ENTREE: Street Food Takes the High Road

Feastro the Rolling Bistro owners Steve Myddleton (left) and Paul Fenton show some dishes at Thurlow near Cordova. Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

By Mia Stainsby | Vancouver Sun

Feastro the Rolling Bistro owners Steve Myddleton (left) and Paul Fenton show some dishes at Thurlow near Cordova. Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, PNG

Wayne Beckwith had just arrived in Vancouver from Cincinnati. And what was topping his to-do list?

An apoplectic hike up the Grouse Grind? Watching the minutes go by on a Gastown clock?

Nope. He heads downtown to Feastro the Rolling Bistro, a food truck.

“We left early in the morning. We were delayed in Chicago in a thunderstorm and we just got here. My wife and I drove directly here from the airport straight to here,” he said on the phone from the food truck at Cordova and Thurlow Streets.

“I guess we could go home now,” he cracked. “It’s a great way to start the trip. We had a halibut taco and a crab taco.”

I had been interviewing one of the Feastro owners, Paul Fenton, on the phone and he was saying how tourists were seeking out the food truck. Beckwith arrived on cue.

In this second season of Vancouver’s street food program (I say season because a lot ended up like bears, hibernating through the winter in their caves) and this time, it wasn’t sheer luck of the draw that got vendors a new street food permit. Acceptance was decided by a panel of judges, who assessed food and business merits of the applicants. The food wasn’t so much about yumminess as much as nutrition, use of local, organic and fair trade ingredients and variety. Points were assigned and vendors got to choose locations in order of the number of points they were given.

“Street food creates buzz,” says respected restaurateur Vikram Vij, and a judge on the street food jury. “In any city in the world, whether it’s New York, London, Bombay, it’s not the mementoes or beautiful buildings. It’s the people on the streets that create buzz. I believe if we’re going to be a culinary destination, this is another feather in our hat.”

Sally Born, who will be operating Finest at Sea, at Hornby and Robson Streets is a little impatient, waiting for her cart to be built. “The company [Apollo Carts in Richmond] got bombarded [of course it did!]. We couldn’t order it until our application was approved. It had taken us weeks to put our proposal together,” she says. She hopes to be on the street by the end of July.

But she’s not complaining. “Street food has brought a lot of creativity to the city but it’s going to have bumps going along,” she says. In fact, vendors are very happy with the process and feel the city’s keen to do it right, has listened and made changes along the way.

I’ve tried to hit as many of the new carts and trucks as I could (they aren’t always there and some haven’t made it to the streets yet) and I’m impressed. The best ones not only have really good food, they serve it with good vibes and smiles.

This year, the city added 15 new vendor permits. Four hotdog cart conversions took it up to a total of 19 new vendors. City Council, keen on the program, plans to add more food vendors next year and are researching and considering new ideas – perhaps a food cart court (as in Portland) or greengrocer permits “where food carts overflow with fruits and vegetables, selling local, healthy foods,” says Sadhu Johnston, deputy city manager.

This year, 20 mobile permits were also offered as a pilot program, on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some permits went to vendors with stationery locations (who now could ‘roam’ outside the downtown core) and some mobile-only vendors like Coma (Korean-Mexican fusion food) and Slingers (comfort food).

The program, Johnston says, is a work in progress. “The goal,” he says, is to enliven the public realm with a diversity of food options that are affordable, healthy and supports the local food economy.”

As of last week, 13 of the 19 stationary street vendors were approved for the permits, although that didn’t mean they were all on the street.

The race to hit the streets for new vendors is intense. In April, the successful vendors were announced. The newbies have had to rustle up a cart or truck, find a commissary to prepare the food, and get the go-ahead from Vancouver Coastal Health before hitting the streets.

“Not everyone’s happy but vendors who got the permits obviously think it’s brilliant; those who didn’t might not,” says Jason Apple, of Roaming Dragon food truck. “If I were to give stickers based on performance, one of the top would be to David Jensen of Vancouver Coastal Health. He has this passion to help.”

The quality of food and operators out there is impressive. Some have name chefs behind them. Nu, for instance, is run by top restaurateur, Harry Kambolis. It’s his personal passion. Finest at Sea has long-time Vancouver chef Bruno Born overseeing the food (while wife Sally runs it). Roaming Dragon lost consulting chef Don Letendre (formerly of Opus Hotel) but gained Ned Bell (in charge of food at the still-to-open Georgia Hotel). Cartel Taco is run by Joel Watanabe (Bao Bei chef) and James Iranzad of Abigail’s Party. La Brasserie is an outlet of La Brasserie on Davie St., a restaurant I love. Jay Cho of Coma and Kayti Coughlin of Slingers were schooled at Le Cordon Bleu. And there’s Josh Wolfe, of Fresh Local Wild and Sausage a Trois, who was formerly the executive chef at Coast restaurant.

For them, it’s about a passion for food with a layer of fun. “You can’t get into street food for the economics,” says Iranzad, in his second year with Cartel Taco. (Last year, he sub-leased a location; this year, he scored a new permit.) “But it makes sense for me. It’s profitable but we’re not going to retire on it. It’s about fun and community and getting involved in the city. It’s social. It makes people happy and it’s instant gratification for the guests and for us.”

He, too, has no complaints with the way the program’s going. “I’m satisfied with everything the city’s done. They’ve shown they’re willing to learn along with us and have made changes.”

One such change was with the mobile permits. To begin with, they allowed vendors 20 minutes in a spot if they weren’t making sales in that spot (a holdover from the ice-cream truck vendors). That gave street food vendors just about enough time to set up, then quickly pack up. So the time was expanded to an hour. In another change, the city stopped allowing sub-leasing of street food permits as of this year.

The city recently called a meeting of street vendors to assist in forming an street food vendors association. (All the better to lobby city hall!)

“Street food culture has changed,” observes Ryan Spong of Tacofino. It had a greasy heritage and a bit of edge. It still isn’t for prissy chefs who need gorgeous state-of-the-art kitchens. It’s for people who like to interact directly with the community and not try to make a killing. There are no waiters, no white gloves; it’s basic and stripped down. The focus is on simplicity. No crazy recipes. And it’s priced so people can eat.”

Fenton, of Feastro, likes the reward of being so close to customers. “You build relationships with fans and ultimately become friends. One guy cycles in from Gastown every day. Some are working through every item we have.”

Who knows? Next year, we may have a world-famous restaurateur hit the streets. Vikram Vij, who was on the panel of judges this year, says he was too busy this year, but next year? “Who knows. I might just put my mom on a cart.” (I think he means behind a cart, folks.)