Here are some photos from a great summer road trip to B.C.’s coast, including Vancouver Island and its satellite Gulf Islands. Blog posts on specific great eateries along the way will commence next week.
Let’s have some fun. What’s the best food city for road trippers in the Pacific Northwest? Heck, let’s throw San Francisco into the mix, though leave out Los Angeles, a beast of its own.
These ratings are subjective, the research somewhat sketchy. It’s primarily based on a recent road trip I took down the west coast. I spent only a few days in each of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. But I ate and drank like a trencherman, sufficient, I trust, to gain a “gut” feel for what these cities offer the car traveller seeking good, independent and affordable fare. Remember, I’m not talking about high-end cuisine in this blog.
If you disagree strenuously with my assessments, please leave a reply.
Before we dive into the cuisine, I’d like to acknowledge the west coast is the epicentre of North America’s coffee culture. But for me, none of the four cities really stands out, maybe because I’m not all that partial to the lightly roasted beans au courant at so many hip cafes.
1) Portland: The Little City That Could
In my mind, the clear-cut winner. In fact, it’s the only one of these four cities that I’d go to just for the food. It’s that good. The biggest reason is the some 700 food carts (i.e. stationary trucks), spread throughout the city and doing more innovative things than most brick-and-mortar restaurants. Not that Portland’s regular restaurants are shabby, with top-rate, affordable joints like Pok Pok and Little Bird.
Bonus points: Because the city proper has less than 600,00 people, it’s the easiest of the four to get around, with lots of free streetside parking outside downtown. Plenty of good, innovative microbreweries, too
Cons: Lots of greenery but not the mountain views or oceanside locations of other west coast contenders
Quirks: You can’t fill your own gas tank in Oregon
2) Vancouver: The Jewel of the Pacific Northwest
All those Hong Kong investors may have pushed Vancouver real estate prices through the stratosphere. But the resulting influx of immigrants has also led to an invasion of Asian cuisine. That’s what propels it to my second spot. The suburb of Richmond may well be the Chinese food capital of North America. The city itself has lots of good fresh noodle places, matched by great Japanese ramen and izakaya joints. Throw in some great breakfast diners and vegetarian restaurants to round out the mix.
Bonus points: It can be miserably gray and wet during long stretches of winter (mind you, so can Seattle and Portland). But when it clears to reveal stunning views across the water to nearby mountains, this may be the world’s most glorious city
Cons: Undoubtedly the smuggest city in Canada
3) San Francisco: No doubt shocked it’s not number one
San Fran doesn’t make it easy for the road tripper to love. It starts with the toll bridge into the city and the near impossibility of finding streetside parking downtown. The good news is that once you find your way into the Mission district, you can walk to a lot of good eateries—so long as you don’t mind a little harassment, filth and noise. Hey, it’s the big city.
I might be shot for saying this, but the Chinese food is a notch below Vancouver’s, though Mission Chinese Food is certainly pushing the creative boundaries. And the StrEatfood Park is a pale imitation of the food-cart scene in Portland. If it’s any consolation, there’s way more good Mexican choices than the other three cities combined. And where else can you get that Gold Rush classic, the oyster-laden hangtown fry?
Bonus Points: Hard to beat that S.F. aesthetic: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Embarcadero, the steep hills, the iconic architecture
Cons: If you hear a basketball bouncing down the streets of the Mission district, it could soon be smashing through your parked car window
4) Seattle: Super Bowl champ doesn’t make it to the culinary finals
Seattle certainly has a vibrant food scene, and there’s the presumed dominance of its coffee world. But someone has to finish fourth, and there was no single food culture here that bowled me over. The Tom Douglas restaurant empire reigns supreme, though many of the star chef’s joints stretch the boundaries of affordable. This is the place for an oyster or Dungeness crab feed.
Bonus points: You can’t ignore Pike Place Market, even though it’s overrun by tourists. There are lots of more down-to-earth farmers’ markets throughout the city
Cons: My dining choices seemed to be really spread out, requiring lots of driving
Quirks: Those funny little parking meter stickers you have to attach to side windows. All those residential streets with little, vegetated peninsulas and circles that give your driving forearms a good workout
To give Seattle its proper due, I’ll be devoting the next couple of weeks to posts from some of its finer road-trip eateries.
In the beer-drinking world, many of us sophisticated types long ago evolved from the 24-packs of thin, flavourless piss to craft beers of all persuasions. Though sometimes things get a little carried away with the addition of fruits, chocolate and hot peppers. And don’t get me started on IPAs.
The latest trend is the beer-tasting room, where you can stand, or sit at little tables, and savour small glasses (say, five or eight ounces) of beer, usually produced by an attached brewery. Perhaps the only food offered is from independent food trucks at the curb. Want some beer to take home? You’ll probably have to buy a refillable growler.
