By Laura Robin | Ottawa Citizen
First in a three-part series that will profile all the new trucks and carts.
To say that Ottawa’s streets are about to get more exotic flavour seems like an understatement if you visit some of the cooks preparing to roll out new carts and trucks in May.
In an immaculate Centrepointe home, Hana Jung is tinkering with the Korean favourite rice dish bibimbap that she will take to Bank Street in May. When he’s not working at Fraser Café, Tarek Hassan is perfecting bao — Asian buns with savoury fillings — he’ll be selling at the edge of Confederation Park. In his home off Uplands Drive, Ulises Ortega is eagerly awaiting the special cart he ordered from Mexico City so he can cook churros — sweet strips of fried dough — just off Sparks Street.
Ottawa’s near 20-year moratorium on new food trucks and carts is about to end with a flavourful burst as the successful applicants for 18 new truck and cart spots, approved in late February, get ready for the road.
The new activity is not limited to chopping and sautéing. Area cart and truck manufacturers are seeing booms in their businesses and commercial kitchens are being sought out and geared up so food can be prepared before taking it to the streets.
While the new licences officially start May 15, some cooks may get their carts or trucks ready, inspected and on the road even earlier.
In the first in a series introducing Ottawa’s new street-food scene, we put the seven new carts before the trucks. Here’s a taste.
Name of cart: Gongfu Bao
On the menu: Three types of bao, Asian steamed, filled buns.
Where: East side of Elgin Street, south of Slater (at the northwest entrance to Confederation Park)
When: Usually from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, but extra hours when there are events in the park.
Who: Tarek Hassan, 33, studied engineering at Carleton University and worked as an engineer for about a year before he succumbed to his love of food.
“I had this notion even before I studied engineering that when I retired I would open a sandwich shop, but then I woke up and thought, why do I have to wait?”
He has worked at the Manx pub, Savannah Café, Sweetgrass, Side Door and Fraser Café, as well as taken courses in Algonquin College’s culinary program.
Why bao? “I’ve had a long-term pursuit of the bao,” says Hassan, who thinks he probably tasted his first as a teen at a T&T store in Toronto with his mom.
“It just blew my mind. After that it became something of an obsession. For three or four years, I read books and watched videos, and always had a bit of dough I was trying to twist, but it wasn’t until a friend from Tibet showed me how he hand-twisted momos that I got the technique.
“Bao is one of the earliest street foods and I wanted to do something classic.”
Hassan acknowledges many are surprised that someone with Egyptian roots is specializing in Asian fare.
“That perception kind of egged me on. I mean if I said I was doing Italian or French, no one would blink.”
Hassan is hoping to use crowd-funding to help pay for the $15,000 cart he’s ordering from Vancouver; contributors will get such things as discount cards, free bao and event catering — see www.gongfu.ca.
What to try: Traditional bao (see photo) with various savoury fillings, such as local braised oxtail beef and Chinese broccoli.
Gua bao, an open, folded, Taiwanese kind popularized by Momofuku’s David Chang. Hassan says he’ll make one of these with pork belly, peanuts and cilantro.
Shanghai-style shen jian bao, which are pan-seared. “One thing I’m kind of excited about is something I call Shanghai grilled cheese,” says Hassan. “There’ll be the crispy, seared thing going on, but with melted cheese inside.”
Don’t overlook Hassan’s sensational slaws, such as one that’s traditionally made with papaya, but in which Hassan will substitute local kohlrabi when in season.
“The star ingredients will always be from local producers,” says Hassan.
How much: About $5 for steamed buns and $2 for sides of slaw.
Name of cart: Raon Kitchen (“raon” means joyful or pleasant in Korean)
On the menu: Bibimbap — one of Korea’s signature dishes. “Bap” means rice and “bibim” means mixed. It’s a bowl of warm white rice with vegetables; marinated, cooked beef, chicken or tofu; and red chili pepper paste that you mix together before eating. The blanched, then lightly sautéed, vegetables present a beautiful palate of colours: dark green spinach, julienned carrot, white daikon radish, red bell pepper and shiitake or oyster mushrooms are common selections.
Where: West side of Bank between Albert and Slater.
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Who: Hana Jung, a marketing manager, and her husband, Iruk Cho, a web designer, moved to Ottawa from Seoul with their young daughter less than four years ago. They found little awareness of Korean culture or cooking in Ottawa. Cho, a keen cook who is taking courses in Algonquin College’s culinary program, started making Korean condiments and kimchee (Korea’s national dish of fermented cabbage or other vegetables) for their home use.
Last summer, they started selling Korean sauces and kimchee at the Main Street and Ottawa Farmers’ markets, developing a devoted following.
“We wanted to open a real restaurant, but we kind of ran out of money,” says Jung. “Then I read about the city accepting applications for food carts. I read about it in the Citizen just 10 days before the deadline. It was kind of a Christmas present for us.”
Why bibimbap? “Because it’s the most famous of Korea’s dishes,” says Jung.
The colours makes bibimbap an attractive dish, while the variety of ingredients makes it a balanced meal. But Jung says that while food carts are common in Korea, bibimbap isn’t necessarily a food-cart dish.
