I've eaten street food all over the world, and some of it was OK. In search of authentic, affordable dining, I've grappled with nuclear-sauced doner kebabs in Istanbul and Salford; I've sucked on spiced duck bills while squatting on a child's stool in a Bangkok gutter – the bill was low; meat pies outside the footy stadium in Adelaide were served as "floaters" in a messy sea of mushy peas; tacos eaten on a roadside in Mexico brought Montezuma's revenge; khinkali meat dumplings from the old Lenin Square in Tbilisi did the same. So when my mate Paul bragged that the food cart scene in Vancouver was the best in the world and 100% worth the trip, I had a familiar sinking feeling.
Paul Done is unofficial mayor of Gastown, the loft-living, macchiato-sipping area that is officially the hippest in central Vancouver. Eating the streets with Paul would be like touring the gentlemen's clubs of St James's with Boris, only better for my street cred.
To prepare for my day of kerbside cuisine I stayed in the discreet taupe-and-wenge wood embrace of the Granville Island Hotel. Granville Island, a regenerated former industrial area in False Creek, south of downtown Vancouver, dedicates itself to your stomach: there's a wonderful fresh produce market lined with food stalls, plus any amount of artisan sausage-makers, beardy microbrewers and burly lobstermen. There's even a boutique sake maker. This being Canada, everyone is super-nice and rather earnest.
Morning dawns and here's Paul, who forces my sake head and my sorry ass on to a push-bike. Vancouver, he explains, is very bike-friendly, with dedicated cycle lanes everywhere – even if the official mayor has made helmets obligatory. Paul fastens mine on extra-tight, just for laughs.
Boris bikes are made in Canada, and sturdy versions are an easy, cheap rent here – my hotel offers them for free. Cycling Vancouver's streets, parks and sea wall is a wonderful way to see this most beautiful of cities. With ocean on three sides, snowy mountains beyond, and a mild-ish, London-like climate, Vancouver seems to be inhabited by a race of attractive, big-boned Olympians who make winter sports cool and chilling in hepcat cocktail bars as obligatory as cycle safety measures. It is also home to a huge, established, thriving Asian population, who have had a wonderful effect on the way the city eats, as we'll see.
Until 2009, Vancouver's only legal street foods were roasted chestnuts, hotdogs and popcorn. Nice, but not lunch. Enlightenment dawned, and a panel was put together comprising two of the city's leading chefs, a nutritionist, a bloke who runs farmers' markets, a woman who understands fairtrade and sustainability, two local food bloggers and two members of the public, together with a couple of council faces. Together they identified suitable sites for food carts and invited proposals. They came up with a scheme whereby all carts are peer-auditioned, so you never get competing cuisines on neighbouring sites. Also, the authorities regularly inspect all prep kitchens – so no more sick jokes from me – and licence-holders have to reaudition every year, which keeps standards high.
Paul was right. Vancouver's street carts are the bomb. First, we breeze along to Japadog (japadog.com), where two nutty Japanese women serve ridiculously delicious fusion hot dogs. I eschew the Love Meat option, and plump for a spicy cheese terimayo: jalapeno and cheese dog, teriyaki sauce, mayo, nori seaweed. Six dollars, epic, genius, and nicely unweird.
Vancouver is an expensive city. The Canadian dollar is strong and there has been a hot influx of money from the Far East. Our next cart is great value in any language. Fresh Local Wild (freshlocalwild.com) is run by local celeb chef Josh Wolfe. Josh catches much of what he cooks, and custom-designed his state-of-the-art cart. The kitchen runs on recycled cooking oil; out back there's a cute veranda with seating. Cart cooking doesn't get any tastier than this. Paul orders pearly fresh halibut and chips plus homemade tartare sauce C$14 (£9), which I eat most of before tackling my own albacore tuna melt. The cart also has its own smoker, which issues steamed, then woodsmoked and grilled Sausages à Trois. What is it with these people?
As happened with telecoms, restaurants are becoming more mobile. For some years, the buzz in food has been sustainability. Vancouver shows us that not only should sustainability be a given, but that accessibility is the new thing. What we're starting to see here is that street food can compete seriously with great restaurant food. Some operators are swanky restaurateurs doing the recession-right thing. Other cart owners are funky idealists simply having fun testing out food concepts, although at around £32,000 (certified prep kitchen and cart) the cost of entry is not low. Vancouver's carts range from rollalong handcarts through converted ice-cream vans to all-steaming, all-roasting gin palaces like Fresh Local Wild.
Paul invites me to waddle back to my bike. A 10-minute puff later and we're at Cartel Taco (carteltaco.ca), where silk-soft Mexican tortillas are stuffed with Korean bulgogi beef and crunchy kimchi, the garlic and chilli-spiked Korean sauerkraut. I'm stuffed, too, but not so much that I can't pedal to Re-Up (reupbbq.com) for a round of southern-style pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches. I let Paul finish them. Just the sort of man I am.
On the meandering way down to the mini ferry across False Creek to Granville Island, I sample the chicken karaage and pork slider at Roaming Dragon (roamingdragon.com), bonzai prawns at Feastro, the Rolling Bistro (feastro.ca), and Pepto-Bismol from the Safeway pharmacy.
Paul was right. Vancouver's food carts are exciting and easily as good as any, anywhere. They show that when a switched-on city council comes together with its people in a sensible, intelligent scheme, the result is the democratisation of quality food and a massive turn-on. I'm not just talking about Love Meat here.