2011 Hero: Indie Food Culture
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2011 Hero: Indie Food Culture

Nominated for: giving us street food worthy of our food-loving city.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

Move over, Winterlicious and McDonald’s. Independent food culture in Toronto is on a serious upswing.

In 2011 Torontonians gathered on the streets, in parking lots, and at old factories to eat, and eat well. This wasn’t the work of celebrity chefs, Food Network personalities, or large corporations, but instead simply came courtesy of motivated people who love to cook and eat, and who want to make good food more accessible—and fun—for the rest of us.

Take, for instance, the Toronto Underground Market (TUM), which started in September. It’s been held only three times so far, but is already incredibly popular, selling out weeks in advance. TUM is held in that beautifully industrial space, the Evergreen Brickworks, and is a place for home chefs or wannabe culinary superstars to peddle their delicious creations.

TUM was created by Hassel Aviles, and one of the market’s most popular stands, La Carnita, is run by her husband, Andrew Richmond. La Carnita is a fantastic idea: it’s a pop-up shop that sells you limited edition prints and then gives you incredible tacos for free. Fortunately, it doesn’t only make appearances at TUM—it shows up on occasion elsewhere in Toronto. Times and locations are announced on Twitter, then it’s a mad rush to get those desirable tacos.

La Carnita has also popped up at 86’d Mondays and Food Truck Eats. 86’d Mondays are held at The Drake and hosted by Ivy Knight, cook and food writer. Technically these are industry nights for chefs, but anyone can attend. Knight creates fun events centred around food, like battles (best pickle/preserve/salsa etc.), food photography competitions, cookbook swaps, and oyster shucking. Entrance is free and there are generally some free food or alcohol tastings as well. Food Truck Eats, meanwhile, held its first event in July at the Distillery District, with several more very heavily attended events taking place in other locations since. (In fact, being too popular seems to be the biggest challenge organizers are facing.)

Gatherings like Food Truck Eats are especially important because Toronto’s food truck rules are incredibly strict. Food trucks can only operate in downtown Toronto if they have a permit for a specific location and meet the same standards and conditions as a regular restaurant kitchen. They can’t operate near any fixed-location restaurant with similar food, or religious centres. They can, however, operate in private lots, which is where the Food Truck Eats events take place.

In the aftermath of Toronto’s overly regulated, badly bungled attempt to institute a new food cart system, all these events gladden our hearts—and stomachs. Food trucks have been gaining popularity in cities like L.A., Portland, and heck, even Calgary, and it’s about time Toronto got on board. We have one of the most vibrant, eclectic food cultures in the world when it comes to restaurants with fixed addresses. It’s time our street food culture caught up, and we salute the pioneers who are leading the way against over-regulation, and towards deliciousness.