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Gastown – A Treat for the Palate

A walk through the streets of Vancouver soon reveals the obvious: food is celebrated in this West Coast metropolis. With restaurants springing up like mushrooms, the spectrum on offer can seem overwhelmingly large. Carlos Gomes and his Vancouver Food Tours provide assistance by taking his guests on a culinary journey of discovery.

Is it the next hip café or a low-quality shack that serves ready meals? Such crucial facts are not always apparent when entering a restaurant – even less so in a foreign city. The risk: bad food leaves a bad taste that can often tarnish an entire trip. Fortunately, Carlos Gomes and his partner Melody Fury are tackling this dilemma with their Vancouver Food Tour, founded in 2010. And since then, their highly popular tours have won a string of awards. They regularly get excellent press reviews, and their satisfied guests speak for themselves. Growth of their business has been fast-paced and currently encompasses seven different tours in and around Vancouver – proof of the ongoing huge demand. The classic tour takes guests through Vancouver’s hip district: the Gastown Tasting Tour is a visitor favourite.

Photos: Christine McAvoy Photography / Vancouver Food Tour / Billy Woods Photography

Love for food

“Eating is about passion,” says Carlos and he really means it. “Every detail, including the odours, the hues of the ingredients and the way in which a menu is presented, can make a big difference. So much plays a part.” His fifteen-year experience working in Vancouver’s finest restaurants is plainly evident. Carlos is an educated wine expert and also loves to cook at home. Rather than take his guests to chain restaurants or inferior tourist traps, he wants them to experience something new. When choosing the restaurants for his food tours, he pays attention to sustainability and favours venues with seasonal dishes on their menu. Ideally, the ingredients come from local farmers or the weekly market. Another essential point: “Almost all of the restaurant owners we visit on our tours have become good friends. This is how we also make sure our guests are treated like friends and afforded the best service.” In addition to the restaurant owners, all of the tour guides are culinary professionals, – each in a specific field, be it a craft beer expert, an importer of new food trends or a chef in an own little restaurant. But that does not mean tour guests need any pre-knowledge. “Everyone is welcome. Wine lovers, food and cultural enthusiasts, singles, couples, passionate travellers or weekend tourists.” Just families with children in tow are advised to clarify in advance, by phone or email, which options are available.

Beer and Brussels sprouts

“We begin our tour at one of Gastown’s many stylish brew pubs,” Carlos explains. He is referring to the small bars that brew their own beer. Vancouver is considered one of the strongholds of craft beer. In recent years, new, private breweries have sprung up everywhere. Their growing popularity is forcing out the previously widely consumed beer of the big players. “We focus on three variations of beer, to showcase the different West Coast flavours.” A lager, a red ale and a local beer with a bitter flare will always be included. It is never a random choice because, for Carlos, “food pairing” is more important than the beer itself. He matches each individual beer with a suitable dish. “I want our guests to understand that beer is perfect for drinking with a meal. It is a special alternative to wine.” And what goes well with red ale? “Roasted Brussels sprouts, for instance – the two complement each other incredibly well.” Listening to Carlos as he talks with such gripping passion and unique conviction makes even Brussels sprouts sound enticing. Clearly, a key success factor of Vancouver Food Tour are the guides themselves.

Local and delicious

The next stop on the Gastown Tasting Tour is a cocktail bar. Which one depends on the current trend, although they all share something in common: commercial cocktails like “Sex on the Beach” are absent. Instead, a professional barkeeper mixes variations that perfectly accentuate the taste of the canapés served with the cocktails. It is all about the art of balancing the components, the art of enjoyment.

The third stop on the tour is tucked away in a cobbled back alleyway, perfectly shielded from other tourists – a highly unexpected location for a fine-food hotspot. This hidden gem goes by the name of Salt Tasting Room and is a dream-come-true for cheese and meat lovers. Rather than entire dishes, the ever-changing menu features a wonderful choice of cured meats and artisan cheese from selected manufacturers that can be combined with spices, honey, olives and much more. These delicacies are served with a “wine flight”, which is a choice of three wines optimally selected to match the food. Carlos has been coming here ever since he started his Vancouver Food Tour enterprise in 2010. For more than twenty years, products for the Salt Tasting Room have been sourced from local farms, and the concept has proved hugely successful. “I love the idea behind it. On our tours, I don’t want to show my guests wines they can purchase in any old supermarket. This place has many wines from British Columbia that you can only get in the region.”

The last stop on the tour presents a slight departure from Carlos’ concept of prioritising Vancouver and involves a small excursion to the Caribbean: the Calabash Bistro serves Caribbean specialities paired with cocktails. A unique interplay of spices and flavours that cannot do without some strong rum. Carlos’ example: “The barkeeper is shaking up a ‘Dark and Stormy’ that is definitely worth experiencing. It is basically just rum with flavoured beer. Sounds odd, but tastes fantastic with some hearty Caribbean food!”

Gourmets-turned-friends

Culture and storytelling about the neighbourhood are part and parcel on Carlos‘ tours. Featuring anecdotes about restaurant proprietors and kitchen chefs, the tour is more than just good food – which in itself wouldn’t be bad. There is plenty of laughter and chin-wagging. And by the end of it, all of the participants have become good friends. Admittedly, a slight tipsiness (or more, depending on one’s drinking capacity) may have done its bit to favour this circumstance. But, having said that, evenings which one cannot recall in precise detail are often the most fun!

A Delightfully Different Food Tour:

Besides the Gastown Tasting Tour, Carlos and his team offer other guided tours through Vancouver’s broad culinary offering. For those who have sampled their way through Gastown or feel like trying something really special, Carlos warmly recommends the following tours:

Craft Beer ’n Bites Tour: “The Craft Beer ’n Bites Tour is particularly dear to me and a favourite of many of our guests. Most of them find it hard to believe how good a lager beer tastes in combination with mac ‘n cheese with lobster, for instance. A real taste explosion! And I love to watch our visitors as they experience this for the first time and are totally surprised. We also take a look at the history of craft beer and how it is produced – that is culture in Vancouver!”

Modern Chinatown Tasting Tour: “Chinatown has developed considerably and has much more to offer than fried rice and dumplings. We visit new restaurants that combine Asian food with completely different influences –Italian, for instance– or that add a modern touch to traditional Asian cuisine. Many of the new spots are located in historic buildings which is really exciting and adds an historical aspect to the tour.”

Urban Foodie Experience: “This is the perfect tour for anyone in search of the latest craft beer, an extraordinary wine or a small distillery. Rather than visit small pubs, we go straight to the source. A wine cellar in the heart of Vancouver, a stop in the city’s saké scene. Small snacks are paired perfectly with the respective drinks.”

Text: Malin Mueller