THE BACK PAGES

Extra wasabi, hold the seaweed

Noriki Tamura’s Japa Dog is the biggest innovation to Canadian street meat in years

NANCY MACDONALD August 6 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Extra wasabi, hold the seaweed

Noriki Tamura’s Japa Dog is the biggest innovation to Canadian street meat in years

NANCY MACDONALD August 6 2007

Extra wasabi, hold the seaweed

taste

Noriki Tamura’s Japa Dog is the biggest innovation to Canadian street meat in years

NANCY MACDONALD

A sprinkling of julienned, paper-thin seaweed shavings, a generous splash of teriyaki sauce, and thick Japanese mayo garnish the $4-25 all-beef hot dog that’s drawing rave reviews from a hungry horde of Vancouverites on lunch. They are swarming a sidewalk hot dog stand called Japa Dog, perched at the intersection of Burrard and Smithe streets, in Vancouver’s downtown core.

Behind the spitting grill, Noriki Tamura keeps up with the crowd, dressing still-sizzling turkey dogs with pale brown miso mayonnaise, sesame sauce and a layer of crispy green radish sprouts. Through the smoke he looks like a natural. But just two years ago Tamura was a Tokyo ad salesman. Before leaving Japan he’d never even seen a hot dog vendor. But in 2005, he and his wife, Misa, both 32, decamped for B.C. with dreams of opening their own food business. Tamura had always liked to cook, and his ad clients had included successful restaurant franchises. They decided to start with street eats.

Six months later Tamura, who grew up on the island of Honshu, won his spot on the city’s sidewalks. The City of Vancouver has 120 spots for sidewalk food vending. Last year there were seven open ones. When there’s more than one application for a site, the winner is decided by lottery. Tamura hoped to set up a crepe stand, but was foiled by a civic bylaw limiting him to a beggarly list of soft drinks, ice cream and pre-cooked hot dogs.

Before opening shop, Tamura spent three months apprenticing at a traditional hot dog cart at Burrard and Robson, opposite the downtown HMV. There, he realized he needed a trademark to set him apart from the city’s 100-odd sausage sellers. So he spent his spare

time cooking up Japanized hot dogs—and testing the results on a small but enthusiastic group of friends.

His $5 Oroshi packs a motley punch. The bratwurst frank is loaded with an inch-thick layer of finely shaved daikon radish and green onions, topped with wasabi and soy sauce. As the grilled German sausage burns a trail down the gullet, the wasabi delivers its unmistakable kick to the nose. Hands down, Japa Dog marks the single biggest innovation to hit city street meat since Vancouver vendors started hawking the Yves Famous Veggie Dog a decade ago.

But to the worldly palate of a dyed-in-thewool Vancouverite, Japa Dog is hardly far out. “Why use ketchup when you can use wasabi mayo?” shrugs 19-year-old Kate Fisher, as she tucks into the black nori-topped Terimayo, Tamura’s runaway bestseller. Fisher, a student at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, was raised in Victoria and Vancouver. She grew up on seaweed, soy snacks and sushi, and is a Japa Dog regular.

The Terimayo she’s nibbling on is just another iteration of the crazy range of “merged cuisine” now mainstream across urban B.C. The East-meets-West culinary crossover known as pan-Asian cooking arrived in Vancouver in the rarefied kitchens of local pioneers like Lumière chef/owner Rob Feenie a decade or

so ago; today, it’s so ubiquitous there is no need to label or identify it, says chef Karen Barnaby of the Fish House in Stanley Park.

Vancouver’s “merged cuisine” is a more seamless union of Asian and European than earlier fusion, says Jamie Maw, food editor for Vancouver Magazine. Maw says this level of maturity—which took root in the past three to four years—is unique to the Pacific coastal region. Sure, sushi’s become generic takeout in most Canadian cities. But in Vancouver, it even subs for pre-packaged roast beef sandwiches at the gas station. It’s not uncommon to spot Asian influences on the menus of the most white-bread local-franchise family restaurants: from salted edamame starters and sashimi to ponzu sauces and chutney.

And this type of cultural borrowing is no longer just a one-way street. Consider the crossover fare coming out of the city’s rapidly multiplying izakayas, cheap and cheekyjapanese-style pubs, where young Vancouverites nosh the night away at Japanese low-slung tables, or more conventional Western ones. Vancouver’s izakaya scene is one of the biggest outside Japan. Shiru-Bay Chopstick Café and the new Hapa Izakaya franchise in Kitsilano effortlessly blend Western foods like bacon, maple syrup, fried brie, whipped pumpkin croquettes and garlic bread with modern Asian bar food, meant to be shared among the table. Across town, at Gastown’s shouting-loud Kitanoya Guu with Okotomae, they’re even dishing up Japanese paella. M