Japa Dog- Vancouver, BC Canada

“Travel north.  It will bring you good luck,” my feng-shui studying friend told me one day.  And with that, my trip to Vancouver, Canada was planned on a whim.  Despite having traveled all over the world from Sierra Leone to Laos, and Cuba to the Canary Islands, I had never set foot in Canada.  I suppose it’s the comfort of knowing that I could go any day, given the proximity to the US- the same excuse of ‘local laziness syndrome’ that applies to trips within the US that I haven’t been able to materialize yet.  With the excitement of the Winter Olympics this year, it seemed only natural to travel way north past Napa, Portland and Seattle up to Vancouver to seek good luck, good fortune and of course good food.  Once my plane ticket and accomodations were secured I started researching Vancouver restaurants online, and was quite surprised to find the most buzz not in a 5 star hotel restaurant or in a harbor-view seafood dining establishment, but in a street food cart called Japa Dog.

Japa Dog, a street vendor specializing in hot dogs reinterpreted with Japanese flavors, was started by Noriki Tamura who moved to Vancouver in 2005.  Combining traditional comfort food with haute ingredients and giving it a fresh new twist seems to be the trend these days- maple bacon cupcakes, squash blossom & burratta pizza, kimchi kalbi tacos and black truffle & foie gras burgers.  Who isn’t reinventing our beloved staples?  Spruced up hot dogs aren’t a new concept either.  Hot Doug’s in Chicago is probably the first place that comes to mind for their innovative ingredients and flavor combinations.  Their signature foie gras dog had to be removed from the menu for obvious reasons, but they’re still an epic establishment.   Los Angeles has its share of gourmet wiener joints too.  Let’s Be Frank tops their grass-fed beef dogs with a marvelous Indian pickled pepper relish, Downtown Dogs serves a beef dog with avocado, arugula, basil aioli, tomatoes and fried onions,  Dogzilla demonstrates Japanese flair with their yakisoba and furikake dogs, and Wurstküche offers exotic dogs such as buffalo, alligator, duck, and my favorite rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño .

Japa Dog has several locations, and I was happy to discover that there was one practically outside of my hotel lobby on the corner of Burrard and Smithe.  The Burrard strip, lined with boutiques, hotels, tall office buildings, restaurants and the occasional historical church has an energetic Manhattan vibe.  Buses and yellow taxis whiz through the city grid as pedestrians with the haste and determination of a New Yorker scurry by.  It’s the perfect backdrop for a hot dog stand, only this one has happy and energetic Japanese staff in bright orange uniform ready to shower you with plenty of pep.  It was after the lunch rush on a weekday, but there was still a long line of tourists and locals waiting for their Japanese dogs.  I can’t imagine the craziness that these street corners experienced during the Olympics- news reports say that Japa Dog was one of the most popular pit stops for international visitors who waited for up to an hour in the winter chill for their hot dogs.

Japa Dog offers standard dogs such as all-beef, Kobe beef , turkey, kurobuta pork, jalapeño & cheese, bratwurst and veggie, but these are not what attract the masses. It’s the unique themed dogs, dressed up with classic Japanese ingredients like daikon radish and dried seaweed, that diners adore.  In true Japanese spirit, Japa Dog carts even sell dagashi, old-fashioned snacks and candies that evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for people like myself who grew up in Japan.

The Japa Dog staff recommended the Terimayo dog, the most popular selling item.  An all-beef dog tucked in a soft steamed sesame bun with teriyaki sauce, drizzles of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, fried onion and dried nori.  Japa Dog’s slit sausages are first boiled then lightly grilled to order, giving them a nice snappy crunch with a juicy moist interior.  Due to the immense popularity of the Terimayo concept, all of their other dogs can be made Terimayo style.

My favorite was hands down the Oroshi dog, a bratwurst topped with generous heaps of tangy grated daikon radish, special soy sauce and chopped green onions.  The light flavor of the bratwurst with the refreshing bitterness of the oroshi daikon was amazing.  Oroshi daikon is a staple in Japanese cuisine, adding texture and flavor to grilled fish, shabu-shabu, tofu and minced meat patties, but who knew that it could liven up a hot dog so perfectly?

With room only for one more dog, I skipped the Okonomi dog made with kurobuta pork sausage, okonomi-yaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, fried cabbage and shaved bonito flakes, and instead went for the Ume dog.  The light flavors of the oroshi dog made me want something even more refreshing.  Ume is short for umeboshi, salty and sour pickled plums, and it was used to garnish a bratwurst with thinly shaved onions.  I was hoping for a prominent ume flavor, one so strong and sour that it would make me pucker my lips and squeeze my eyes shut, but it was rather mild, possibly tempered for non-Japanese palates.

