By Sarah Musgrave | Montreal Gazette
MONTREAL — The first official day of summer is always highly anticipated in Montreal. But the day before that, June 20, eclipsed it with the official opening of food truck season. It was hard to imagine more perfect weather for the launch of a pilot project that will see 27 food trucks rotating among nine designated spots in the city core through the end of September. Mobile street food purveyors have been operating at special events and on private property, but this marks the first time in 66 years that street food has been legally sanctioned on, well, the street. Throngs of people came out to meet the new faces in new places in the borough of Ville-Marie. Touring three locations at lunchtime on day one, the project was off to a promising start, provided you had eaten enough breakfast to stave off the tummy rumbles while you waited for your fix.
11:20 a.m., Place Du Canada
I didn’t think I’d be hungry so early, but as I approach the mob scene outside the SO6 truck, my stomach worries the artisanal sausages will be sold out before I get there. Turns out, the crowd is less hungry citizens and more of a media feeding frenzy, with city officials doing grips and grins for the cameras. It almost doesn’t matter that Montreal is light years behind other cities on this culinary front; everyone’s just so enthusiastic. A bureaucrat in a grey suit actually elbows me out of the way to get his order. But I manage to maintain my appetite.
Marc-André Lavergne, owner of SO6 (sau-cisse, get it?), tells me the day started with a stroke of luck. At 11 a.m., just as he opened for business, there was a fire drill across the street, sending a first wave of customers to the sidewalk. Win win! The team of five working inside the converted Purolator vehicle are well on their way to getting through their stock of 300 links.
My order: Peanut and cilantro sausage (apparently the most popular choice with the ladies; guys tend to go for the smoked meat). It’s messy to cut into, but the Asian flavours are bright, and the quality of the meat – ground Quebec pork shoulder, without preservatives – is noticeable. Likewise the veggies, fresh, still crunchy thin green beans. Would I order it again for $8? Yes.
At a picnic table, Dany Lefrenière and Daniel Mayea tell me they have walked over from the Desjardins offices to give it a try. While he finds it’s not up to Austin, Texas, street food standards, and maybe at the uppity end of the market in terms of selection, Lefrenière says he is impressed. “The mayor of Montreal is the only one who’s not here today,” they joke – and they’re neither the first nor the last to make that quip.
12.50 p.m., Square Victoria
I have been waiting in line for half an hour outside La Boîte à Fromages, an expensively kitted out truck serving variations on raclette, when the guy in front of me gives up the ghost. “Let’s just go to the food court,” he shrugs to his friends.
My order: the classic of boiled and gently fried potatoes, pearl onions, French gherkins, melted raclette cheese (made with Damafro cheese, they make a point of mentioning, which may explain the investment in the vehicle) and some extra chorizo. Would I order it again for $8? Yes, but not for a 45-minute wait. Tommy Irwin and Adriana Sanchez, who work nearby in IT, are more forgiving; they’ll just leave the office earlier next time. “It’s a good thing we have a cool boss,” he says, as they head back up to René-Lésvesque Blvd. with cardboard trays of coagulating cheese.
A few steps away, the St Viateur Bagel truck is less busy, but Robert Morena says he started the morning with 75 dozen bagels, and has already called in for 25 dozen more – in addition to extra smoked meat delivered by taxi. After finding out they were approved for a permit, the team flew to Windsor last week to pick up a truck, and spent a week working around the clock to get it ready. “We kind of knew it was going to be a big day when there were five people in line before 7 a.m.,” Morena chuckles. “We told them we weren’t set up yet and they said, ‘That’s okay, we want to be the first ones!’”
1:55 p.m., George-Étienne Cartier monument
Compared to the madness downtown, the scene at the base of Mont Royal is serene after the lunch rush. At Landry et Filles, a snackbar in a converted public works truck from Ste-Julie, Marc Landry is serving cuisine brayonne (referring to non-Acadian francophones from New Brunswick) like the ployé, a buckwheat pancake topped with Matane shrimp.
My order: The meatloaf sandwich, adapted from his mother’s recipe, well balanced with spiced beef, cheddar and tomato compote, with wonderfully crisped bread. Would I get this again for $9? Yes.
Sitting in the grass next to the whirring generator, there are still issues to consider. Some people wonder if the permit process really supports the most deserving grassroots entrepreneurs. And while the city has made a point of enforcing eco-friendly directives – takeout packaging has to be largely compostable or recyclable, with recycling bins and garbage cans on site – without hookups to the electrical grid, every truck needs a generator, which is expensive and hardly environmentally friendly. And there’s the question of how to follow the trucks – none of the apps or web sites I’ve tried have been satisfying to use, yet.
As Josée-Ann Landry digs out a popsicle made with Quebec strawberries for my dessert, a group of students stops by. “How do we know where you’ll be next?” a girl inquires. Landry suggests they check the City of Montreal’s website. “The city? Really?” the girl says, dubiously. Whether that is a good sign for the pilot project remains to be seen. But really, even a couple of years ago, who knew?