No chuckwagons here
A convoy of new food carts is set to roll into Ottawa, and I can almost hear the sizzling, sputtering sound of the grills and ovens firing up.
As a certified greedy hog, I’m eager to try some fancy curbside cuisine. I’ve been poring over the Citizen’s food pages for Laura Robin’s delightful previews of the 18 new carts, opening in May.
I’m the opposite of a foodie. Never heard of several dishes the new carts will offer — bibimbap, empanadas, mango lassis, churros. But I’m determined to find out what I’ve been missing because I’m wildly in favour of anything that adds liveliness to Ottawa’s streets.
Finally, Ottawa’s mobile restaurant trade is changing for the better. The chips-and-hot-dog hegemony is ending.
Some new carts — I’m thinking here of Gongfu Bao — sound really intriguing. At first I thought Gongfu Bao might be the latest dance craze by the chubby Korean dude who gave the world Gangnam Style. Then I learned that boa are Asian buns, steamed and filled with goodies like local braised oxtail beef and Chinese broccoli.
I admire Ottawa’s sidewalk chefs. They deserve support for having the enterprising spirit to jump into a highly competitive trade. Bricks-and-mortar restaurants tend to regard food carts as mechanized poachers who steal customers. The point is, food carts are a rising trend across North America. Like it or not, they’re here to stay.
There’s not much to recommend street food as a fine dining experience. You have to stand in line for an ungodly long time. That can feel like renewing your driver’s licence in the open air, al fresco style.
It’s hard to find anyplace to sit that’s not covered in urban grime. So you’re left standing on the sidewalk, bolting the food and hoping that the sauce won’t dribble on your white shirt. Your other choice is to head back to the office with food that is rapidly cooling.
For the same $5 to $10 you’ll spend at the new food carts, you can get a sandwich at most of the chain coffee shops. And you get a table to sit down and eat like a civilized soul. But the big attraction of the new food carts is the exotic menu choices, and (I’m hoping) the sort of tastiness you won’t find in chicken served at chain restaurants.
Several new carts will feature organic, locally grown food and that’s a bonus. Who can argue with healthy choices?
Yet part of me yearns for an old-school food cart I could visit on days when I’m not keen on seeking out plant-based meat alternatives.
My fantasy food cart would serve an Ottawa delicacy from the 1970s — the chuckwagon sandwich. The chuckwagon was a sort of primitive panini, heated in a microwave and served in its plastic overwrap. It consisted of a hunk of lousy bread topped with cheap pepperoni and tasteless cheese. You knew it was prepared properly if the overwrap was slightly burned when the waiter brought it to the table.
The cheese was the temperature of molten lava, and you had to wait a bit before digging in or risk scorching the roof of your mouth. I’m sure there are bits of that cheese still stuck to my pancreas.
The chuckwagon — I never learned how it got the name — was a staple at places like the Windsor Tavern, which was across from the old Citizen building on Queen Street. Compared to the chuckwagon, the Windsor’s grotesque pickled eggs were a healthy menu option.
In my mind, I see the chuckwagon cart — called the Chuckwagon Wagon — as a 1957 city bus, tricked-out with tables and a pool table at the back.
Everyone would be welcome at the Chuckwagon Wagon, even grass-fed humanely raised vegans. Everyone except Gwyneth Paltrow, that is.
I shuddered when I flipped through her new cookbook, It’s All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great. Here’s a sample passage setting out the cookbook’s banned list: “No coffee, no alcohol, no dairy, no eggs, no sugar, no shellfish, no deepwater fish, no potatoes, no tomatoes, no peppers, no aubergines, no corn, no wheat, no meat, no soy …”
And no fun. Poor Gwyneth. I’d buy her a chuckwagon and two draught beers anytime.
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