Other unique wieners at Japa Dog include the Edamame dog, a bratwurst impregnanted with whole green edamame beans, and a Kurogoma kimchi dog made with a turkey smokie with toppings of black sesame and kimchi.  Research revealed a Misomayo dog with Japanese mayonnaise and miso paste, but perhaps it’s been buried in the Japa Dog vault as I didn’t see it at any of the current carts.

Eating a juicy hot dog on the busy street corners of an urban jungle makes for a satisfying meal, but enjoying a delicious gourmet dog with Japanese flavor and flair is a special experience.  Vancouver’s got a good thing going in Japa Dog, which is why the owner has his eye on expanding to the US.  What better place to start than New York, where he plans to open a Japan Dog by the end of the year.  City dwellers will undoubtedly take to these loveable trendy wieners that have already gotten a stamp of approval by Anthony Bourdain in the Vancouver episode of No Reservations.

Japa Dog

available at various street corners in Vancouver, BC Canada

Random trivia: Did you know that the average hot dog is consumed in 6 bites?

“The noblest of all dogs is the hot dog- it feeds the hand that bites it.”  -Lawrence J. Peter

La Guerrerense- Ensenada, Mexico

The last time that I crossed the border down to Baja California was back in 1997 when a group of us piled into a pick up truck with sleeping bags and bathing suits for a week long vacation.  There were 8 of us, adventurous and reckless hippie students, who made the long trek through the chaotic streets of Tijuana, along the beaches of Rosarito, past the town of Ensenada and through the barren Dr. Seuss deserts of Baja Norte until we parked our vehicle at Mulege.  From there, we loaded up sea kayaks with a week’s worth of food and water along with a tortilla press that we borrowed from a local fish taco stand, and paddled off into the Sea of Cortez for an island hopping adventure.  Our daily proteins had to be hunted and scavenged; the men went line and spear fishing while I skin dived with a hunting knife in hand for mussels and clams.  The Sea of Cortez was rich with fresh and tasty offerings, and we ate like kings and queens.  We honored the food that was given to us by the spirits of Baja and we never took more than what was necessary.  We slept on the beach under the shooting stars,  took midnight dips in the warm bioluminescent waters and kayaked in tranquil waters alongside pods of dolphins that numbered in the 300′s.  Baja California is and will always be a special and magical place for me where I felt at one with the energy of the land and the sea.

When my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA invited me to join him for a weekend culinary Baja trip, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  A chance to revisit my long lost love, Baja California?  Tears almost welled up in my eyes as I flashed back to how peaceful and happy I felt on my 2 previous sea kayaking trips to Baja.  But Bill’s itinerary wasn’t bound for the Bay of Concepción- it was for Tijuana and Ensenada.  The crazy city where college kids party at Senor Frog’s?  I cringed for a split second, but by this time I knew Bill well enough to completely trust that he had something special up his sleeves.  With Chef John Rivera Sedlar, food writer Barbara Hansen, and gourmand Brian Saltsburg in tow, we crossed the border down to Mexico for what would end up being an unforgettable weekend.

Bill knows these cities like the back of his hand, and he knows all of the chefs and owners like his family.  One of the most memorable stops that we made was on the street corner of First and Alvarado in Ensenada, a small unassuming food cart under the watchful eye of the majestic flag of Mexico.  At this cebicheria called La Guerrerense, matriarch Sabina Bandera Gonzalez whips out the most mindblowingly scrumptious seafood tostadas to a never ceasing crowd of locals and tourists.

Crunchy tostadas are made with a variety of fresh ocean delights, from fish, shrimp and octopus to clams, abalone and even sea cucumbers.  Due to the ocean-to-cart concept of this wonderful tostada cart which is famed for being Chef Benito Molina’s favorite lunch spot, there may be days when they’re out of certain products.  Much to my dismay they were out of sea cucumbers, pata de mula black clams and abalone which are some of my most favorite foods, but I was quickly distracted with Sabina’s first offering, a rich and flavorful bacalao lincod tostada teeming with earthy chili aromas and a spike of green olive saltiness.

The flat tortillas were light and crunchy, but sturdy enough to withstand falling apart to my big bites, allowing for smooth and mess-less eats.  Within seconds the bacalao tostada was in my happy belly and I contemplated my next move, to which Sabina handed me an erizo sea urchin tostada with a wise and knowing nod.  I quickly pounced on it and was surprised by the first bite.

