On a recent weeknight, the Kitsilano Beach basketball courts were a sweaty mess of shirtless men. Rollerbladers and dog walkers swarmed the seaside path, and volleyball players bounced in the sand. The beach was abuzz, and judging by the crowded Boathouse patio, there were plenty of hungry people.
But next to Roaming Dragon—Vancouver’s first mobile street vender operating under the new pilot program—just two customers sat at a table in the grass. The truck was parked behind the basketball courts, and apart from me, no one else was buying. This, despite the city’s much-hyped launch of street food beyond hot dogs.
“If we had this truck in L.A., everyone would know what it is,” Roaming Dragon co-owner Jason Apple told the Straight in a later phone interview. “Here, people have no idea [what’s for sale]. [They wonder] Are we handing out cellphones?”
Besides operating a food truck, former software designer Apple and his business partner Jory Simkin plan to introduce Vancouver to upscale street food through their umbrella business Gourmet Syndicate. With help from professionals such as their executive chef, Don Letendre, they’re hoping to help other entrepreneurs make their street-food vision a reality.
At Roaming Dragon, the culinary approach is playful. The litchi-basil lemonade ($4), a fizzy, icy treat, trumps overly sweet bubble tea. This stuff has real litchi pulp filling in for the tapioca pearls, and the basil makes it interesting. The Chinese pork belly sliders ($6) are cute mini steamed buns filled with a saucy cut of pork and crisp pickled cucumbers. The Japanese chicken karaage is a deep-fried marinated chicken thigh in a passion fruit and palm-sugar sauce ($6). It was tasty and not too sweet, but it arrived lukewarm. The Korean short rib tacos ($6), which Apple says were inspired by chef Roy Choi’s Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles, are for the adventurous. The corn tortillas lined with nori and topped with braised short ribs, Korean barbecue sauce, and a sprinkling of veggies are overwhelming. But they’re fun, so it’s forgivable.
Not bad for a couple of gwai los, as Apple claims the owners have been called. (Richmond-raised Apple notes that nobody questions Asian guys making burgers, adding that “this isn’t 1610, when you have to send an expedition out for spices.”)
The food may be tasty, but the lemonade and a three-dish combo ($15), which made a filling meal, came to almost $22 with HST. Zonkers.
At lunchtime on its second day of operation, Ragazzi Pizza Co.—located in the middle of the thronging business district on the 400 block of Burrard Street—had just two customers waiting in line. A few more folk stood around, looking at the pizzas emerging from the truck. Given the street-food hype, I had expected a crowd.
The product is blameless. My Primavera slice was elegant, with little dabs of pesto, chunky onions, tomatoes, and olives on a stone-baked crust. The Hawaiian was far above average, with its traditionally cured ham. The Prosciutto E Funghi was a musky and meaty mix.
At $3 a slice, it’s double the price of the yucky offerings a few blocks away, but still very affordable. So why aren’t people flocking to it? Perhaps Apple is right: they just haven’t figured out that food comes from trucks yet.
By the end of the summer, there will theoretically be 15 more trucks selling food in this city. But for those who can’t wait, there’s plenty available already if you know where to look.
For example, at the Kitsilano farmers market on a recent Sunday morning, I indulged in a double-header breakfast. At BeerBrats Handcrafted Sausages, I had the breakfast wrap. Amid the free-range eggs, roasted peppers, Provolone, and potatoes in a whole-wheat tortilla, the star was the chopped Phillips Skookum Ale Sweet Smoked Italian Sausage, a spicy and rich pork experience. However, the wrap was small for $7.50. Next time, I’ll get a sausage on a bun.
La Boheme Creperie’s hand-painted purple trailer is truly the master of Vancouver’s food-truck scene. Also at the Kits farmers market, I got a sizzling-hot beast of buckwheat galette (crepe), overstuffed with lemon-honey ricotta, mounds of perfectly ripe blueberries, and locally sourced honey ($6). Soft lumps of ricotta and mashed blueberries fell out the bottom, and I briefly considered licking it off my shoes. The crepe was truly delicious, generous, fresh, and unique. Plus, considering the size and quality of ingredients, it was a great deal. (Both of the trucks can be found at various farmers markets and festivals around town.)
This is the standard the new venders must live up to. It won’t be easy.
Additionally, the fare at the Vancouver Chinatown Night Market and the Summer Night Market in Richmond is more authentically “street” than what the new food trucks are offering. First, the prices are lower than those of Roaming Dragon and farmers’ market trucks; most items range from $1 to $5. Second, because there are a number of stalls bunched together, you can stroll and sample lots of dishes, from hurricane potatoes to fish-shaped waffles, which is part of the fun. Third, there’s an element of showmanship: venders on loudspeakers, tinsel decorations, and tinny techno music.
The key for the new mobile venders will be to either directly compete or distinguish themselves from the flashy night market stalls and provide something Vancouverites can’t get from restaurant takeout. Can they do it? Stay tuned.