No tip restos

Earlier this month, a restaurant that will be opening in British Columbia gained a lot of media attention by having no tips, offset by increased menu prices and wages for the staff. Servers and cooks will receive more comparable wages instead of the former getting much more due to tips, and for those restaurants who practice tip-pooling, the amount of money each staff member will make becomes much more transparent.

I remember my time living in Japan and how easy it was to become accustomed to not leaving a tip at a restaurant. The general expectation is courteous service and that is how you keep bringing customers into your restaurant, instead of what, to me, feels like an obligation here to leave at least a 10% tip, even for less than courteous service.

A tip is like a little extra thank you to acknowledge above-and-beyond service (or with today’s lowered expectations, just GOOD service). It shouldn’t be expected by anyone. And it certainly shouldn’t become a post-dinner hassle; have you ever had a server tell you that you should be tipping more!? Ridiculous.

I hope that this no-tip restaurant concept catches on in Canada as it has started to do in the United States. I wouldn’t want restaurant fare to become out of the reach, price-wise, for people as we essentially subsidize the restaurant in lieu of tips but at least you are fully aware, walking into a place (or browsing the menu online), of what you will be paying. And if the service is less than par, you can write a restaurant review on sites like yelp or urbanspoon and vow never to return, but you won’t feel obligated to leave a tip. And a clearer, perhaps more egalitarian wage structure for restaurant staff couldn’t hurt.

New-ish ramen shop in Vancouver

I didn’t try any food trucks this last trip to Vancouver but I did chance upon a new ramen shop in the West End, Marutama Ramen (780 Bidwell Street). It’s a decent-sized space just off Robson Street, one block east of Denman Street where the popular Kintaro Ramen and Motomachi Shokudo are located.

Storefront of Marutama Ramen in the West End of Vancouver
Storefront of Marutama Ramen in the West End of Vancouver

This place uses a chicken broth, which they offer mild or spicy, and thinner ramen noodles, which can be cooked soft, regular, or al dente. Flipping to the backside of their menu, I noticed that this is actually a chain restaurant with other shops in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

While you wait for your bowl of ramen, you can sip cold mugi-cha, which is a barley wheat tea commonly had in Japan, a nice touch on a hot summer day and an alternative to cold water. The service was attentive (my tea cup was quickly filled each time I emptied it…which was quite often) and friendly, all of the servers and cooks are Japanese, and the ramen was delicious. You can get a tamago ramen as well, which includes a marinated soft-boiled egg (heard that it was very tasty!).

Marutama Original Ramen $9.25
Marutama Original Ramen $9.25

I’d definitely recommend trying this place out. Good ambiance, a nice-looking space, and options to eat at the bar (best place to be in a ramen shop, in my opinion) or at tables.

Marutama Ramen on Urbanspoon

Luxury of morning hikes

It is such a luxury to – instead of sitting at a computer in an office cubicle – be able to go for light hikes in the morning through beautiful forest of coniferous trees and rivers. Hearing birds talking. Feeling the dirt trail beneath your feet. Smelling the fruity air, thanks to the ripening berries on the bushes.

Ah the beauty of a vacation in beautiful British Columbia!

You may have heard of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is a very popular (paid) tourist attraction in North Vancouver. However, there is a little gem in the Lynn Valley neighbourhood of North Vancouver called the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge. It isn’t as long as the Capilano bridge but it feels less touristy, is still quite impressive and well-maintained, has a good network of trails surrounding it, and is free!

Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge
Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge
Ready to cross the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge? Watch out - it sways!
Ready to cross the Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge? Watch out – it sways!
Beautifully clear water
Beautifully clear water
Such serenity, listening to the water pass by and wind through the trees!
Such serenity, listening to the water pass by and wind through the trees!

Just north of the Capilano Suspension Bridge is Cleveland Dam and the salmon hatchery. The Capilano Pacific Trail is one of the major trails linking all 3 places; you can actually walk all the way from Ambleside Park (by Lions Gate Bridge) in West Vancouver via this trail all the way north to Cleveland Dam near the base of Grouse Mountain.

A view of Capilano Lake, from the dam
A view of Capilano Lake, from the dam
The Capilano Dam
The Capilano Dam

If you walk on the east side of the Capilano River, either down from the Capilano Dam or up from the Capilano Suspension Bridge, you can visit the Salmon Hatchery. I remember going here on school field trips to learn about the lifecycle of fish and it’s still well-maintained years later.