Vancouver, for instance, features two new tasting rooms. Brassneck Brewery (2148 Main Street) opened this fall with some eight beers to sample, while 33 Acres Brewing (15 West 8 Avenue) has two on tap. I recently visited the latter, which is a nice, bright place to sip a glass of 33 Acres of Life while chatting with friends. It felt more like a modern coffee shop (minus the laptops) than a prototypical pub. It’s all part of a craft beer renaissance in Vancouver, aided by the updating of antiquated liquor laws that allows the licencing of city tasting lounges.
Whether tasting rooms are your cup of beer is a matter of preference. Methinks that in big cities, it’s a trend that’s just getting started.
Road Food For Thought: What ever happened to those beer bottle openers in motel bathrooms? Don’t they know all these craft beers don’t have screw tops?
Why do most bottles of Canadian craft beers contain only 331 or 341 millilitres (11 or a little more ounces) of golden liquid, compared with 12 ounces for their American counterparts? The funny thing is, put the same Canadian beer in a can and you suddenly get 12 ounces (355 ml), often for less money. Go figure.
Obviously, American beer has always been cheaper than Canadian suds. But the production and marketing of specialty brews down south has raised the price of some 22-ounce bottles to between $4 and $9 apiece. Guess they’re taking their cue from the specialty coffeehouses.
It seems pancakes these days fall into two categories: staid and boring or over the top. The former are your typical buttermilk cakes—made in house or out of the package—often hitting your stomach like a lead weight.
The latter are dolled up with flavoured whipped creams and sugar-laden toppings or fillings. Some examples from just one restaurant’s menu: “brown sugar-baked bananas”, “streusel, butterscotch chip and caramel-filled”, “Oreo-filled” “Bailey’s and Kahlua swirled”, “pumpkin-pie filled”, “Frosted Flake cakes.” This is as bad as all those syrup-infused coffees.
How about just putting fresh fruit on top or making something light and flavourful like lemon ricotta cakes, with blueberries? Really, you can’t go wrong with blueberry pancakes. At least, pancake houses could show some creativity that doesn’t put you into a diabetic coma.
To provide some guidance of what can be done to make cakes hot again, here’s what a couple of innovative Vancouver, B.C. cafes are doing. The second featured place does have some sugar bombs in its lineup, and its portions are a little (okay, maybe way) over the top, but I like what it’s doing otherwise.
The *Red Wagon Restaurant is a cozy little diner, with stucco/wood-paneled walls and a slightly grimy texture that fits right into the East Hastings neighbourhood. I could go for the usual eggs and whatever. But is there any choice when I can order a stack of pancakes layered with pulled pork and topped with, get this, Jack Daniels maple syrup? I don’t know why more eateries don’t concoct signature dishes that stand out like this.
And boy, is this one unique—the salty, moist, almost too rich pulled pork perfectly complemented by the syrup’s sweetness. As for the flavourful Jack Daniels, I just hope the alcohol has evaporated before the syrup slides down my throat. After all, it’s scarcely 9 am, and they’ve got this .05 limit in B.C. Nothing like rolling into the day, I say.
The Red Wagon Restaurant
2296 East Hastings Street, Vancouver
Weekdays 8 am-9 pm, weekends 9 am-9 pm
At *Jethro’s Fine Grub, the bottom of the menu contains a warning: Please Eat Responsibly. No kidding. The two-stack banana pancakes, flopping over an enormous platter, weigh in at 2-1/2 pounds. In two years, the waitress says she’s only seen four people finish them, one a woman marathon runner.
Jethro’s is a clean, bare-bones place, with only about eight tables and usually a lineup if you’re not there early. They do serve omelettes and eggs Benedict, but I’d suggest just going straight to the delicious, unusual French toast and pancake offerings. French toast items include fragrant, thick-cut slices of challah bread or chocolate chip banana bread, both baked in house. The pancake selections range from banana cakes stuffed and topped with caramel, pecans and streusel to ones with a shot of espresso and dark chocolate chips. Okay, those are the sugar bombs. There’s also ones stuffed simply with strawberries or bacon. But likely what’s most requested at Jethro’s is takeout boxes for all the leftovers.
Jethro’s Fine Grub
3420 Dunbar Street and 3455 Fraser Street (cash only at this location), Vancouver
Daily 8 am-4 pm
Road Food for Thought: I’m not sure when it happened, but it seems every respectable diner now offers pancakes with real maple syrup, whether it’s from Vermont or Quebec. Though I don’t like it when they pour it on the cakes before serving.
It’s a bit late, but I realize I overlooked a number of categories in my Best Road Trip Meals of 2012 awards and figured I didn’t want to wait perhaps months to post reviews of some stellar places. So here we go with Part Two.