This story appeared in Zoomer Magazine last summer but hey, it's that wonderful time of year again when you can indulge in Canada's fab food truck fare on the street or, thanks to the recipes below, make a few dishes at home.
You can’t hold me to the details of my childhood memories for recollections of my summers past are as hazy as those long hot days themselves. But in my mind’s eye, I am outdoors playing with friends in the late afternoon when a familiar sound floats through the air. Ding-a-ding. Ding-a-ding. My playmates and I stop in our tracks, we disperse and race home. There, we beg our mothers for change, promise that a treat won’t spoil dinner, and plea and pester until purses are found.
Back outside, the Dickie Dee ice-cream cart emerges like a mirage coming up the street. Kids of all ages swarm but so to do moms with aprons around their hips, dads with dried grass clippings on their shoes, and bored teenagers who dream of one day of escaping this northern Ontario town (let’s blow this popsicle stick stand!) Although I can still taste the sweetness of an ice-creamcicle, it’s the memory of those impromptu gatherings that is most delicious. That is, after all, when the neighbourhood connected, when grown-ups winked and made plans for cocktails, and kids bent on sleepovers smiled triumphantly after their parents said “We’ll see.”
Street food is and always has been a social affair. For centuries, Canadians have come together to line up and chow down, be it at chuck wagons or county fairs, roadside shacks or urban hotdog stands. Interestingly, this part of our collective past has become a huge part of our present. A street food movement -- fuelled by a food truck craze that started in the U.S. in the 90s -- has rolled into Canada bringing with it just about every type of food imaginable from Vancouver’s Disco Cheetah, which serves up Korean cuisine to Edmonton’s Native Delights. From Toronto’s Kal and Mooy’s Somali home-cooking to Halifax’s Poppa Smoke’s Hip Hot Hoagies. Even hotels are even getting in on the action. Eaton Chelsea in downtown Toronto recently opened a taco-centric food truck on their patio to draw crowds to the outdoor space. Vegan and vegetarian dishes are on the rise but most menus are meat forward. Think pulled pork, beef brisket and burgers; in essence, all things barbecue.
“It’s such a cool way to dine,” says Kaeli Robinsong, who along with husband, Jason Sussman, owns Tacofino, a company that began with one truck in Tofino, but now has a restaurant and two trucks in Vancouver. “We get men and women in suits coming down from office towers to meet and eat with merchants, shoppers, and the people in the hood. It’s like a micro-community.”
A micro-community brought together with a little help from technology. Gone are the days when a bell signals a food truck’s presence; today, smartphone apps let folks know in real-time which trucks are open in their city, where they are located, and what the specials are. Social media allows customers to connect with each other, and vendors to connect with customers. In fact, it was through Twitter that I learned about One of a Thai, a truck stationed in Yellowknife. Much like the young son in the 2014 feel-good movie Chef who uses Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to draw attention to his father’s food truck as it journeys across America, Sousanh Chanthalangsy, who owns the truck along with her mom, was tweeting her heart out as she drove a brand new upgraded vehicle from Vancouver to the Northwest Territories.
“My mom’s from Thailand and did a lot of catering when I was growing up. I told her that one day I’d showcase her recipes by opening a restaurant. That wasn’t feasible so we opened a food truck in 2011 and we’ve upgraded now because we’re so busy.”
Indeed, it is cheaper to operate a truck versus a restaurant, says Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky’s Deli and food truck in Toronto, but there are plenty of challenges from breakdowns to bylaws. Happily, Caplansky reports, city council recently passed new, less restrictive regulations that allow food trucks to park 30 metres away from open restaurants instead of 50 metres, and park and vend for five hours at pay-and-display spaces on feeder road. Although great news for food truckers, in his role as judge on Food Network’s Food Truck Face-off, Caplansky still looks for entrepreneurs possessed with passion.
“They have to have drive, vision and the ability to just jump in and ask questions later. They have to be authentic and innovative.”
What they don’t have to be are classically trained chefs. Matt Basille, owner of Fidel Gastro’s food truck in Toronto and the host of Cooking Channel’s Rebel Without a Kitchen, worked in butcher shops in his teens but left a cushy cubicle job as a copywriter to follow his dream of feeding people for a living. Happily, as he writes in his book, Street Food Dairies: Irresistible Recipes Inspired by the Street, street food isn’t so much about technical skill as it is about people wanting to share their lives. “It’s the perfect combination of home-cooked meals and homemade stories.”
