Golden Plates 2021: A brief history of Vancouver’s love affair with tacos

Tacofino is a big part of the finger food's citywide surge in popularity during the past decade

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      More than a decade ago, Vancouver began a love affair with tacos that would quickly elevate the humble finger food to a status that some thought might threaten the city’s long-term marriage to sushi.

      Not to worry. Although the city clearly thought the food was deserving of its own eateries, the sushi union prevailed.

      But tacos were no fling, and Vancouverites scarfed enough of them to enable the restaurants that survived the shakedown to establish themselves in the local scene.

      The tiny La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop kick-started things near Victory Square on West Hastings Street in 2009 and quickly attracted fans of its traditional al pastor (pork), carne asada (beef), lengua (beef tongue), and pescado (fish) versions.

      That same year, Jason Sussman and partner Kaeli Robinsong started up their Tacofino food truck behind a surfing shop in a parking lot off the highway outside the resort town of Tofino on Vancouver Island.

      The surfing couple combined local, sustainable seafood and meats with flavours they had encountered while pursuing their ocean passion, especially in California.

      Those U.S. trips had alerted them in 2008 to the Los Angeles Korean-Mexican taco craze started by a food truck that propelled its owner into a local food empire.

      It would prove to be a template for success that applied to Vancouver as well, one that has resulted in several brick-and-mortar outlets and winning three categories in this year's Georgia Straight Golden Plates awards: best tacos, best food truck, and best Mexican.

      “There was the whole Korean taco thing, and Vietnamese tacos were happening too,” Sussman told the Straight by phone. “They were a big, big, rage.”

      Sussman had moved to Vancouver Island at the start of the new millennium.

      “My wife, Kaeli, is from Cortes Island,” he said, “and we moved to Tofino to open the taco truck. I lived in Victoria before that.”

      For the surfing entrepreneurs, though, the parking-lot days didn’t bring instant success

      “It started out that working-class guys would come to the truck,” he said. “Then tourists started coming, but they would see this truck and they would just turn around and drive away. Taco trucks, and food trucks in general, were new back then.”

      In late 2011, they made the jump to bricks and mortar in Vancouver after travelling to the Lower Mainland to take advantage of the city’s new limited-entry food-truck initiative.

      The Tacofino Commissary on East Hastings near Nanaimo Street generated lineups as quickly as did La Taqueria.

      “I love Taqueria for being very traditional Mexican,” Sussman acknowledged, “but I would say that we were very much more influenced by California.

      “People liked us,” Sussman said. “It was pretty popular [from the start].

      “Right off the bat, I did a lot of ‘not tacos’. I had spent a lot of time eating izakaya [Japanese tapas], like [Vancouver pioneer] Guu. So we did a lot of shared dishes, but it wasn’t necessarily what people wanted. People were coming in and wanting tacos.”

      So Sussman combined tacos with his creative inspirations, including vegetarian standouts like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. “Vancouver likes its vegetarian options,” he observed.

      Both restaurants have since expanded to about a half-dozen outlets apiece—throughout the city and with one each in Victoria—and spawned many imitators.

      The different Tacofino eateries each have distinctive menu elements to go along with some of the franchise’s original faves. “Our fish taco is definitely the most popular taco everywhere,” Sussman said, “but our crispy-chicken taco is very popular as well.”
      Though Sussman worked at the Hastings location at the start, the arrival of his and Kaeli’s first child brought them back to where they started: Tofino and the original truck. “I have two children,” he said, “and I live there most of the time now.”

      In terms of success, he said, timing was everything. “I really think we were just lucky in two ways,” he said, citing the city’s then-fledgling food-truck experiment and the food’s West Coast popularity wave. “Tacos were sort of exploding right then.
      “I would say we were lucky with timing rather than we were an influence.”