Olympic Street Food in Vancouver

Vancouver's got great restaurants, but what about its street food?

The secret is officially out on Vancouver’s food scene.  Earlier this month, The New York Times declared Vancouver among “the best eating towns in the history of the Winter Games.”  Gourmands and epicures the world over are – at this very moment –  feverishly blogging about the city’s innovative restaurants and chic-chic bistros.  But for me, a city’s culinary clout isn’t just about the gourmet stuff.

To truly be a culinary capital, a city has to deliver on the low-end, as well.  And it doesn’t get any lower end than street food – no waiters, no tables, not even a door.  New York’s got great street food.  So does Tokyo.  But how does Vancouver stack up?

The answer: If you can find street food in Vancouver, it’s bound to be good.  But finding it is the tricky part.  Stringent health and sanitation by-laws mean there are very few vendors actually selling food on city streets.  There are plenty of hot dog carts, of course, but not the kind of cornucopia of sweet and savory treats you see in other places.   However, what Vancouver lacks in abundance, it makes up for in diversity, novelty and sheer deliciousness.

The Terimayo at Japadog is topped with teriyaki and seaweed.

I checked out the street food scene this afternoon.  Sure enough, the Olympic masses had quickly discovered the hidden (and not-so-hidden) gems.  At Japadog, an innovative hot dog stand with an Asian twist, lines were even longer than usual.  At the Burrard Street cart, I waited patiently for a Terimayo ($4.75) – a beef sausage topped with teriyaki, seaweed strips and Japanese mayonnaise.  It might sound unconventional, even gross, but one bite and you’ll understand the appeal.  The Japanese flavors – from seaweed, to daikon radish, to bonito flakes – complement the strong, smoky dogs in unexpected and delightful ways.  And that’s not just my opinion.  Celebs and food-hounds as diverse as Anthony Bourdain, Steven Seagal and Ice Cube have all raved about Vancouver’s Japadogs.

A favorite of Granville Street revelers, Babylon Cafe serves big, juicy shawarmas.

Next up, I headed to the busy intersection of Granville and Robson streets, both car-free for the duration of the Games.  I was still a block away when I smelled the heavenly shawarma from Babylon Cafe.  Now, technically, Babylon Cafe isn’t street food.  They operate out of a storefront the size of a walk-in closet, with just enough room to pick up your order and be on your way (and you better be quick about it!).  Their specialty is marinated chicken or lamb, roasted on a spit, then wrapped in a pita with lettuce, tzatziki sauce and tabouli ($5.95 and $6.95 respectively).  Many places do shawarmas in Vancouver (or donairs as they’re also known), but few are so consistently busy and none cranks out such an intoxicating, stop-dead-in-your-tracks aroma.  This afternoon, the line outside Babylon stretched nearly to the end of the block, filled with hungry fans dressed in red and white.

Cafe Crepe is Vancouver's late-night spot for snacks with a French twist.

Catty-cornered across the intersection from Babylon Cafe is another Vancouver (and Canada-wide) institution: Cafe Crepe.  Again, street food purists might take issue with this choice.  But, while there is a sit-down area, most patrons grab a crepe at the big take-out window in front and munch on the run.  The place is open 24/7 during the Games, attesting to Cafe Crepe’s status as standby for late-night revelers along Granville Street.  Crepes come in sweet and savory versions and range in price from $3.95 all the way up to $10.10 for a Speciale de Cafe Crepe, which includes Nutella, hazelnut and Grand Marnier.   Stuffed already, I topped off my street food circuit with a simple butter and sugar crepe ($3.95), which comes wrapped up much like a burrito or gyro.  A bit doughy for my liking, but – after a night on the town – it might be just the thing.

I know I’ve just scratched the surface on this subject.  Please weigh in with your picks for Vancouver’s best street food!

Remy Scalza – www.remyscalza.com

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