The Hatchery
The Hatchery
Baby fish at the hatchery
Baby fish at the hatchery
Another view of the hatchery and surrounding beauty
Another view of the hatchery and surrounding beauty
Another view of the hatchery
Another view of the hatchery

Public Transportation Planning here or there

Once a Vancouverite, always a Vancouverite, right? I like keeping up with city planning in metro Vancouver and really enjoy browsing through the blog, Price Tags. He recently wrote a post on a new SkyTrain platform that Vancouver will have to alleviate the congestion at Broadway-Commercial during rush hour (and it really is crazy busy with loads and loads of people at peak times); he mentions that this new platform will require partial demolition of the Safeway grocery store that is adjacent to the current station and then brings up the grand hub-bub that happened in Vancouver back before the World Expo 1986 came to Vancouver, when they were discussing building the SkyTrain.

This reminded me of the grand hub-bub that is happening right now about Ottawa’s proposed light rail train system (which is severely overdue in this city, in my personal opinion). 20+ years since Expo ’86, Vancouver is doing really well with a growing and strengthening public transportation system. It’s getting more and more convenient for more and more people living in and around Vancouver city proper to take the bus, SkyTrain, or Seabus to get around. Ottawa is moving in the right direction to have faster, more efficient public transportation east-west and hopefully eventually north-south. I’m sure if the best route for the LRT is chosen, Ottawa will also look back 20 years from now and know that it made a good decision.

Neat Business Idea for Urban Farming

I recently came across the Vancouver Urban Farming Society, which officially formed in April 2012 to unite people and organizations in BC who have an interest in urban farming. The website showcases urban farms in BC with short descriptions of each as well as photos.

Through their website, I found a small business in Vancouver called Inner City Farms that uses residential spaces to grow a wide variety of veggies with a focus on heirloom and open-pollinated veggies (organic practices). They sell their harvest primarily through the CSA model and their website explains that part of the share price goes toward supporting food security initiatives; it’s a good idea, making a contribution towards addressing the socioeconomic barriers around access to fresh, local foods and the point that the CSA model is catered towards the middle class.

The site also provides an index of veggies that they produce, which is great for folks switching from supermarkets to a CSA share as they may not recognize some of the veggies that appear week-to-week in their box. Their website is informative but their blog is great as it includes not only photos of the content of each CSA box but also a melange of posts on local events, recipes, and updates on the food security initiatives they support.

As a side note, I learned that the spiky green cauliflower-variant that I’ve seen in my CSA box is called a Romanesco broccoli or cauliflower; if I had seen it at the market, I probably never would’ve picked it up to try but because it came in my box, I gave it a whirl and I absolutely love it! Think broccoli but crunchier (super crunchy even after cooking)!

Anyways, I thought that Inner City Farms is an interesting option to complement community gardening networks, which work with private landowners to provide access to those who want a community garden plot.  A neat business idea for urban farmers.

Ride along on VIA Rail’s The Canadian: Vancouver to Winnipeg

Taking the train across Canada has been one of those “things I’ve always wanted to do” for many many years. As always, I pushed it off because of the perceived cost and the time required to actually do it.

  • I thought that it would be cost-prohibitive (ie. thousands of dollars). I bought my ticket during VIA Rail’s 50% off sale (subscribe to their mailing list for advance notice of these fabulous sales) and it ended up costing about $800 for the leg between Vancouver to Ottawa (with one stopover in Winnipeg).
  • I thought that it would take too much time. Flying between Vancouver and Ottawa takes between four to six hours direct. It takes the train about 4 days.

Although I’ve driven through the Rockies numerous times, the view through the Rockies is supposed to be even more breathtaking by train since it goes through places that you would never be able to access by car. I also wanted to see the Prairies (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and figured, sitting on a train watching the Prairies go by must be much more interesting than having to pay attention to the road as you drive across. Rural Ontario is supposed to be beautiful as well as you traverse the Canadian Shield. And isn’t the notion of rail travel romantic? The beautiful train stations, the slowness of the train (compared to flying).

In my opinion, Pacific Central station in Vancouver is the most beautiful of all of the train stations that I saw…and I saw Vancouver, Jasper, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto.

Pacific Central station in Vancouver

Leaving Vancouver, we passed over the Fraser River on the New Westminster Bridge, right beside the Pattullo Bridge, which connects New Westminster to Surrey.

New Westminster Bridge for trains and the Pattullo Bridge for vehicles

Then we were on our way towards Jasper. We left Vancouver on a cloudy evening and awoke the next day to an even more gray day. Breakfast is generally served from 6:30am to 8:30am, which I thought was ridiculously early…until I found myself being roused awake by early birds at 6am. The menu typically has four options for your main course, along with coffee, tea, juice, or milk. For lunch and dinner, there is an appetizer and a dessert as well. The portion size is generous enough for a crowd who sits all day and sleeps the rest of the time.