Both of the above can be pulled off in your backyard and so, with the hazy days of summer finally upon us, why not put a new twist on the traditional barbecue by throwing a Street Food Tasting Party? Casual and nostalgic, your shindig should feature cold beer in plastic cups, retro cocktails and finger-food served at various “food truck stations” at which guests can mix and mingle. On the grill, try Tacofino’s Steak Tacos; on a table with a deep-fryer, do Matt Basille’s Mozzarella Sangweeches; and on another table, set out Caplansky’s Famous Maple Bacon Donuts, which you can make ahead. In the spirit of the street food movement, add one more station of your own creation – perhaps a food truck concept based on your signature dish or some crazy fusion invention (Basille does Pad Thai Fries replacing the noodles with French fries). If you need help manning the stations ask a guest or two to pitch in. And don’t get wrinkles if the service is slow -- show me a great street food memory and I’ll show you a long line-up.
Tip: Turn this tasting party into a block party and have all the neighbours set up food stations in their yards!
What you’ll need:
- 1 barbecue with work surface (for taco station)
- 1 table with a deep-fryer (for sandwich station)
- 1 table + serving platter for donuts
- 1 table + equipment required for station of your own creation
- Plenty of paper napkins, disposable cups, glasses, etc.
- Trash can
Set Up and Ambience
- Cover food station tables with retro tablecloths or brown paper “tablecloths” on which you can create colourful masterpieces themed to the food
- On each station, set place card with names of food truck and recipe
- Create a playlist of summer classics such as Beach Boys, Elvis tunes, etc.
- Nix formal table setting and encourage guests to grab a lawn chair or dine on their feet, street-food style
- Encourage guests to come up with their own food truck concept complete with name, logo and menu offerings and jot it down on Scorecards
Recipes from Great Canadian Food Trucks
Tacofino’s Steak Taco
By Jason Sussman
Makes 8 tacos
1 jalapeno, diced
½ onion, diced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
½ can of Mexican beer
2 tbsp brown sugar
¼ cup of oil
Juice of 2 limes
1 flank steak, about 2 pounds
4 red peppers, roasted, skinned and sliced
10 green onions, lightly oiled and charred on bbq, quartered
8 6” round flour tortillas, lightly grilled
Lime wedges for serving
Combine first eight ingredients to make marinade. Add flank steak and marinate over night in the fridge. Remove the steak from the marinade and let sit at room temperature on a rack for an hour or so. Grill to medium and rest for 15 minutes. Slice across the grain. Build tacos with meat, peppers and green onion pieces. Garnish with your favourite taco toppings.
Vegetarian adaptation from Street Food Dairies
Makes 8 to 12 sangweeches
1 loaf focaccia bread
4 large buffalo mozzarella cheese balls
1 tbsp coarse ground salt
2 cups flour
1 cup dried breadcrumbs
1 tsp black pepper
Oil for deep frying
Slice focaccia into pieces no thicker than your index finger, then cut each piece in half. Slice each cheese ball into three or four slices, and lightly salt. Place one or two slices of cheese on half the slices of bread. Top with remaining slices of bread to finish off the sangweeches. Place flour in a bowl, place eggs in another bowl and whisk, and place the breadcrumbs in another bowl. Heat oil in deep-fryer to 360 degrees F. Dredge the sangweeches in the flour, then the egg, and then the breadcrumbs. Place one sangweech at a time in deep-fryer and fry 4 to 5 minutes until golden. Use tongs to help keep submerged or lid of fryer. Lightly season with salt and pepper and serve with slice of lemon in a napkin or disposable container.
Maple Beef-Bacon Donuts
From Caplansky’s Deli Food Truck
Makes 40 Donuts
¾ cups sugar
¼ cup melted butter
2 large eggs, whole
1 egg yolk
2 ¼ cups flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
¾ cup beef bacon, minced (or your favourite type of bacon)
Maple syrup for drizzling
Icing sugar for dusting
Beat together sugar and butter in mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and set aside. In a separate large bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add sugar and butter to flour mixture, then add buttermilk until you get a thick (but not too thick) batter. Toss in minced bacon and mix until everything is well combined. Put mixture in fridge and let set for at least one hour. Dust work surface with flour. Using a small ice cream scoop, scoop ball of batter and roll on surface into small uniform balls. Drop in oil and cook until golden to dark brown and cooked all the way through. Drizzle with maple syrup and dust with icing sugar. Can be made ahead and served at room temperature.