Hungry for street food change

Tamara Jensen and Adam Hynam-Smith are El Gastronomo Vagabundo

Cue the world’s smallest violin.

I don’t know what I’m going to eat for lunch tomorrow.

Anyone who’s organized might make something. The night’s still young enough.

But you see, I live for Thursday lunches that aren’t my creation.

Thursdays are one of three days a week that the St. Catharines Farmers Market runs and up until a couple of months ago, they were my favourite market day. The reason: A souped up Purolator truck splashed with pink and turquoise paint would park itself outside of Market Square and offer up the likes of green curry, tomato and watermelon salad, green papaya salad, iced teas brewed with sumac or fresh Niagara peaches — the makings of a lunch that was unlike anything I could find anywhere else.

I’m talking about the fresh and beautiful fare offered up by El Gastronomo Vagabundo. While there are other lunch choices I eat often at the market, this was their day as far as my midday meal choices were concerned.

I’d develop serious food crushes after just a glance at their ever-changing handwritten menus. I’d gush  as I’d wait for my order or smile like a smitten kitten as my lunch was being made.

Like a possessive control freak, I’d tell the El Gastro gurus, Adam Hynam-Smith and Tamara Jensen, they can never leave Niagara. Ever.

One Thursday in August, though, this dynamic duo weren’t in their usual parking spot. I couldn’t help but notice their absence yet again a week later.

Adam working his magic in his kitchen on wheels.

The talented twosome were beckoned elsewhere — to places where the masses to feed were greater, to private events where their culinary skills were coveted. In short, they were in demand and business was booming.

I missed them dearly, though was thrilled for their success. They weren’t Niagara’s best kept secret for long and deep down, I feared they’d become someone else’s good news food story soon enough.

People in Toronto drove here in the summer to eat the food they served during their weekend gigs at Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan.

They often hightailed it to high-profile events and pop-ups in the megacity where the hungry lined up for hours just to get a taste of what I could have every week simply by taking a few steps outside my office door at City Hall.

They were getting ink galore in big city dailies and on foodie websites. The glare of the sunlamp was being cast upon them by TV crews. And they deserved it for shaking up the white linen dining world with their compostable containers and exciting eats.

Like clockwork, I’d log on to Twitter each week to see what they had in store for the market crowd, only to envy the folks elsewhere at those other foodie events, where the El Gastro pair were working their magic those weeks in August and then September.

I tried to buck up and sound breezy in my tweets to them, asking if they were coming to the market that day. I already knew the answer but had to read it in 140 black and white characters tweeted to me directly.

They reassured me they’d be back after Thanksgiving. Things would slow down for them and they would pull into their usual parking spot again. And though I didn’t want the summer to end, I think I willed it away as I longed for the first Thursday after turkey day when I could eat their food once more.

But alas, my wishing for fall just got me that much closer to winter and that much farther away from another El Gastro lunch.

The news was grim. They weren’t coming back. They weren’t able to plug in at the market — the building’s breakers and their plugs were like oil on water — and so hot food made on site was an impossibility. Generators weren’t allowed either.

Instead, they are working on getting a permit in Hamilton, where, unlike St. Catharines, they could pull up to a curb, rather than wait for an invitation to a private event or buy a market vendor’s ticket, and be the street food peddlers they want to be.

In addition to the hurdles at the market, St. Catharines only sells a limited number of permits to food vendors and they’re usually spoken for by those wielding wieners. Rules about how close to restaurants they can park — if invited onto private property — abound and no surprise, there are those who don’t want them downtown for fear they’ll take business away from the restaurants there.

I might be worried, too, given Hynam-Smith’s ridiculous talent as a chef and Jensen’s service with a genuine smile.

But as a diner, I just want to eat their food and it saddens me that two young, talented, entrepreneurial folk doing something that can only help put St. Catharines’ dining scene on the map have to go elsewhere to make a living. Such a common theme here in Niagara, where we seem to suffer from a never-ending brain drain.

They came to Niagara from Ottawa because they loved the area and the bounty of produce Niagara proffered. They took a chance on us and we should be so lucky. These are the kind of people we need here. Creative. Energetic. Filled with bright ideas and passion for what they do.

The sort-of good news is a report is expected to come to council at some point with information about changing the city’s street food permit rules. But it will be for information purposes and up to council to decide to go further and allow for a street food scene to flourish here.

Still, it’s progress. But, if you’re an El Gastro groupie like me, there’s more that can be done to beckon them back.

As a city employee, I’m offering the same advice I’d offer to any resident who writes in to lament the lack of skate parks in Merritton or who wants a new playground in their neighbourhood greenspace.

Call your local councillor. Let them know. They are where the seeds of the change are planted and germinate.

So, please, help me eat Thursday lunches with the same zeal I used to. Heck, why save it for Thursday and just me. Help us all eat gourmet street food any day of the week, anywhere El Gastro pulls up. And keep this talented duo working in the community where they live by letting local elected officials know you want the street food rules to change.

That way, come lunch, we can put away the violin and instead cue the drum roll as we’re handed a biodegradable bowl of whatever gourmet goodness El Gastro has on the menu.

El Gastronomo Vagabundo @ Flat Rock Cellars on Urbanspoon

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5 responses to “Hungry for street food change”

  1. Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that. Where are you guys now?

    Well, when they’re up and running here in St. Kitts, you’ll have to come back for a visit.

  2. Melonbobber says:

    Tiffany great article. We have moved from St. Catharines for work, but I, too, was saddened by the news that Elgastro had to leave beautiful Niagara to work in Hamilton because of red tape. It is so backwards! I hope things change at City Council soon, so you can be spoiled with their food yet again! We sure do miss it!!

  3. Thanks Mark! I have no doubt you’ll enjoy what they have to offer.

    Bletherer, there are moments when I fear — no, I know — you are right about attitudes toward food. I just want some choice for the rest of us and to keep great people in the area.

  4. Bletherer says:

    St. Catharines does not do change. There is a permanent grease spot right in front of City Hall from the perpetual fry cart that parks there. That tells you most of what you need to know about attitudes towards food and entrepreneurs. That, and the lineup across the street for the emergency feeding station run out of the church.

  5. Mark says:

    Great article Tiffany.

    I’m looking forward to trying El Gastro’s fare for the first time on Friday.

    We share your frustration here in Toronto when it comes to red tape and food trucks.

    The street food movement is definitely gathering steam though. Keep fighting the good fight!

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