage sellers.
Faster than a wasabi fume burning through a nasal passage, Japadog became a sidewalk sensation that attracted swarms of hungry hordes looking for something - anything - a little bit different.
Celebrities such as Steven Seagal and gangsta rapper Ice Cube stopped by for lunch. Anthony Bourdain, a big fan of the Misomayo dog, featured Mr. Tamura on his television show No Reservations. And camera crews from as far as Japan were sent to report on the little hot-dog cart that could.
At the original Japadog stand, outside the Sutton Place Hotel, you can still find lineups that often run 40-people deep. But after waiting 20 minutes one evening, I must admit I was slightly disappointed to discover that the Oroshi ($4.75) is no longer smeared with wasabi. Without it, the bratwurst sausage, garnished with daikon, soy and green onion, tastes a bit bland.
The new location at Burrard and Pender, on the northeast Scotiabank corner, features several new flavours including the Okura ($5.25), a bratwurst sausage with sautéed okra that tastes as "slimy and sticky" as advertised, and the Sakana fish sausage ($6.25), topped with tuna, Japanese mayo, soy and organic leaf lettuce.
The most popular new Japadog is the Korokke ($6), an all-beef sausage loaded with mashed potato, cabbage, mayo and a tangy yoshoku sauce.
But my all-time favourite is still the Kurobuta Terimayo ($6.25), which boasts an exquisitely succulent, 100-per-cent all-natural Berkshire pork sausage. This is a gourmet dog, no doubt about it.
As much as I love Japadog, it's still incredibly sad to think that in a city as cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse as Vancouver this is the only remotely interesting street food around.
Yes, there are a couple of larger trailer carts with small kitchens and washing stations that allow the owners to cook on the spot and provide more diversity. Crêperie La Bohème, with its savoury-stuffed buckwheat pancakes, is a great example. But because they have to be parked on the street, you'll only find them at the Farmers' Markets and special events.
Now that Toronto has rolled out its new A La Carte program - eight new vendors that are spicing up the sidewalks with chapli kebabs, pad thai, jerk chicken, Eritrean injera and other exotic street eats - Vancouver's paltry hot-dog selection looks even more pathetic.
It won't be this way for long if city councillor Heather Deal has anything to do with.
"It's not rocket science. There are many places in the world that have figured this out," say Ms. Deal, who forwarded a motion in council last year that calls for city staff to work with the Vancouver Food Policy Council to provide a report that would look at loosening the restrictions on street vendors.
The motion was passed unanimously and the new council has embraced it. But the unfinished study is still tangled in bureaucratic red tape. And as Food Policy Co-ordinator Devorah Kahn explains, it will be at least a year before any concrete changes are made.
"We're certainly hoping to have it finished before the end of the year," says Ms. Kahn, noting that she's very keen on the Portland system, where semi-permanent stalls in empty lots have created flourishing outdoor food courts.
But even if the report is finalized and approved by the end of the year, it won't have any impact on what's sold during the Olympic Games because the annually renewable vendor licences are processed in April.
In the meantime, Mr. Tamura has managed to wiggle around the rules by taking over an indoor food stall at the Coal Harbour Community Centre.
His newest stand, which opened over the Victoria Day weekend, has an outdoor grill where he's been firing up everyone's favourite Japadogs.
But because he also running water and a larger refrigeration system, the menu will soon include okonomiyaki (a savoury Japanese pancake), mentai (a baked potato stuffed with fish roe) and ice cream parfaits.
"I want to build Japadogs all over the world," he says excitedly.
But for the sake of Vancouver's sidewalk snackers, let's hope this top dog doesn't wheel off into the sunset anytime soon.
Japadog: Burrard and
Smithe; Burrard and Pender;
480 Broughton St.