Jason Apple, co-owner of Vancouver’s Roaming Dragon food truck, may be the closest thing Canada has to a street-food philosopher. When Apple was 14, his family moved to Seattle, where he set up a peanut and crackerjack stand outside a local stadium, and his love affair began. “The high of street food was infectious,” he says. “It’s a convergence zone: a prostitute can have a conversation with a big-shot lawyer about a taco.”
Apple subsidized his political science degree at the University of Washington by selling hot dogs and his old staples at baseball games. After moving back to Canada and dabbling in other businesses, the 33-year-old returned to the streets. But he didn’t launch a cart or stand: in June, he and business partner Jory Simkin invested $150,000 in a food truck.
From Roaming Dragon’s open window, the pair serve duck confit salad, fried rice balls garnished in aioli, and Chinese pork belly sliders—for $6 apiece. The gourmet menu was inspired by the specialty food-truck craze that is currently sweeping the U.S. Foodies from L.A. to New York are reclaiming the vehicles (once purveyors of hot dogs or construction site lunches) to dispense everything from artisanal ice cream to sushi.
Even the Food Network is capturing the moment with a new reality show, The Great Food Truck Race.
In America, the craze was fuelled by a combination of post-recessionary factors: construction was drying up, which meant there was a surplus of food trucks, and chefs were being laid off from high-end restaurants. The rules around street food are less stringent south of the border. So for talented cooks suddenly without work, the truck seemed an obvious choice—most notably in L.A., ground zero for the frenzy and home to the “godfather of the food truck,” Roy Choi. In 2008, the chef became a national sensation for his Korean taco, which marries Mexican flatbread, Korean BBQ, and taco-truck toppings.
Imitators of the hugely popular dish have been popping up around southern California and the rest of the U.S. (even Roaming Dragon pays homage to Choi with a slow-braised Korean short-rib taco), but other colourful trucks have also found success. An architecturally themed ice-cream sandwich truck called Coolhaus and designed by Rem Koolhaas sits near the Prada shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Nearby, the Buttermilk Truck serves breakfast foods made from buttermilk, alongside a Japanese-style hot-dog truck. Portland, Ore., is home to the Chili Pie Palace, VanSchnitzels, and soon, a Swedish soul-food truck.
By comparison, Canada’s gourmet street-food scene has been in the slow cooker. Still, there are signs that’s changing. In Edmonton, a Filipino-inspired truck called Filistix boasts organic meat skewers or marinated pulled pork on a bun with a side of Asian slaw. For dessert on Edmonton’s streets, the Eva Sweet truck dispenses real Belgium waffles, with a romantic backstory: Patricia Foufas started the business with her husband, Bamir Basha, whom she met while travelling in Brussels. He was working at a waffle cart and she fell in love with both him and his vanilla-scented treats. Basha now runs the Edmonton truck, with ingredients imported from Belgium.
Even hot dogs in the city are getting a makeover. Hot Dog Heroes serves halal chicken dogs and organic bison and elk smokies—with all-natural, low-sodium and diabetic-friendly toppings, of course.
Vancouver made an effort to expand its curbside menu by launching a pilot street-food program this summer: out of 800 applicants, 17 spots were awarded. Apple and Simkin want to grow this burgeoning truck scene with their new food-truck consulting company, Gourmet Syndicate. Besides gourmand-friendly items, the street-food philosopher says the most important ingredient on a food truck is “the sixth-sense element.” He’s referring to the mix of people, sounds, smells, and spontaneity not usually present at a sit-down meal. And though the open road is the limit when it comes to what truckers can cook, they must follow one rule, Apple says: “Make it fast, make it cheap, make it good. People deserve better food, and it doesn’t have to come at a high price.”