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Food trucks fuel Toronto's craving for street food

Last Updated Feb 21, 2019 at 3:16 pm EDT

When tickets went on sale earlier this month for the city’s inaugural Street Food Block Party, all 2,500 were gone in a few hours. A second batch of 500 released 13 days later sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Since then frantic posts have flooded the event Facebook page (“Looking for tickets please!!!!!”) as well as an offer to pay a ticketholder double the $20 face value, which doesn’t include food.

This Saturday’s collaboration between two nascent organizers — Ontario Food Trucks and Toronto Underground Market — is the latest in a series of food events celebrating diversity in a city where the hot dog rules.

The Evergreen Brick Works affair will host amateur chefs, beer and wine vendors and food trucks peddling everything from red velvet cupcakes to smoked meat.

It turns out even Toronto’s restrictive bylaws couldn’t stop food lovers from tackling the street-food vacuum two years ago, when the bulk of food trucks in the city sold fries and ice cream.

It was in July 2010 that Aussie expat Adam Hynam-Smith and his wife Tamara opened the first gourmet truck in the province. El Gastronomo Vagabundo first set up at Flat Rock Cellars, a winery in the Niagara region, and was soon a staple of events in Toronto.

Hynam-Smith had read about L.A.’s Kogi BBQ — a roving Korean taco truck — and came up with his concept while “mucking around” in the Ottawa restaurant where he worked at the time.

“I went home to [Tamara] and I said, ‘Do you know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna open a taco truck,’” he said.

“We thought, ‘Let’s get on this ‘cause this is gonna be awesome.’ So we bit the bullet and did it. And then the entire industry blew up.”

Suresh Doss, the man behind the Ontario Food Trucks association, says at least 11 more trucks have followed El Gastro’s lead and set up in southern Ontario. He estimates by the end of the summer that number will double — and include an outing by Buster’s Sea Cove, a popular fish and chips stand in St. Lawrence Market.

“A lot of people are saying last year was the year for street food in Toronto, but in my opinion it’s this year,” Doss said.

The 34-year-old started organizing events in 2010 under the banner Food Truck Eats, inspired by vendors in the States and his childhood in Columbo, Sri Lanka, where buying lunch from hot carts and dosa stands was the “normal thing to do.”

His goal: to convince the city food trucks could work here — if not curbside, then rotating between distinct zones like parks, squares and pedestrian ways. He said events at the Distillery District and at Yonge-Dundas Square, for example, have been incredibly successful.

It seems the city is listening.

On Tuesday, Coun. Adam Vaughan will put forward a motion to allow food trucks and carts to operate in parking lots. (The Caplansky’s and Food Cabbie trucks, which sometimes operate out of a lot near Queen and Jarvis, do so illegally.)

Though a stopgap, he says the move will set a clear direction for street food, unlike a report due out next month by the city’s street food working group set up last year.

Though the review also proposes relaxing bylaws to allow for vending in public spaces, parkettes and the like, Vaughan says it straddles licensing and land-use jurisdictions and is “fraught with complications.”

Doss is cautious about celebrating the apparent progress by an organization more often known for red tape and a snail’s pace.

For now, he’ll stay focused on the task he’s assigned himself — to be the city’s and province’s champion of food trucks.

“We want to raise the bar with our food,” Doss said. “Our association is not about chip trucks. It’s about truckers doing different things.”