First breakfast on the train: French toast with cheesecake filling topped with a mixed berry compote and whipped cream

As we travelled closer towards the Rockies, the weather became more gray and it started to pour. Good thing we were inside! Unfortunately, the majestic mountains were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a common comment from fellow travellers was “My camera keeps focussing on the raindrops [on the windows]”. I felt consoled that at least I had seen the beauty of the Rockies before, but I felt sad for the passengers who had never seen them before (and didn’t get to see them on this trip either).

Things we pass by on the tracks
One of many lakes; the polarizer on my lens had a funky effect on the water (I suspect the glass on the train also had a polarizing film treatment).
Where the cars travel
Just passing through this small town
A view of raindrops with Pyramid Falls in the background!

And then it was lunch time! (Seriously, all you do on the train is sleep, sit, and eat. I joked with someone that this must be what it’s like in the womb, complete with rocking motions thanks to the train)

Lunch appetizer: Chicken soup with wild rice
Lunch: Shrimp and scallops on a bed of mixed greens with saskatoon berry sauce on the side
Lunch dessert: Option of a chocolate cake or vanilla ice cream

After lunch, we went back to the Panorama Car to watch the scenery again. (tough life eh?)

Pretty foreground thanks to the pink flowers
Still a lot of clouds covering the higher mountains
So where are the mountains??

We saw a lot of rain, clouds, trees, and the bottom halves of mountains but didn’t get to see the true beauty of the Rockies that you would see on a sunny day. Others who had either taken this train previously or who spent a lot of time in the area commented that there was a complete lack of wildlife sightings this trip. No bears, no moose, no caribou, few bald eagles, no beavers. The stop in Jasper was shorter than planned (about an hour) and it was pouring rain. Would some dinner cheer you up?

Dinner: Vegetarian chili with roasted zucchini and carrots (first time having chili on a plate instead of in a bowl)
And as evening came, there was a glimpse of the clouds parting!

As dinner is being served, the sleeping car attendants whisk through the sleeper cars and make all of the beds. It’s really quite amazing, they’re very efficient and methodical, and they have to change the sheets every single day (it’s a rule, apparently). The next morning, it was super sunny as we rolled through eastern Alberta and into Saskatchewan. A “problem” with being on this train is not having any idea where the heck you are! I actually thought that we were getting close to Saskatoon (where we would’ve been if we were on schedule) but after asking around, I learned that we had been at least an hour delayed leaving Edmonton (at 2 in the morning!) and had been sitting on the tracks somewhere else for a long time…and needless to say, we were still in Alberta somewhere, hours delayed. But no fret, the scenery was beautiful.

Another small town that we passed through
Look at that breathtaking scenery!
Continental breakfast with hash browns, sausages, toast, and fruit. The meal also includes eggs but I requested to have the meal sans-eggs. Complimentary mimosas this morning.
We saw hay bales and animals
Saskatoon station
Dinner: Stuffed pasta with a marinara sauce
Dessert after dinner: Small slice each of strawberry cheesecake and chocolate cake.

As we were travelling through Saskatchewan and into Manitoba, it started to pour like crazy! In the dome car, you could hardly see in front of you. BUT when the sun peeked through the clouds for a bit, we were treated to a double rainbow! And because the land is so flat, you could see the entire arc of the rainbow!

A double rainbow

Seven hours delayed, we arrived into Winnipeg in the middle of the night.

 

Bike lane experimentation in Vancouver

This is a video on the segregated bike lane that was installed on Dunsmuir Street in downtown Vancouver. They’re trying a few different options for vehicle/bicycle barriers and they’ve also had to integrate the bus system/bus stops into the design.

Compare to Ottawa’s video on their new segregated bike lane on Laurier Avenue West in downtown, which opened in July 2011 as part of a two-year pilot project. Apparently this is the first set of segregated bike lanes in the province! How unbelievable is that!?

The bike lane in Ottawa has been somewhat controversial as everyone adjusts to the changes; importantly, the design has been tweaked over time to accommodate neighbourhood needs. Vancouver has done a great job with creating bike lanes all over the city (and to municipalities beyond), making cycling a more accessible mode of transportation. Ottawa has bike lanes that start and end out of nowhere but the infrastructure is slowly improving.

