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Getting Lost in the Crowd at the Street Food Block Party
Laura Kathleen Maize couldn't eat everything herself, so she made it her mission to chat with those who could

Laura Kathleen Maize couldn’t eat everything herself, so she made it her mission to chat with those who could. Here are the vendors everyone was talking about.

Street Food Block Party. Credit: All photos by Dan Epstein

When you show up at the Street Food Block Party with a media pass, everyone wants to talk to you. Everyone has an opinion on the best vendors, dishes, and experiences of the night and they’re not shy about sharing. I spent the last Saturday event talking to people with my mouth full of food, but they didn’t seem to mind–these people were excited and hungry foodies, who, even after a $20 entry, weren’t fazed by the crowds or the line-ups. Everyone was in good spirits, full of food and booze, and ready to take on even more.

I, however, was not up to the challenge. Most vendors took the opportunity to do their own version of Mexican–and why not, with Saturday being Cinco de Mayo, a favourite foodie celebration. But after a few tacos, some gazpacho, a beer, lobster poutine, a donut, and a kebab or two, I couldn’t eat anymore–not even for the sake of my journalistic integrity. And this was only the first of two menus that the night had to offer. I knew I’d have to take the word of the crowd, the brave souls who mapped out their vendor routes, bought beer tickets in bulk, and yes, even the ones who ordered double and brought their own Tupperware. I documented some of the fan favourites:

La Carnita 

“This is the third time I’ve come to TUM trying to get La Carnita tacos. I’ve never been successful; I’ve always come too late, after they’ve run out of food. But not this time!”

The event-goers at the front of the entry line sprinted towards this stand as soon as 5:00 p.m. hit; a surprising sight–like Black Friday for foodies–but one that I participated in nonetheless. This taco vendor’s reputation tends to speak for itself, and even those who were attending the Block Party for the first time knew that this was one taco they shouldn’t miss out on. Andrew Richmond and his crew can really do no wrong: crispy breaded squid and a slaw with spicy mustard graced a soft taco shell, and grilled corn with a spicy kick was an unexpected treat. News of a pending restaurant opening did nothing to dissuade the wait time–a rumoured two hours at its peak–but I didn’t hear any complaints.

Gorilla Grilled Cheese

“I’ve seen their name of Twitter, there’s a little bit of buzz around them. It’s like La Carnita and Rock Lobster, those are the must buzz-worthy vendors, but this one is the next big thing.”

I was stunned by the line for the grilled cheese food truck, which stretched almost the entire length of the event space. Why the line would stretch so long for a grilled cheese sandwich I could not comprehend (I’m still under the impression that Kraft singles and Wonder bread make a pretty good late-night snack) but they must have been doing something right. The El Gordo Queso, with ground chorizo, mozzarella, creamy verde sauce, and red onion was a popular choice. With options like that, maybe I can understand why a grilled cheese is worth waiting for.

Stone Soup Foodworks 

“I only try the places with the smaller lineups, and it’s paying off big time. People need to get on this.”

This bright green truck wasn’t attracting the hour-long lines, but the food they were serving was definitely worthwhile. A chunky gazpacho–with little chips thrown in for a bit of a crunch–is a dish I’ll be dreaming of on hot summer days. Other Mexican-themed dishes included a taco and a tamale, both dishes tasty morsels wrapped up in easy-to-eat packages. I had a quick chat with owner Jacqueline Jollife while she took orders and prepared the food.

TS: When did you truck first start out?

SSF: February of last year, 2011. It’s been an incredible year.

TS: And how are you finding it?

SSF: It’s tough–physically especially. But we’ve been doing pretty well. For a brand new business it’s pretty innovative. I really can’t complain!

TS: Where are you usually set up?

SSF: We are usually based near the University of Ottawa, in the winter months. There aren’t a lot of trucks in Ottawa yet, but there’s a couple coming up this summer and both are my friends, actually.

TS: Can you tell me about a bit about your menu?

SSF: We chose to do all Mexican today, but we’re always focused on sustainable and local foods.

Roaming Buffalo

“The PB melts with the bacon jam and it’s awesome. And this is all on a burger. You seriously go… WHAT?!” 

These Buffalo natives made the trek up to Toronto hoping to find a more food-truck friendly setting. “They don’t like food trucks in Buffalo,” they told me. “It took us forever to get our license, it was a pain in the ass. But Facebook and Twitter have been awesome in connecting us. We got in touch with the right people who told us to get down to Toronto.”

And we’re so glad they came. The truck specializes in Buffalo favourites: sandwiches and burgers that food snobs might overlook–most notably fried bologna and onions and The What burger. Easily the most bizarre option of the night, The What was my personal favourite. Crunchy peanut butter and bacon jam complemented each other perfectly, and the burger–made by hand by the owner–rather than being overpowered by the PB, was the star of the dish.

Rock Lobster 

“Why do the other vendors bother making lobster? You’re not going to beat Rock Lobster. Tell them that for me, actually: ‘Spend your energy on other dishes.’”

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that this vendor was being talked about non-stop, albeit in between large mouthfuls of creamy lobster. And though the lobster rolls were headlining the show, Rock Lobster was offering some new takes on the shellfish. “We’ve got a lobster poutine today,” I was told, “And it’s out of this world. No one else is doing lobster poutine. Maybe it’s never even been done before!” While lobster isn’t the most obvious choice for a poutine topper, the flavours, including the chunks of cheese, were kept light and delicate, insuring a cohesive taste. It was good. “But is it better than Smoke’s Poutinerie?” I was questioned by a suspicious onlooker. Let Smoke’s get some quality lobster, and then I’ll have to think on it. Also on the menu was a lobster ceviche, which I heard very little about–it seems that the comfort food trend is still reining large.

Comida Del Pueblo 

“The spring roll has been the best dish of my day–no doubt about it. I went back and got three more.”

TS: What’s the most popular dish so far?

CDP: The jalapeno cornbread grilled cheese, definitely. We’ve been here since the first TUM in September and it sells out every time.

TS: And what are you doing differently this time around?

CDP: We have waterbuffalo bahn mi, and a pork, Mexican-seasoned spring roll. It’s actually amazing.

While the scrumptious grilled cheese on cornbread is a fan favourite, Toronto’s bahn mi fever swayed more than a few customers. “Succulent meat, the water buffalo,” I was told by an effusively nodding 20 something, but what I noticed the most was the obviously homemade bread–it was moist, soft, and full of flavour, something definitely lacking in traditional crunchy bahn mis. The meaty spring roll had a huge buzz–I saw someone request that it become a menu mainstay–totally understandable when the pork is pulled and lightly spiced and the whole thing can be eaten in two wonderful bites.

 ___

Laura Kathleen is a writer, editor, and food enthusiast.

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