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It’s been a roller coaster of emotions with the new Toronto street cart program called A La Cart. When they first announced the introduction of ethnically diverse street food, I was elated. Our city definitely needed options beyond street meat (aka hot dogs). But when a paltry eight carts rolled out, I was disappointed. It angered me to learn about all the red tape the vendors had to endure; Hot dog vendors aren’t being forced to pass taste-test panels, buy standardized carts, submit business plans or better yet, prove nutritional value! Finally, when the Toronto Star reported only five carts are actually operational (others were assigned locations in construction zones or told they had to move), I was outraged.

I did become excited once again when I gathered my friends Billy and Sonia for a street cart crawl to test out their offerings. The outing was stunted because there are only two carts left in the downtown area.

CART #1
LOCATION:
Metro Hall, just south of King St., east of John St.
CUISINE: Afghan
LINE-UP: Consistently had 4-5 customers

My pal Billy went straight for the main course — the Chalpi Kebab & Pop for $5. While he thought this was an excellent deal for lunch, he likened it to “a reheated hamburger patty in a pita.” I tried a bite and had to agree his statement was accurate.
streetcart-kebab

The highlight of the crawl were the Samosas with Tamarind Dipping Sauce ($2). There’s chicken, beef or veggie and we tried all three. The veggie was a big hit, along with the chicken. “Crunchy on the outside, soft and tasty on the inside,” Sonia described. “For just $2 you can satisfy your hunger and create an explosion of flavour in your mouth.”

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CART #2
LOCATION:
Nathan Philips Square, northwest corner of Queen & Bay St.
CUISINE: Persian
LINE-UP: Completely non-existent for the 20 minutes we were there.

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It seems word has spread that this cart’s offerings are substandard. I couldn’t even finish my Biryani ($5) because the rice was so dried out, not even the yougurty sauce could save it. Billy tried the Chicken Biryani and said: “It’s honestly not even worth mentioning. Dried, overcooked chicken in a slop-heap of rice.” The Chicken Kabob ($5, shown right) didn’t fare any better. Sonia’s verdict: “Chicken was dry and cold and the pita was drier and colder. For $5, I would much rather walk a few steps in front to visit the chip trucks.”

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The city’s insistence that all foods are pre-made in a licensed kitchen ultimately means most items are going to be incredibly dry. While I understand health concerns and standards, I can’t help but think about all the places around the world where street food is the most delicious and cheapest choice. How did this idea fail so miserably in Toronto? And yes, let’s not sugarcoat things, regardless of food quality and this being a “pilot project,” the Toronto A La Cart program fails to impress.

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