Ride along on VIA Rail’s The Canadian: The Train

The Canadian is supposed to provide the most beautiful rail travel views in Canada and arguably, one of the more scenic routes around the world although I bet there are many comparably beautiful routes. Operated by the Crown Corporation, VIA Rail, this train travels through the Canadian Rocky Mountains with termini in Vancouver and Toronto. Major stops of interest along the way include Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg. If you travel end to end, you would spend well over four days on the train. That is, assuming that the train runs on schedule. More on that later.

At its peak, I hear that the train can be as long as 33 cars! This includes a steam engine, some Economy class cars, dining cars, many more sleeper cars, and viewing cars (to watch the scenery pass, in comfort). The cheapest option of travel is Economy class, where you essentially get a seat but you have no access to the remainder of the cars. The other travel options all fall within the Sleeper Plus class; the cheapest option becomes the upper berth (think the upper bunk of a bunk bed).

More expensive are the lower berth, cabins for 1/2/3, and family suites. Once you are in the Sleeper Plus class, you have access to all of the cars, including the Panorama car. This special car is glass-enclosed and the seating is very comfortable, making it my favourite spot on the train to hang out in. Unfortunately, the Panorama car is only available between Vancouver and Edmonton…what does this mean? Well, during that stretch through the Rockies, the Panorama car is situated almost as the middle car of the entire train…then in Edmonton, it gets removed (so obviously if you were going from Toronto to Vancouver, the Panorama car would get added to the train in Edmonton). I was asleep when this happened in Edmonton and I have no idea how this actually gets done.

Panorama car

When you travel with VIA, you can include one stopover in your itinerary without additional charge. I chose to take a break on my Canadian rail journey by stopping at the half-way point (between Vancouver and Ottawa) in Winnipeg. When booking my train tickets, I realized that I had to spend either 2, 5, or 7 days in Winnipeg based on the (in)frequency  of The Canadian. Not bad, as I soon learned that there is actually tons to see and do in Winnipeg, especially during the summer. Yes, I am guilty of stereotyping the entire Prairies as “boring” without having visited any part of it before.

I mentioned train schedules earlier. The portion between Vancouver and Winnipeg takes about 48 hours. You can imagine that the train is slower going up the Rockies and is faster going across the flat Prairies. However, another huge factor that affects the train schedule is the railroad itself. The Canadian National Railway, or CN, owns and operates the railroad that VIA Rail uses. CN runs freight across the country and freight equals money; each minute that freight is just sitting on the tracks is costing somebody somewhere some money. Therefore, the freight trains get priority use of the railroad. I’ve learned that it isn’t unusual for The Canadian to be delayed, although I also hear that it’s possible for it to be early to its final destination. My arrival into Winnipeg ended up being 7 hours delayed (rumour has it the worst delay was 24 hours) due to a combination of waiting for freight trains to pass and a signal failure. That is to say, never assume that the train schedule is accurate!

Back to the train itself….

Sleeper cars plus a dome car (see the last car of the train)

There were three dome cars on the train that I was on: one at the end plus one beside each dining car. The bottom level of the dome car is a lounge area while the upper level is the scenic dome. You get a great view of the entire train from the dome!

Example of the lower level of a dome car
Upper level of the dome car

The dining car is very well tended to by the dining car attendants. White table cloths, real utensils, space to move around, and a great view. Remember when plane travel used to be this nice? To be efficient, the dining car has community seating, which means that unless you come as a party of four to every meal, you will be seated with fellow passengers. It’s a great way to meet people and hear their stories…and in the worst case, it’s an awkward hour you spend with a few other people. I should stress that when it comes to attitudes, travelling by train feels completely different from travelling by air; everybody on the train is super friendly and attentive while people on planes generally seem to be grumpy, unhappy to be there, and uncomfortable. It probably helps that there is no WiFi on the train (only available inside major train stations) and most people lose phone signal for a decent chunk of the ride. Yes, remember those good ol’ days when you didn’t have mobile devices to keep your attention and you had meaningful conversations with strangers, played games, read books, or just watched the scenery go by?

A view into the dining car

Each of the sleeper cars are laid out fairly similarly. There are a few berths, spacious bathrooms, a shower (which surpassed my expectations), and cabins (private rooms). Surprisingly, the washrooms on board do not smell at all! I have no idea how they achieve this but I found it to be quite remarkable. There is also a tap in each car that supplies cold potable water. Bring your reusable water bottle!

Row of cabins in a sleeper car (and yes, the hallway is narrow)
View of the nighttime set-up of the berth, plus the adjacent washroom

And that, my friends, was my home for almost 5 days.

