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Ring pops and duck poutine

Novelty of Montreal’s new food trucks extends beyond the edible

“No, we don’t give them away!” says Josée-Ann Landry, with equal parts humour and protectiveness. She is referring to the ring pops tacked to the bulletin board inside her van. I am waiting for my homemade popsicle, perhaps a strange choice given the chilly drizzle that has imposed its unseasonable self on an otherwise beautiful June Friday, but curiosity trumps all. Landry goes on to tell me that the ring pops are there because “they remind us of our childhood.”

From within the Landry et Filles truck comes another voice. “In case you meet that special someone!” adds Marc Landry.

Landry & Filles is one of more than thirty food trucks that form the L’Association des Restaurateurs de Rue du Quebec (ARRQ), an organization that aspires to come out of the festival-areas-woodwork where they have spent recent years avoiding restrictive city bylaws. Later this month, a select number of ARRQ members will occupy the nine coveted food truck spots set to open for business throughout downtown Montreal.

Last Friday, many of these trucks assembled at the Esplanade Financière Sun Life, which neighbours the Olympic stadium, for the ARRQ’s First Fridays event. The idea behind the monthly gathering is to provide an amalgam of some of the best parts of summer: a rooftop locale, live music, and intriguingly unique street food. And, of course, to drum up some excitement for the upcoming introduction of these food trucks on the city streets.

In theory, it is a fine idea: in a city deprived of street food for over sixty years, what better way to entice residents than with the food itself? But on this day – when the sun refuses to emerge, a heavy mist floats and coats everyone and their once-warm food, and reggae blasted from central speakers falls depressingly short of the promise of live busking – the intent to create the perfect summer food festival falls a little flat.

Yet the food is, after all, the centrepiece. The menu offerings are often complex, and at times, over the top. And yet, for all the novelty of eating steak tartare or oysters from a restaurant on wheels, some of the items on offer merely provide a middling gastronomical experience. Route 27, steak tartare bar Marché 27’s on-the-road counterpart, offers up a tuna tartare taco that, while refreshingly light, draws much of its flavour and delight from the mango salsa topping. Meanwhile, Chaud Dogs’ NWA (nachos with avocado) hot dog offers a quirky spin on the typical steamie – one that might be better spun without the surprise feta topping.

The unconventional food pairings and one-of-a-kind dishes are borne of an institutional desire to be unique. Mayor Michael Applebaum, when introducing the new street food initiative in April, expressed a vision of Montreal’s street food scene serving up dishes “that can’t be found anywhere else.”

Novelty predictably boosts price, and nothing is different with these trucks. A typical sandwich from one of these trucks will set you back a good $7 or $8, for pulled pork that is comparable in quality to that sold in the SSMU cafeteria (and without the passion fruit kick!). But these steep prices are unsurprising – after all, the trucks are not meant to be a service to frugal pedestrians, but instead, an upscale ‘cultural’ experience rolled into the trend of food on wheels.

One wonders if such a heavy-handed attempt at novelty will backfire. While poutine au canard may be an attempt to reject the somewhat standard street food fare of hamburgers and hot dogs with a dash of Montreal flair, many of the foods cater to very specific – and in some cases, obscure – tastes.

The limited number of truck locations further compounds this problem. While other cities also have strict guidelines on the locations of food trucks (Toronto, for example, only allows trucks in specific areas, and other cities regulate the minimum distance between a food truck and a fixed-location restaurant), Montreal restricts the total number of trucks deployed at any given time to nine. When I ask what this means for individual trucks, the vendor at the Gaufrabec waffle van answers, “We’ll all take turns,” as he takes my order from behind the wheel. For customers, though, this could mean disappointment and no other choice but to come back another day in search of a specific truck.

But beyond the underwhelming and overpriced food are the intangible elements of street food culture – those that can’t be dampened by the rain. It’s in bantering about a ring pop, discussing the mythology that inspired a truck name, or being introduced to the various members of a family-based team that the spirit of street food shines through. Ordering at the truck door is nothing like ordering from the cash counter in your typical casse-croûte; the exchanges are livelier, friendlier, and touched, even on a day without sun, by a certain human warmth. It’s a novelty of interaction that, unlike that of the food, is uncontrived, and ends up ringing even more true. If only for this novelty, a visit to a food truck on your lunch break come June 20 is not a bad idea – maybe you could even get some oysters on the side.

Food trucks will be on the streets beginning June 20, until the end of the summer. For food truck locations, visit First Fridays continues the first Friday of every month at the Esplanade Financière Sun Life. Admission is free. Food is not.