By Glen Schaefer | The Province
Vancouver’s street food needs to come in out of the rain, say the people behind the new Food Network series Eat St.
The Vancouver-produced lifestyle series, which premieres tonight (10:30 p.m.), criss-crossed North America for the past year looking for the best of downtown sidewalk chefs. Hot spots include Austin, Texas, where G’raj Mahal sells sublime Indian food out of a converted horse trailer next to an empty lot filled with picnic tables and corrugated metal awnings, and Portland, Oregon, where some 400 street food sellers beat the rain by setting up covered seating in abandoned parking lots.
“G’raj Mahal had the only Indian food I had that was better than Vij’s,” says Vancouver-based series director Peter Waal. Toronto stand-up comedian James Cunningham hosts the show, joining director and crew around North America between onstage gigs.
“I’m always on the road and after a while you get tired of the regular restaurants,” says Cunningham, who mostly stands back and lets the chefs do the talking and sauteing on air. “Street food is something different.”
Cunningham says economic hard times have put some of the continent’s best chefs out of work, and starting up a street-food truck or trailer is cheaper than financing a new restaurant. Hence the growing trend towards street-level gourmet fare.
“Most of these trucks didn’t even exist two years ago,” says Cunningham. “Especially in U.S., all these brilliant chefs are out of work.”
The show debuts in a week when Vancouver added 19 new street vendor licences to the existing 17 fixed and 20 roaming licences. Clearly, we’re a long way from Portland.
“Here’s the trouble,” says Waal. “In Vancouver the weather is a little bit working against you because you’re eating on the street and your standing in the rain. Where it really has taken off is in the warmer climates, like Austin.”
Which still doesn’t explain how rainy Portland has 400 vendors. Says Waal: “One of the things the Portland did, which was smart, is they went to these unused lots and they allowed street food operators to bring their trucks there, with lots of covered areas for people to eat in.”
Eat St. shot segments featuring five B.C. trucks: the pan-Asian Roaming Dragon, and Japa Dog’s elaborately topped wieners in Vancouver, Tofino’s Mexican-styled Tacofino, Victoria’s sustainable seafood vendor Red Fish, Blue Fish and Feastro on the Sunshine Coast.
On the day we talked, Cunningham was back at Roaming Dragon’s Georgia and Burrard location eating pork sliders.
“I work out quite regularly, and since I got this show I have to work out even more,” says the host. “You think these carts are going to be greasy fries, burgers, junk stuff, but that’s not the case at all. A lot of the chefs in Austin had their own herb gardens, It’s a new renaissance.”
Though produced in Vancouver, the show has a U.S. emphasis, partly because the street food phenomenon is at home in U.S. sunbelt cities, and also because the show airs on the U.S. Cooking Channel. So a segment focusing on a vendor in Washington, D.C. introduces the city as “the nation’s capital.”
The show also has an iPhone app that gives the user the locations of street-food vendors in their vicinity, and what’s on their menus. It can be downloaded at eatst.foodnetwork.ca.