Where is the street food in Seattle and Vancouver?

San Francisco had Off the Grid, an organized schedule of food truck gatherings around the city, and a permanent food truck parking lot, open for lunch and dinner. Portland had food trucks organized into permanent pods, or groups of food trucks. Seattle and Vancouver…food trucks continue to be sprinkled here and there, and haven’t quite been domesticated to hang out together.

If you’re trying to locate the nearest food truck to you in Seattle, try the Seattle Food Truck website or Roaming Hunger. As a tourist without a car and wanting to stay as close to the free transit zone as possible (includes only the downtown core; free zone to be eliminated this fall 2012), the number of accessible food trucks was minimal. We did try two that were a few blocks from Pike Place.

Maximus/Minimus
Downtown, 2nd at Pike Street (@somepigsseattle)

Seeing that the whole food truck is shaped like a cool-looking pig, you might guess that their specialty is pork. Pulled pork to be exact. We happened to visit the truck on Taco Tuesday, so we had 3 tacos for $6: pulled pork, grilled chicken, and black bean & sweet potato. Each taco was topped with some cole slaw. It was all very delicious!

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Dog Japon
Downtown, 2nd at Pike Street

If you’ve ever tried JapaDog in Vancouver, serving beef wieners topped with Japanese-influenced ingredients, this must be the Seattle rival. We tried the Sukiyaki dog for about $5.50 (I write ‘about’ because I forgot to record the exact price paid for this food truck). It was tasty, particularly because the salty beef weiner just hit that magical spot for me that day, but I prefer JapaDog overall.

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If you’re trying to locate food trucks in Vancouver, definitely check the Street Food App website to see all of the food trucks open that day plus their open times and locations.

Feastro
@coastfeastro

Its tag line is ‘the rolling bistro’ and it specializes in soft tacos with mostly seafood influences. We tried the fish taco for $8 and my friend had their watermelon mint lemonade for $4. The lemonade was beautifully refreshing on a hot summer afternoon. The fish was cooked well and sat atop a bed of veggies. It’s near impossible to roll this baby up like you would with a standard taco, so to share, we cut it in half and messily ate our half portions hovering over the sidewalk.

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Roaming Dragon
@DragonTruck

This food truck seems to have a name for itself. Whenever I asked friends to recommend food trucks, this was one that kept being mentioned. The truck serves Asian-influenced cuisine. We tried the fried rice balls for $4 and the Bulgogi Gordita for $6. After looking up what a Gordita is, I’m not sure how what I ate is a Gordita…but oh well. Both of the items were interesting, something a little unexpected about both. I’m not sure I’d get either again but it was definitely worth the try.

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Tacofino
@TacoFinoCantina

Started in Tofino on the island a few years ago, this truck seems to have made its mark on the Vancouver food truck scene. Although I was too full to try their fish tacos, I had to try their chocolate diablo cookie after hearing about it on the Food Network’s Eat St. show and on a blog somewhere (whilst researching the best trucks to try in Vancouver). The cookie had ginger, chili, chocolate chunks, and salt. All in a chocolate batter. And yes, it was scrumptious. I wish I had access to these cookies whenever I want! A cookie was $2.50 and the portion was more than generous. Definitely recommend this cookie!

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Meat + Bread
1033 Pender Street between Burrard and Thurlow (or 370 Cambie Street at W Hastings)

Okay, small disclaimer here…I’m going to tag on a place that we went to because we couldn’t find any food trucks that we wanted to try (there were a few taco stands around and we weren’t in the mood for tacos) but that was pretty darn amazing.

Meat + Bread has two locations in downtown Vancouver and they’re both super popular. We picked up lunch at around 11:30am and while we ate our sandwiches in a little plaza beside the restaurant on Pender Street, we noticed that a steady line ran out the door between noon and about 1:30pm. The number of menu options can be counted on one hand, but from the feel of the place, I felt like they throw all of their love into making the few options they offer.

I had their signature sandwich, pork porchetta with salsa verde, served in their delicious baguette for $8. The pork was mouth-watering delicious…apparently it’s quite possible for one to drool whilst eating food because said food is just so darn good. The pork has crispy skin and some fatty bits…needless to say, a sandwich not meant for vegetarians (though I recall a vegetarian option being on the menu). We also tried their daily special sandwich, which was a jerk chicken with pineapple jalapeño salsa, also for $8. Although this sandwich was tasty and had more veggies than the pork porchetta, consensus between the two of us was that the pork porchetta wins hands down.

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