I was expecting a mild buttery uni but La Guerrerense’s version had an overpowering salty flavor like conserved uni, leaving me a bit confused- only then did I realize that I had pulled a rookie move by biting into this tostada right away before Sabina could finish garnishing it.  I thought she would give me an ‘Ay, hija…’ look, but instead she responded with a loving smile before topping it off with succulent chunks of freshly shucked almejas pismo clams, slices of avocado and a few splashes of hot sauce.  This was when I had an epiphany about life, similar to the one that I had many years ago when I was knee deep in the Sea of Cortez on a deserted island with a net full of fresh mussels, salt crusted hair blowing in the hot wind as I engaged in a distant tête-à-tête with a curious sea lion. The tender and sweet clams engaged in a joyous dance with the brininess of the sea urchin and the silky textures of the buttery avocado, awakening my taste buds to the bountiful harvests of the local waters.

Thick slices of freshly prepared caracoles, sea snails, had a splendid meaty flavor with the texture of steamed abalone.

I couldn’t get enough of the almejas, pismo clams, that came with my sea urchin tostada, and I asked for a whole plate.  Even then, I wanted more of this heavenly clam that tasted even more fresh with a squirt of lime juice, a pinch of sea salt and a tinge of hot sauce.  The flesh had a nice subtle crunch like a geoduck clam, but was tender on the bite like a scallop.

We got to meet Sabina’s daughter Mariana, the master shucker and cocktailer who prepared all of the fresh clams for us.  With the precision, grace and confidence that Mariana worked with, you would think that this was her full time job, but she’s actually a full fledged PhD at UCSD who comes down on the weekends to help with the family business.

Another round of chopped pismo clams came on the shell with a half serving with avocado and salt and the other with lime and hot sauce.  Clams this fresh with the smell of cucumber and lettuce just can’t be found in California, even with expert handling, refrigeration and speedy transportation.  That’s the beauty of La Guerrerense- it’s an exceptional place that offers exclusive delicacies native to the region, and these discerning locals who run it really understand the food.  You will never find this type of seafood stall anywhere else in the world.  This is pura Baja.

We finished off our inspirational meal with a tostada of pate de pescado, smoked tuna fish pate, that paired magnificently with the house made pineapple salsa.

Many Mexican food trucks in Los Angeles will offer a salsa verde and salsa roja in addition to the bottled hot sauce staples like Tapatio and Cholula, but down on the coast of Baja, you’ll find homemade salsas of all colors and types.  Even then, it’ll be hard to top the impressive collection at La Guerrerense where Sabina and Mariana line the counter with endless jars of their original creations.  Each salsa has a unique name like ‘Beso de Angel’, ‘Chilito Exotico’, ‘Pepino Endiablado’ and ‘Chilito la Guerita’ which reflects its concept and flavor.  I was blown away by the ‘Chilito Exotico’, a pineapple based salsa with Japanese takanotsume pico de pajaro chiles.  The earthy and smokey aromas of the ‘Chilitos de Mi Jardin’ made with dried chiles, garlic, almonds and peanuts was too phenomenal for words.  I bought a jar of each of these favorite salsas to take home with me, and I savor every spoonful like liquid gold.

When I found out that Sabina had been operating this street cart in the same location for more than 30 years, I almost fainted- oh, if I only knew about this little treasure on my previous trips to Baja.  How my life would be different now- perhaps for better, perhaps for worse.  Had La Guerrerense been on my radar back then, I may never have made it past the stand to make the virgin passage down to Bahia de Concepción where I bathed my body in the sacred waters of the Sea of Cortez.  I may never have had the opportunity to study and understand the mystical properties of the Baja waters had I not fished its treasures with my bare hands and nourished my body with its salt.  There is a reason for everything that happens, and thankfully I’m now at a place in my life where I can appreciate the true magic of La Guerrerense.  Unfortunately, I’m presently also at a place that’s not close enough to La Guerrerense.

La Guerrerense is open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Tuesdays

La Guerrerense
Corner of 1st and Alvarado
Zona Centro, Ensenada
Baja California, Mexico

If you’re a fan of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, you may have watched the recent Baja episode.  Recognize the guy chomping on the tostada in the photo above?  That’s Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA, my trusted culinary Baja guide who not only guided Andrew Zimmern through the episode, but scouted out and chose the locations for the shoot.  You’ll be seeing posts on my blog about some of the same locations that were on the show.  If you didn’t get a chance to catch the episode last night, you can watch reruns or check out the Bizarre Foods website for more information.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the succulent orange flesh of sea urchins that we enjoy as buttery delicacies are technically the gonads?