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Taking it to the Streets

The Lowdown on Vancouver’s Food Carts

By Michelle Gourley

What do a petite gypsy-style caravan, a sleek, red, and shiny steel box on wheels, and a tanky 1943 mobile soup kitchen have in common?  

A) They can soothe a rumbling stomach

B) They are a fun, new way to get food on-the-go

C) They are Vancouver’s latest answer to all of the above

Serving up crêpes, dim sum, and beef chili from their charming mobile eateries, they are all part of Vancouver’s growing street food scene. Some can be found circulating through the farmers’ markets, or at special events and happenings about town, while others set up shop on their designated (and highly coveted) patch of city sidewalk.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since last July, you may have noticed a distinct influx of curbside dining in the downtown core, when the city of Vancouver unveiled Operation Street Cart and issued street food vendors licences to operate in pre-determined areas. Over 400 people applied for this special vending licence, and only a lucky 17 were chosen.

Suddenly, busy and hungry urbanites were asking themselves, should I grab a pulled pork sandwich from that cute little Re-Up BBQ cart by the Vancouver Art Gallery? Or a duck confit salad from the Roaming Dragon truck over on Burrard?

Speedy service, affordable, and interesting—this is street food? Cheap and cheerful never tasted so good.

The queue was 12-deep and climbing when I first caught sight of Eli’s Serious Sausage cart. Eli was there (in his crisp white shirt, fitted hat, and bow tie) grilling up his specialty sausages, tucking them snugly into warmed pretzel buns, and finishing them with crispy onions and curry ketchup. Curry ketchup?

“Germans are crazy for their Currywurst,” he told me, tongs flying. “Eight hundred million servings are sold in Germany every year!”

Eli hopes to spark that kind of passion for his Currywurst, but admits to struggling against the stringent rules and regulations for street carts. The city, he feels, is looking to emulate the hopping street cart scene of places like Portland, a virtual street cart Utopia where there is a much more laissez-faire attitude to cart culture. (The current number of street carts in Portland is over 400—a staggering number of snack options in a city of 500,000 people—and the ramshackle approach seems to lend itself nicely to the carts, maintaining the unique flavour of each without snuffing out their personality in the process.)

Here in Vancouver, people are forking out an average of $10,000 or more (for some, way more) to set up their mobile businesses—far cheaper than a brick and mortar establishment, but still no small feat in our struggling economy.

One street cart vendor who had been given the green light was told a few weeks later that he would be required to do hundreds of dollars in upgrades before he could hit the streets—a serious gouge in his struggling new business. Bigger vendors, such as trucks or fifth wheels, whose imposing girth requires them to be parked on the street, are paying parking-meter prices to keep their spot for the duration of their business hours.

With 14 years in the food industry backing him up, Steve Forster is the man behind Chili Tank. His is a natural fit for the street carts, warm and friendly with an easy smile, and a killer bowl of chili, which he debuted at the Olympics to critical acclaim. Steve loves the direct connection to his happy customers, which he says “is way better than any restaurant.” His beef chili is perfectly smoky and rich, with a climbing heat that knows just when to quit—at $5 it’s incredible value in a city where a disappointing $10 sandwich is sadly becoming the norm.

Jennifer and Dana over at Off the Wagon urge you to join their taco revolution. Slow-roasted, chipotle-spiked, pulled pork tacos; roasted yam and black bean tacos; and breakfast tacos are all served from a snappy red “wagon.” They buy pork from farmers and use as much local as possible, all with an unwavering commitment to compostable packaging. These women aren’t just talking the talk, they’re living it.

By the time you read this, the second wave of food carts will likely have landed on the city’s streets, hoping to catch your eye (and taste buds) as you swirl through the downtown core. Others will be out there at the markets and festivals flipping crêpes, BBQing, and inventing fresh new ways to impress your palate.

So imagine yourself in the following scenario:

You are hungry and a little pressed for time.

You have under $10 in your wallet, and not a bank machine in sight.

Just as you are contemplating walking back to the car, plugging the meter, and starting your frantic search for a quick bite, you see a food cart!

You immediately …

A) Shout out excitedly, “Hey, I just read about you at Edible Vancouver!’’

B) March over, smile, place your order, and feel just a teeny bit smug about your current foodster hipness.

C) All of the above!

Michelle Gourley advises you to check for the food carts’ hours of operation, unlike one very hungry Edible Vancouver writer who survived on nothing but roasted chestnuts before doing so.

Feeling peckish?
Download the free Street Food Vancouver app, or just hit the streets with this list. Let us know if we need to add you to this list.

Arturo’s Mexico to Go
Howe Street @ Cordova

The Bean Buggy
Get your java fix at farmers’ markets, film sets, special events

Cartel Taco
Burrard Street @ Georgia

Chili Tank
Farmers’ markets, Richmond Night Market

Howe Street @ West Cordova

Eli’s Serious Sausage
Dunsmuir Street @ Beatty, Farmers’ markets

Burrard @ Smithe, Burrard @ Pender, and front of Waterfront Station.

The Kaboom Box
Granville Street @ Robson

Kimono Koi Crepes
Granville @ Georgia Street

La Bohême Creperie
Farmers’ markets, special events

Licious Living
Granville Street @ Georgia

Off The Wagon Traveling Tacos!
Farmers' markets

Poke’m Grilled meatballs with fun sauces
Robson Street @ Hornby

Ragazzi Pizza
Burrard Street @ West Pender

The Re-Up BBQ
Hornby @ Georgia

Roaming Dragon
On Georgia between Thurlow & Burrard, and farmers’ markets

Satay King
Burrard Street @ Davie

Whistler Wood Fired Pizza Co.
Special events, farmers’ markets

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