The streets of Vancouver aren’t merely lined with high-end boutiques and ramen restaurants (although there are plenty of those, too). This West Coast city is dotted with a bounty of food trucks and carts parked on busy intersections. Together, they offer a global menu; one flush with indigenous fusion cuisine, a blending of Japanese and western influences and North American seafood.
Paul Natrall can often be found perched in his roving red food truck, rumbling around the streets of Vancouver. The chef – who is part of the Squamish Nation, a Native American tribe indigenous to British Columbia – had previously worked in other culinary jobs, but it wasn’t until he opened Mr Bannock, the first food truck slinging indigenous food and culture, that he felt he was paying homage to his ancestors. “If you go to any city, you can get Italian, Greek, Chinese food,” he says, “but there’s not many places where you can get indigenous.”
Natrall grew up in his grandmother’s kitchen, learning how to can peaches and tomato sauce and roll out dough for bannock (fried bread). He went on to gain a culinary degree in classical French cooking, but when it came to creating the food for Mr Bannock, Natrall was more interested in crafting a menu of fusion indigenous fare than the cuisine he had studied in school.
“We do a lot of fusion cooking, where I showcase ancient cooking methods and traditional ingredients, like bison and elk and deer,” he says, but inspiration is also taken from other cuisines.
For instance, Mr Bannock might sell a riff on chicken and waffles. The classic waffle recipe is subbed for a bannock base, which is then pressed in a waffle iron. Juniper berry-rubbed chicken is smoked, wrenched apart into tender ribbons and crowned atop the waffles, along with a mound of coleslaw dotted with fresh cranberries and apples. Guests can finish it all off with a drizzle of hot sauce.
The rest of the menu features multiple bannock tacos – soaring disks of fried bread layered with smoked venison or pork, salsa verde, cheese and herbs. Natrall explains that there’s always some kind of bannock taco at powwows or indigenous events. Guests will also find the likes of elk sliders, wood-charcoal barbecued salmon and tiny nubs of bannock ready to mop up a chunky blueberry dip.
Natrall also focuses on showcasing a host of indigenous cooking methods, like stone and clay baking, smoking and canning. He makes his own dry rubs for smoking – studded with indigenous herbs and spices – and cooks root vegetables in clay ovens buried in shallow ground.
“The overall idea is to promote indigenous food culture,” Natrall says. “Having a food truck is having a community where we come together and showcase different food cultures.”
If there’s one thing Vancouver natives can agree on, it’s a visit to Japadog. The unassuming carts are peppered throughout the city, hawking hot dogs showered with a smattering of Japanese-influenced toppings. Having opened in the early 2000s, Japadog was one of the first food carts to land in Vancouver, thanks to Japanese native Noriki Tamura, who saw an opportunity to introduce a new kind of street food to the city.
At the time of Japadog’s initial launch, Tamura had noticed that there were a handful of street vendors, but they were all peddling the same kind of simple, uninspired hot dog. Japadog was the first of its kind to sling something entirely unique.
“We create Japanese-style hot dogs,” Tamura explains. “We add a lot of Japanese toppings, like teriyaki, okonomi and grated radish, to create something totally new.”
Concealed under puffed-out red umbrellas, these hot-dog carts are certainly all about the toppings. Hot dogs, from turkey to pork to shrimp tempura, are slipped into soft buns and piled with unexpected toppings. The shrimpy chili is a shrimp sausage slathered with chili sauce; the terimayo (Japadog’s signature dog) gets an upgrade with teriyaki sauce mayo and slivers of seaweed; and the yakiniku rice begins with a pork sausage, hidden under a flurry of flavored rice and barbecued beef.
These dogs are undeniably a fusion of Japanese ingredients and Western-style dogs, and this blending of cuisines is hardly surprising in a city like Vancouver: in a city of over 2 million people, nearly 43% are Asian.
Japadog doesn’t just boast hot dogs, ether. The menu also offers French fries – crispy and spiced with the likes of dried seaweed, Japanese pickled plums and roasted garlic – and shareable plates like yakisoba noodles and edamame.
One humble cart has grown into a chain of over 10 in Canada and one location in the USA. Vancouver locals love to stop for a midday treat or a late-night snack, housing down a hot dog long after the sun has set.
A little shack on wheels can frequently be found parked on the corner of Granville and West Georgia streets. The truck – formerly a tiny home and resembling a traditional Halifax fishing shack – has since been converted into a fully fledged seafood operation slinging overflowing lobster rolls.
Although lobster is hardly native to the Vancouver area, founder Patryk Drozd was particularly inspired by the Halifax, Nova Scotia Maritime – the East Coast of Canada – where lobster sandwiches are more ubiquitous than the humble peanut butter and jelly. In an effort to introduce the West Coast of Canada to this tradition, Drozd and his consultant Ashton Phillips ship lobster straight from Nova Scotia to Vancouver.
“We developed a menu based around dishes that you would find in the Maritime – really basing a lot of it around lobster bisque and lobster rolls, because that’s pretty much what everybody in that area eats,” Phillips explains.
But Salty’s doesn’t simply revolve around the bounty of the East Coast. In fact, the menu is inspired by both coasts: along with lobster rolls and lobster grilled cheese sandwiches, Salty’s churns out Dungeness crab rolls sourced straight from Vancouver. Many of the ingredients are also endemic to the area, such as farm-grown produce and bread, and cheese from local bakeries and dairy farms.
The menu is pretty trimmed down: there are crab rolls, lobster rolls (some served solo, others delicately topped with sturgeon caviar), lobster bisque and grilled cheese. The lobster and crab meats are tossed with celery, dill, lemon and Old Bay aioli, then jammed into warm, toasted brioche buns slathered with garlic butter. Out of this white house, trimmed with green stripes and a dainty awning, these warm sandwiches arrive, plopped into cardboard dishes wrapped in green gingham paper.
For the guys behind Salty’s, choosing a food truck over a bricks-and-mortar shop was obvious.
“There’s a lot of versatility and the ability to bring food to where the business is, where the happening things are,” Phillips says. “The fact that it’s not a bricks-and-mortar really allows us to be where the buzz is, all the time.”
The cost of rent in Vancouver is also astronomical, making it much more cost-effective to operate a roaming cart than a stationary operation. Salty’s isn’t the only one, of course; there’s a wealth of food trucks taking advantage of the independence that comes with owning businesses on-the-go.
“There’s a pretty big food-truck community in Vancouver, and we all support each other,” Phillips says. “You generate relationships and camaraderie, and it’s a good circle to be in, because everyone is trying to help everyone be successful.”