“We have to decide whether we can present little plates with all the ingredients separate, or whether it will be easier if we mix everything in one bowl.”
What to try: As a twist, Raon Kitchen will offer bibimbap with another of Korea’s most famous dishes, beef bulgogi, as one of the delicious choices that you can mix in. They’ll make the bulgogi with the delicious soy-garlic-ginger-based marinades they already sell at local markets.
How much: They’re still settling on a price, but it will be likely be $6 to $7.50 per bowl.
Name of cart: Mr. Churritos
On the menu: Churros — sometimes referred to as Spanish doughnuts — are long thin pieces of dough (extruded through a star-shaped nozzle, then deep-fried), which may be dipped in chocolate or filled with chocolate or caramel. They’re popular in Spain, Portugal, France and Latin America.
Where: West side of O’Connor, south of Sparks.
When: Seven days a week all year round. Even in winter. Starting hours will be 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Who: Ulises Ortega, 28, started Mr. Churritos in Ottawa nearly three years ago, but until now his churros have been available only by special order, for events and meetings, and at some events, such as Westfest, where they were a big hit last summer. He also provides uncooked churros to Burrito Borracho on Clarence Street, where they fry them up for customers.
Now he hopes that as downtown people get to know his churros, he’ll get more orders to cater meetings in nearby offices. “Instead of the typical doughnuts and coffee, you can have churros and Mexican hot chocolate.”
His fiancée will also make and sell churros at festivals this summer while he’s busy at the cart.
Why churros? “Who doesn’t love fried dough?” asks Ortega’s older sister, Alika. “With more Latin people, I know they will sell well here.”
It was actually Alika, Ulises’ senior by six years, who came up with the idea of a churros business for Ottawa.
“I was studying small and medium enterprise management at Algonquin College,” says Ortega. “As a class project, I was doing a business model for a cleaning company when Alika said, ‘Why not churros?’
“I always loved churros growing up. They’re sold on every street corner in Mexico. Alika reminded me of how much I missed them.”
What to try: Start with plain churros, hot and crispy and coated with sugar and cinnamon. He’ll also have a selection of sauces you can dip them into, such as chocolate, caramel or coconut. After he’s got that running smoothly, he’ll start making filled churros, with chocolate or dulce de leche inside. Don’t miss his hot chocolate, made with cocoa, cinnamon and chocolate paste imported from Mexico. It’s slightly spicy and not too rich or sweet.
How much: One churro for $2, or three for $5. Hot chocolate will be $2.50.
Name of cart: Bobites (Best Organic Bites)
On the menu: Baked potatoes with a choice of three hot and three cold toppings (everything from lamb rogan josh to Waldorf salad to heap on top), in addition to more regular condiments such as butter, grated cheese, sour cream, chives and bits of organic bacon.
Where: East side of Metcalfe, south of Sparks Street.
When: Summer hours will be 10 a.m. to 6:30 or 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Winter hours will likely be 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Who: Gavin Hall, 33, and his sister Samantha, 35, who have been operating Bowich (Best Organic Sandwiches) at 155 Bank St. for 2½ years.
Why baked potatoes: “Growing up in England, we went to a place called Homebase, that was like Home Depot,” says Samantha, who has worked as a cook in England, France and New Zealand before coming to Ottawa to help her brother open Bowich. “The big treat would be to get one of their baked potatoes while were there.”
To reliably replicate the British baked potato, says Gavin, “with a crispy jacket but soft and fluffy on the inside,” they have ordered a special $8,000 potato oven from England, which will be installed on their shiny new Napanee-made food cart.
“It’s huge in terms of cost and size,” acknowledges Gavin. “We thought long and hard about it. But it will be able to bake 150 potatoes at once and it will be nice to be able to pull out perfect, consistent, just-baked potatoes. Hopefully people will know us for that.”
Gavin adds that he and Samantha had been talking about doing something with baked potatoes for some time.
“They’re cheap, available year round and we can get local organic ones. They’re also healthy: super high in fibre and Vitamins A and B1, with no fat or cholesterol.”
What to try: The unadorned potatoes, with the crispy skins rubbed with olive oil and coarse salt before baking, will be wonderful. And toppings such as mango vegetarian chili or braised red cabbage are tempting. But Samantha’s childhood favourite — a baked potato topped with butter, grated cheese and coleslaw — might be the one to try.
“North Americans know baked potatoes with cheese and bacon, but coleslaw is very refreshing,” says Gavin.
How much: From $3.50 for a plain baked potato to $6.50 for one with a hot topping such as chili or korma chickpea.
Name of cart: Royi Fruta Bar (Royi is a combination of the names of the owners’ three-year-old twins, Rodney and Yilissi. Fruta Bar is a fresh-fruit drink bar in Guayaquil, Ecuador.)
On the menu: Savoury and sweet empanadas (stuffed pastries) and South American fruit drinks, as well as side dishes such as black-bean-and-corn salad, guacamole and oven-baked red skin potato wedges with rosemary. The beef, chicken, spinach-and-feta and corn-filled empanadas will come ready-made from a Toronto distributor, then baked on site. The fruit-filled empanadas and side dishes will be made fresh each day in Ottawa.
