Local food boards had been abuzz in the past 1-2 years with the news that Toronto was soon to expand “street food” legislation to include foods other than hot dogs. Foodies rejoiced, politicians espoused the wonders of diverse offerings, and local media poured on the hype. Then earlier this year, we started hearing about the test carts that would roll out; 8 carts offering foods of 8 different ethnic backgrounds, each cart residing in a specific location.  Exciting times!

And then this month’s Toronto Life ran “50 Reasons to Love Toronto Now”. Reason 13, featured on the front page, was “Our street food is finally interesting”. I flipped to the feature…

…whereupon my eye was immediately drawn to a picture of a Styrofoam container full of vegetables. That’s odd, I hadn’t recalled Chinese as being one of the 6 ethnic food-types — maybe it’s some other kind of stir-fry. I read the caption: “Beef bulgogi, $3 / Yonge and Eglinton”. Oh.

Unfortunately, Toronto Life hasn’t posted the picture on their website, and I’m not familiar with the intellectual property laws that would be relevant to me posting a picture of the magazine page, but if you care to, you can look it up on page 64 of the June 2009 issue. Suffice to say it depicts a mound containing about 10% beef, bulked up with broccoli and bell peppers. There are however a few sesame seeds sprinkled on top, which I guess auto-qualifies the dish as “Korean”.

The whole thing made me wonder if this new initiative would really all that awesome. I’d initially been hopeful — after all, it was more choice in food, exposed to a broader audience — but what would it really do for the food scene? The bulgogi at least is a pale imitation of the real thing, and some of the other dishes climb to as much as $7 each. Not encouraging.

When the new legislation was in the works, supporters often pointed out that the possibility of hot dogs AND other dishes was surely better than only hot dogs. I’m not so sure anymore: if my first exposure to Korean food had been the photographed $3 vegetable stir-fry, it probably would have been my last. How many friends do you know who “don’t like seafood” because their only experience with it was half-spoiled fish, baked to dry flakiness by their moms who just didn’t know how to cook it? Hot dogs at least are well-understood and were never gourmet, but to offer poor caricatures of ethnic cuisine is to draw attention — and business — away from restaurants who are offering the real thing, for not much more money.

Certainly the spirit of the new legislation is great — trying to emphasize our city’s diversity through food. But the end result is just trying too hard. Let’s face it: not all foods are well-suited to being eaten on the street. Looking at the Toronto Life spread, half the items require the use of a fork, meaning you can’t walk and eat, or even carry the damned things in 1 hand. Putting impractical “street food” on the street is just going to frustrate customers and vendors alike.

What we should be celebrating are the Toronto food scene’s strengths — street dogs AND properly-done ethnic offerings — instead of making up some hybrid that pleases no one.