VANCOUVER, British Columbia
Canada's west coast jewel is a terrific place to visit and maybe even a better place to eat. The food here is innovative and varied, global and local at the same time. It's celebrated in the form of family restaurants in Chinatown, slick stalls hawking smoked salmon and artisan chocolates at the vast Granville Island Public Market, and in a hometown gelato that has won praise in Italy.
You don't have to stay inside to sample the best of Vancouver, where the summer temperatures hover in the 70s and the median age is 39. The food cart culture has exploded, and some of the city's most tasty offerings are doled out through the tiny windows of vans. Chicken tamales, bacon sandwiches laced with green apple and goat Gouda, Korean tacos and fried risotto balls give the hot dog vendors some serious competition. Hot dogs? In Vancouver, that's Japadog, a cart that sells dogs garnished with such unlikely toppings as teriyaki sauce, seaweed, daikon radish and miso sauce.
In this highly walkable city, setting out on foot is a good way to get to know the place and also helps work off the calories. You can chart your own course or sign up for one of several organized walking tours. You'll find them for many topics, including architecture and history, plus interesting neighborhood crawls, among them the Olympic waterfront. (Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Games.)
The waterfront is where you'll find Bella Gelateria. You'll know it when you see the line out the door. Try the Creamy Maple Sensation, which won two gold medals, including the people's choice award, at Italy's Firenze Gelato Festival in May.
In July, we lucked out with three glorious, rainless days and temperatures in the low 80s. We opted for a different food walking tour each of three days we were here to get to know the city by noshing our way through it. The Tour Guys showed us the street cart culture, Wok Around Chinatown gave us an extensive look at that historic neighborhood, and Edible Canada provided a sample of local food at the popular Granville Island Public Market.
Eat Your Cart Out
First, guide Steve Woodall shows us how to "assume the street food position." Set your feet wide and then bend at the waist about 45 degrees with back straight and bum sticking out a bit. Grab the drippy taco (or whatever) with both hands, keep your chin up and bring it to your mouth with elbows bent and out, in wing formation.
We follow his orders, looking silly to passers-by on the street, but our Korean tacos find their way down the gullet and not splashed on our shirts.
The Tours Guys' Eat Your Cart Out walking tour takes us to half a dozen food carts just after the lunch hour. Our group meets at the Vancouver Art Gallery to begin a 90-minute trek in the downtown area, where most of the carts (trailers, trucks or vans) congregate. Some carts are parked on the sidewalks, and those that actually move on their own power are parked on the street. There's no parking in the downtown core past 3 p.m., so even if there's a line, the driver hits the gas pedal at that hour. The parking patrol keeps a close eye.
There are just over 100 licensed food carts in the city, and 12 new ones opened in May. So many folks want in on the action that the city has instituted an extensive application process that includes a tasting competition.
We walk and eat, walk and eat. Crispy fried risotto balls laced with slow-braised pork and basil, then drizzled with truffle aioli at Street Meet. Korean tacos with bulgogi-style beef at Cartel Taco. Pulled pork sandwiches and sweet tea at Re-Up (Addictive) BBQ. We sample the legendary Japadog, which for me is an acquired taste, and a salmon sandwich at the Kaboom Box that makes us wish we'd started there. The utensils, when there are any, are made from sustainable materials like bamboo, which tells you something about Vancouverites.
I am sorry we didn't stop at Mom's Grilled Cheese truck after watching the grillers hand monster gooey sandwiches to patrons. And one of the newest carts, Pig on Street, had a line down the street. In a town that plays the vegetarian card a lot, bacon is still a big draw.
The Tour Guys conduct various Vancouver walking tours, including "Eat Your Cart Out" from 1:30 to about 3 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Cost is $35 and includes samples from at least six food carts. Some of the other tours are free, with the guides accepting tips as payment. For information or to book, go to tourguys.ca or call toll-free 1-888-251-1888.
Granville Island Public Market tour
On my first pass down one aisle of food stalls, I have market envy. There are piles of freshly baked breads, displays of brilliant orange-red salmon, wheels of cheeses just waiting to be cut into. It's the kind of place that I so wish we had in Tampa Bay: a covered market featuring ethnic restaurants, cheese and chocolates, seafood and charcuterie, plus flowers and amazing produce.
