Vancouver: Foodies - pile your plate high

By Brett Atkinson

A once-abandoned island off the coast of Vancouver is reinventing itself through food, finds Brett Atkinson.
The Vancouver skyline with mountains. Photo / Getty Images
The Vancouver skyline with mountains. Photo / Getty Images

I'm always looking for good spots for a leisurely breakfast, but this time I've really dropped the ball. I'm sure Vancouver has great brunch places, but after two days I've just had no need to find out. Instead I've spent two mornings tucking into street food and sampling local and seasonal flavours from around British Columbia.

Day one kicks off with the one of world's shorter but more spectacular ferry journeys. In downtown Vancouver I jump aboard a stout little Aquabus boat crossing False Creek to Granville Island, the rainbow-hued ferry standing out against the city's ramparts of green-grey glass apartment buildings. Active locals steer kayaks and paddleboards in front of the city's distinctive skyline, but morning exercise is the last thing on my mind.

In the 1970s, Granville Island's sawmills, factories and wharves were shuttered and derelict, but in a textbook case of inspiring urban renewal, the abandoned warehouses were transformed into a public market. Now more than 300 businesses populate the island, and galleries, theatres, and artisans' workshops co-exist with brewpubs, distilleries, and one of North America's best farmers' markets.

More than two million people visit the market each year, so the decision to join a walking tour with Edible Canada is a good one. Our small group is steered through the energetic but easygoing bustle - we're in well-mannered Canada after all - sampling food and drink to easily offset my temporary rejection of breakfast.

The friendly stall owners fall within two camps. Family operations like Zara's Deli have been going since the 1980s, and their delicate ravioli parcels are now world-famous-in-Vancouver. Other stalls are run by passionate foodies who've jettisoned past jobs. Former lawyers and chemical engineers are among the corporate refugees proffering artisan charcuterie or spicy masala chai.

There's a proud focus on local and seasonal produce, and our walk reveals plump ¬gooseberries and huckleberries, river-fresh salmon, and pepperoni made with Canadian elk and bison. Sampling plates are piled high with sourdough, salmon and salami, and fresh and zingy Italian sodas and organic coffee are on offer. Fortified by industrial-strength espresso, a logical next stop is Lee's Donuts. Their thoroughly insightful slogan is: "Donuts make everything better", and bypassing frivolous affectations such as their bacon maple bar, I improve my life with a few still-warm classic cinnamon donuts.

I look for visual clues so I can return to Lee's after the tour, but wafting aromas actually give me confidence another sense will easily lead me back. "Let's all head across for chocolate and sausages," provides our next direction to the nearby ChocolaTas stall.
"Save it for later - it's better at room temperature," I'm warned, but it's too late as I demolish cocoa-laden goodies laced with flavours such as wasabi, birch syrup and salted caramel.

Vancouver street food. Photo / Supplied
Vancouver street food. Photo / Supplied

Maybe a return to Vancouver by kayak or paddleboard would be a good idea after all.
The following day I meet the chatty Andrew Louie to explore another side of the city's food scene. He also works as an accountant, but I'm pretty sure he's happier leading flavour-packed walking tours around the city's food trucks.

Food trucks are new to Vancouver, and until 2008 an arcane early 20th-century bylaw restricted kerbside dining options to hot dogs, pretzels and roasted chestnuts. A 2010 pilot programme selected the city's first 17 vendors in a lottery, and now more than 100 food trucks dish up sidewalk treats with a global and gourmet spin.

I meet Andrew at the intersection of Burrard and Smithe in downtown, and the passionate foodie within the numbers guy is already dispensing pre-tour Vancouver restaurant recommendations to my walking companions. Our first stop is at Japadog, the original iteration of the hot dog stand that received global attention during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The Japadog empire has now expanded to seven mobile Vancouver locations and two on the US west coast, and their signature Terimayo dog with teriyaki sauce, mayonnaise and nori flakes is still their biggest seller.

From Japadog, Andrew leads us through concealed inner-city squares and rooftop gardens, and explains how seriously Vancouver is taking the food truck revolution. The city's scene is regarded as the third-best in North America, just behind hipster hubs Portland and Austin, and each year's new applicants must convince a panel of chefs, food writers and bloggers of their menu and concept. Seasonal, sustainable and locally sourced produce are all badges of honour, and Twitter and Facebook are harnessed to announce daily locations for the city's most popular trucks.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Next up is The Kaboom Box, surrounded by a lunchtime crowd of downtown desk jockeys tucking into hot-smoked salmon sandwiches. We're served a salad of wild salmon and pine nuts, and I supplement the sampling with a robust venison burger with maple-mustard mayonnaise.

We then detour to the anime-influenced Moju Japanese Street Eats. A cartoon Godzilla decorates the shiny van, ironic, as a 2014 reboot of the monster flick was shot a couple of blocks away. Truck in a few San Francisco Police Department vehicles, add tax breaks for canny film-makers, and British Columbia is easily transformed into California. There's nothing ersatz about Moju, though, and their spicy deep-fried chicken karaage zings.

Andrew outlines how the lower cost of entry in the food truck business makes it an affordable option for recent migrants like the young Japanese owners of Moju.
One last push up Howe St - complete with Andrew's Elvis Presley and Beatles anecdotes about the ritzy Rosewood Hotel Georgia - and we're back in snacking heaven with fish tacos from Feastro the Rolling Bistro, and the zesty chilli-and-chocolate hit of Diablo cookies from TacoFino Cantina. Other nearby options include homemade flatbreads stuffed with pork from Pig on the Street - slogan: "Achin' for Bacon?" - and the essential comfort food of Mom's Grilled Cheese Truck.

In a city packed with great eating, the last time a morning was so enjoyable and downright tasty was just 24 hours earlier.

Fact file

Getting There: Air New Zealand flies direct to Vancouver.

Where to Stay: Rosewood Hotel Georgia, a boutique hotel in the heart of downtown Vancouver. rosewoodhotels.com.

Details: The Granville Island Market Tour with Edible Canada ediblecanada.com is CA$49 ($52) per person.

The World's Best Food Truck Tour with Vancouver Foodie Tours foodietours.ca is CA$49 (NZ$52) per person. The food truck tour is also included on the Gourmet Whistler & Vancouver tour from World Journeys worldjourneys.co.nz.

Brett Atkinson ate his way around Vancouver with the assistance of Tourism Vancouver and World Journeys.

- Spy.co.nz

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