Where: East side of Elgin, north of Laurier.
When: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, later into the evenings when an event is on in Confederation Park.
Who: Rodney Cummings and his wife, Maclovia Irene Quiñónez Vargas, with help from her sister, Yuliana Quiñónez. Cummings, now a lighting contractor, was working in the petroleum industry in Ecuador when he met Quiñónez Vargas.
“I met her in a restaurant. I didn’t know what the food was. She couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Spanish, but she took me in the kitchen to show me the food and that’s when I found out what empanadas are.”
Quiñónez Vargas’s family runs a restaurant in Ecuador and it’s always been her dream to open her own café. She and Cummings bought a food truck and began selling empanadas and fruit drinks on Sundays last summer at Stittsville’s Carp Road Flea Market. They’ll continue to do that, and use the truck as the commercial kitchen to supply the new cart.
Why empanadas and fruit drinks: “I lived in Ecuador for 10 years and it was the most wonderful food I’ve eaten,” says Cummings. “They have a fruit drink called mora — it’s like a blackberry. With a little bit of lemon, it’s so good it will make you cry.”
What to try: See if the mora makes you cry — they’re importing the frozen pulp from Colombia and serving it over ice. Cummings predicts that the fruit-filled empanadas, served hot and dusted with sugar and cinnamon, will be the biggest sellers, but Quiñónez Vargas’s guacamole is excellent too.
How much: From $2 for guacamole with Tostados chips to $4.50 for a fruit empanada with whipped topping and fresh fruit.
Name of cart: Olive Green (though they’re considering Curry in a Hurry)
On the menu: A range of Indian and Pakistani snacks, mains and desserts — from samosas and butter chicken to mango lassis and an Indian dessert that’s a bit like French toast in sweet milk.
Where: The northwest corner of Preston and Carling.
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week. They hope to be in operation by mid-May; they say they’ll be on the street by the end of May at the latest.
Who: This cart is a family affair: Wasi Choudhry, 63, a former investment banker who worked for a decade in Qatar, has come out of retirement in Ottawa to invest in and operate the food cart with his three sons: Muzammil, 28, who has a Master’s degree in psychology; Mudassir, 24, who studied marketing at Carleton University; and Mubashir, 23, a graduate of mechanical engineering at the University of Ottawa.
“It’s a family venture,” says Wasi. “We want to operate a network of food carts.”
The base is a commercial kitchen and restaurant in the Midway Family Funpark on Kaladar Avenue, which the family took over on April 1. There, they’ll serve up halal pizzas for children’s birthday parties and offer a pizza delivery service, while making the South Asian dishes to deliver to the cart and for catering.
Why South Asian? “This is the food we grew up eating,” says Mubashir. “We take all our inspiration from our mom — she’s a fabulous cook. But, also, the objective for the City of Ottawa in offering new licences for food carts was to diversify what’s available, with more ethnic food.”
What to try: The “Silk Road snacks” and mains will vary daily, but if kachauri — round, crispy discs filled with a spicy blends of lentils or minced meat and served with tamarind chutney — are available, grab them. Also excellent are the shaami kabaab — tender patties of ground meat with lentils. Yogurt lassis make the perfect accompaniment.
How much: “We haven’t finalized our prices yet,” said Mubashir. “But our motto would be ‘affordable but delicious food.’”
Name of cart: Spoon
On the menu: Self-serve frozen yogurt in four flavours, plus a choice of about 25 toppings and four sauces. Vanilla and chocolate frozen yogurt will be standard. Other flavours will rotate among about 200 choices — from key lime sorbet to pistachio. Smoothies, with ingredients such as berries and protein powders, will also be available.
Where: East side of O’Connor, south of Sparks
When: 8 a.m. and to about 6 to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Aiming to be on the street by May 15.
Who: Brian Nolan has a day job as a senior program officer with the Canada Border Services Agency, but since June he and business partner Eric Gaudette have operated Spoon Frozen Yogurt Lounge on Clarence Street in the ByWard Market.
Selling frozen yogurt might not seem like an obvious offshoot of border work, but Nolan says it feels natural to him.
“My parents had a convenience store and restaurant in Quebec City. I like meeting people and socializing — I was raised in that kind of environment.”
Why frozen yogurt? “We were in Florida a year ago visiting Eric and he said ‘Brian, you’ve got to try this frozen yogurt place.’ We just fell in love with the product and the self-serve concept. We said we have to bring this home to Ottawa.
What to try: Nolan is partial to the triple-chocolate-milk frozen yogurt with “bobas” mixed in — little balls of flavours such as strawberry or mango that pop in your mouth. But if sea-salt-caramel-pretzel frozen yogurt is on offer, it’s a must.
How much: You fill your bowl with as much frozen yogurt and as many toppings as you like, then it’s weighed. You pay 1.85 cents per gram (about 55 cents an ounce.) So a bowl with just a bit of frozen yogurt might be less than $2, while you can pile on toppings until it’s close to $20. “About $4 to $6 is average,” says Nolan.