Locals and visitors mingle in front of the stalls, their reusable bags and woven baskets gathering heft as they move along. Granville Island Public Market is one of Vancouver's most popular tourist attractions.
We are led by guide and chef Jamie Wilson from Edible Canada restaurant. (They have a walk-up bacon window! Six slices for six bucks!) She shares the history of Granville, a 35-acre island across False Creek from downtown Vancouver. Formerly an industrial hub, it's now home to the market, plus art studios, shops, a boutique hotel and a bustling marina.
The market is just coming to life. We stop first at Stock Market for oatmeal with brown sugar, dried cranberries and nuts. A wholesome beginning. The Stock Market's oatmeal is the first of about a dozen foods and drinks we'll sample in a couple of hours of winding through the aisles. As the morning goes on, the lanes get jam-packed until we are squeezing sideways through the scrum.
We nibble cheese at Benton Brothers, the smoked prosciutto called speck at Oyama Sausage Co. and lovely ganache morsels from ChocolaTas. A warm and earthy green tea sustains us, and we stop for freshly baked baguettes, too.
When the tour ends, we aren't ready to leave so we head back to the kitchen shop at Edible Canada. The menu draws us in, and we grab a table (next to the electric car charging station) for a sockeye sandwich and a grilled cheese sandwich loaded with farmhouse Brie and smokehouse cheddar. We walk the 2-plus miles back to our hotel.
Edible Canada's Granville Island market tour is from 9 to 11 p.m. daily. Cost is $35 and includes samples at about a dozen stalls in the indoor market. For information or to book, go to ediblecanada.com or call (604) 558-0040.
A Wok Around Chinatown
Put on your walking shoes for Bob Sung's extensive stroll through Chinatown. We are on our feet for two hours before sitting down to a dim sum lunch at Jade Dynasty Restaurant. He orders for us, and we're nearly giddy when the plates of dumplings and noodles come our way.
Just to see our reactions, he gets the chicken feet, long cooked and gelatinous in a savory sauce. We follow orders and suck the tender goo from the bone. Delicious. He gives us a chopsticks lesson, starting with how not to be rude. (Hold the chopsticks near the tip so that you only take a biteful from the communal plate. If you hold them at the other end, you will get a greedy portion.)
Sung is a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian who has been leading tourists through the city's Chinatown for several years. This is Canada's largest Chinatown and one of the biggest in North America. Above the shops are apartments and other businesses. The ornate gate over Pender Street signals that you've crossed into Chinatown, which looks a lot like Chinatowns everywhere. It's a bit worn in places, but the experience remains authentic and lively.
After lunch we cross Pender to the New Town Bakery for apple tarts. Yes, apple tarts. Not particularly Chinese, Sung tells us, but a tradition at this bakery for 30 years. The line is long. We take a number.
A Wok Around Chinatown is not solely about food, but on the day we book, we are the only ones on the tour. Since Sung knows of our interest in food, we spend a lot of time in the seafood and produce markets, plus apothecary shops where dried beans, seeds and barks promise to alleviate what ails you. He explains some of the tenets of Chinese medicine, but I can't take my eyes off the dried lizards on sticks in one large container. He suggests we pose for a photo.
Sung takes us to a Taoist temple and then up a couple of flights of stairs to a room where Chinese newspapers are scattered about and older men play mah-jongg. We watch for a while and then get shooed away by a man who speaks crossly to Sung in Chinese. "I didn't get permission to bring you up here," Sung says with a sly smile. "But since we are such a small group. …"
We scurry away but feel privileged for our glimpse at a disappearing tradition.
Our tour ends at Daniel Lui's Chinese Tea Shop. Lui, who moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong in 1997, is what you might call a tea sommelier. He schools us in the proper way to prepare and drink loose tea, which means no cream and sugar and certainly no big insulated container that fits in the car's cup holder. The tea is steeped for mere seconds and we slurp it as we would sip wine at a tasting.
After nearly four hours of Chinatown immersion, the cultural exchange is complete. We relax with our tea at Lui's insistence and our guide slowly slips away. Our time is done.
Bob Sung's A Wok Around Chinatown tour is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays through Mondays. The cost is $80 plus tax and includes a sit-down dim sum lunch. For information or to book, go to awokaround.com or call (604) 736-9508.