This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.
Chef Rob Gentile hands me a plate of intestines. "In Italy this is pure street food," he says. "I'm talking under a bridge on the side of the road where there's a dude with a steel drum that's cut open, charcoal, a grill, and he's got a sack of intestines that have been wrapped around caul fat and scallion [and placed on a skewer]. There's always a lineup. They sell hundreds of them."
Stigghiole, as the dish is known, is a specialty of Sicily and, even more specifically, Palermo. Gentile follows them up at his Toronto restaurant with panino bagnato, a type of sandwich that's sold by just a handful of vendors on the street outside the market in Florence. After that come deep-fried smelts, crisp and a little bit salty, just like the ones you'd find on the streets of Genoa.
While Bar Buca may be a traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurant, much of its menu is inspired by traditional Italian street food. Italy might not be synonymous with street food in the mind of most North Americans, but that's largely because our experience with eating on the street has been monopolized for so long by soggy hot dogs, sketchy chip trucks and seasonal ice-cream vendors.
But even as municipal food licensing rules relaxed, our recent street-food renaissance has stuck to a pretty narrow script. Tacos and burgers, mostly, along with a kind of Americanized continental cuisine (cupcakes, pulled pork and endless variations on poutine) dominates much of the scene. Now that's beginning to change.
"It's definitely the Wild West out there," says Caspar Yue, community manager for torontofoodtrucks.ca. "Everything's quite new, there's nothing that's really established and everyone's jostling for position."
Consequently, menus are all over the map and sometimes not even to be found on any map. On any given day vendors may offer ossobuco gnocchi poutine, Korean bulgogi gordita burgers, tempura shrimp and rice hot dogs. Delicious or diabolical, they are anything but boring.
Currently, it feels as though Canada's street-food scene is where "Chinese" food was 30 years ago. Back then most people had never heard of – much less could distinguish between – Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine, so there was an anything-goes, hybrid mentality that created its own style of gentrified cooking. Now we prefer to emphasize traditional, regional cuisines and can choose between going to Beijing or Hunan-style restaurants while knowing what the difference is.
It's the same with street food. As eating this way becomes more established and the novelty begins to wear off, diners will start looking for food with more history, authenticity and provenance.
A few operators have started to recognize this. Six years ago, restaurateur Vikram Vij and I spent a week touring the great restaurants of Mumbai, a city with a long tradition of great street food. Consequently, our meals were divided equally among formal, high-end restaurants, hip international spots and humble side-street stalls selling heavily seasoned kebabs, crunchy and intense bhelpuri and zippy, refreshing ginger-laced drinks.
Last year Vij opened Vij's Railway Express, a bright blue food truck that roams the streets of Vancouver serving many of those same dishes, true to their Mumbai origins. His concept struck a chord with diners and won the inaugural People's Choice Award in last year's enRoute Magazine's Best New Restaurants list.
Diners hungry for authentic global street foods are also finding them at night markets that pop up seasonally across the country. They still have plenty of hybrid stunt foods – mostly redundant deep-fried things: mac and cheese, cheesecake – but are also home to some serious, classic street dishes.
The curried fish balls at Po Wah Dim Sum's stall at the Richmond Night Market in British Columbia, for example, are every bit as gonzo and tasty as they are in Hong Kong, and Sho Ramen's spicy soup at that same market could have come directly from a yatai cart in Fukuoka, Japan. The "Son-in-Law Eggs" served by Hawker Bar (another street-food-inspired restaurant) at last year's Stop Night Market in Toronto would make a Thai roadside vendor in Phuket proud.
It's an exciting time for street food in Canada. Vendors are bringing great energy and enthusiasm to their creations, but we've only begun to scratch the surface. The traditions of great street-food destinations around the world – Marrakech, Penang, Paris, Hong Kong, Lima – are just waiting to be discovered. Whether it's under a bridge or on the side of the road, Canadians are learning that great food can happen anywhere.