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OPINION: Toronto’s Street Food Failure

Photo credit: Colby Cosh (via flickr.com)

Courtesy TheMarkNews.com 

In Korea, it’s easy to find undeniably Korean street food with all sorts of accompaniments. In Malaysia, it’s rendang and roti chanai with fresh juice made that second. Mexico has an incredible variety of tortilla and BBQ chicken curbside that melts in your mouth. Singapore is so dedicated to providing great street fare that the city has built Gluttons Bay, an entire esplanade of food stalls where you can get grilled fish, chicken wings, fresh juices, and so many other foods – I want to book a flight there just thinking about it.

Apart from being just dang delicious, street food is affordable, fresh, and as a result, usually very healthy.

So why do other countries have great food curbside while we marinate in the culinary dark ages? Torontonians should be lining up for the best street food in the world with the kind of enthusiasm we normally reserve for Tim Hortons.

Until recently, the Toronto street scene was ruled by the compelling selection below:

1. Compressed mysterious meat on a bun.
2. Compressed mysterious Polish meat on a bun.
3. Compressed mysterious Italian meat on a bun.

It was embarrassing. In a city where half of the population was born in a different country and 30 per cent of our 2.6 million citizens do not speak either English or French as a first language, one would hope that Toronto’s street food would reflect that cultural diversity; and in abundance.

Slowly, the situation is evolving. Last year, the Toronto Public Health Department introduced a pilot program called Toronto A La Cart. The plan was to place carts at different locations around the city: Pad Thai at Mel Lastman Square; chapli kabobs at Metro Hall; biryani and souvlaki at Nathan Phillips Square; chicken and beef kabobs at Queen’s Park; injera at Roundhouse Park; Korean bulgogi at Yonge and Eglington; and jerk chicken at Yonge and St. Clair.

But from the start, things went bad. The program launched with only four of the originally planned six culinary adventures. A combination of unforeseen expenses took out the other two. Right now, none of them are open because the carts aren’t winterized. How many of them we’ll see again in the spring is anybody’s guess.

The owners have had a rough go. They personally have to be there a minimum of 70 per cent of the time, which means they can’t stay open 24 hours a day like the street meat vendors. Their costs have been higher because of extraordinary opening fees ($30 thousand minimum), parking, transportation of a cart that must be set up and taken down daily, and the need to replenish product due to lack of square footage.

If they can’t make enough money to justify these expenses, they shut down. The cart is theirs and they are free to do one-off catering setups to service crowds. Apparently some of the owners are doing just that.

The beauty of a pilot program is that it can be fixed as it goes. The city gave Toronto A La Cart three years to make things work. With two years to go, I can still dream of eating roti without it being during Caribana, drinking fresh Ontario fruit juices at Harborfront, popping hot arancini waiting for the streetcar, or sipping a hot bowl of pho at the park.

Imagine our newly minted epicurean metropolis with cool carts cooking up great food all the time, letting everyone know who we are.

The Mark is Canada’s online forum for news commentary and debate.

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Top photo: A Toronto street food vendor. Credit: Colby Cosh via flickr.com. Used under a Creative Commons License.