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Frugal fusion food rides out the recession

In 2005, Noriki Tamura immigrated to Vancouver with a dream of opening his own restaurant. With very little money, he…

By Katie Hyslop , in Life , on April 11, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

Japadog stand in downtown Vancouver. Courtesy of sashafatcat's photostream.
Japadog stand in downtown Vancouver. Courtesy of sashafatcat

In 2005, Noriki Tamura immigrated to Vancouver with a dream of opening his own restaurant. With very little money, he set up a hotdog cart instead. Today, Japadog — an unlikely combination of hotdogs and sushi — is thriving despite the recession. Tamura will finally open his restaurant this spring.

Tamura’s story is part of Vancouver’s newly emerging inexpensive comfort fusion food industry that is outpacing fine-dining fusion of the past.

“Vancouver, by its multicultural nature and proximity to Asia is set up for fusing cultures and its foods,” says Vancouver Sun restaurant critic Mia Stainsby. “It’s a standout in North America as a melting pot of cuisines.”

With people across the city spending less on food, the upscale fusion market is beginning to retreat. A recent New York Times article shows even the fanciest food publications, like Gourmet and Bon Appétit, are covering recession friendly comfort foods.

Just last week, the critically acclaimed fusion restaurant Gastropod announced its closure in May. The legendary foodie destination is set to reopen as a simpler, cheaper Thai restaurant called Maenam.

“It makes more sense to utilize the current space for the Thai restaurant with more accessible price points, and wait for a more appropriate time to re-launch the fine dining concept,” said Ryan Bazeley, media spokesperson for Gastropod.

“With the current economy, people are still dining out, but looking for places that offer exceptional value.”

Appealing cuisine

If the long lines in front of Japadog stands on Burrard Street are any indication, Vancouverites have a growing appetite for fusion food on the cheap.

“[In] 2005 it was very slow,” said Tamura. But endorsements from Maclean’s, the CBC, and celebrities like Ice Cube and Steven Seagal helped spread the word about Okonomiyaki and Misomayo hotdogs.

Related: The Japadog fusion phenomenon

Japadog’s success could be attributed to Tamura’s experience preparing Japanese food. Stainsby recalls critics berated some fusion restaurants because chefs lack the cultural know-how to produce innovative meals.

“Fusion cuisine, I think, has been tainted by the keeners who didn’t know what they were doing,” she said.

Urbandiner.ca food critic Rick Green dubs these “con-fusion” restaurants, but says Japadog is an example of fusion food that works.

“I think Japadog is a great example of what the Japanese do with items from other cultures — if they like something, they’ll adopt it and then they’ll put a unique Japanese twist to it, or improve it in some manner that has a definite Japanese signature,” he said.

Quirky dishes

The Lion’s Den Café in East Vancouver is another cheap and quirky Japanese fusion restaurant. Owned and operated by Ken Brooks and Junko Tanabe, the Lion’s Den is Vancouver’s only “Japaribbean” restaurant blending Japanese and Caribbean foods.

The Lion's Den Cafe mixes Japanese okonomiyaki and Caribbean jerk chicken
The Lion's Den mixes okonomiyaki with jerk chicken for frugal fusion.

“I find the food blends well together,” said Brooks, who immigrated to Canada from the Bahamas. “If you put jerk chicken into a good okonomiyaki — most people don’t even know what okonomiyaki or jerk chicken is — so to blend the two of those, I think, is a great mix.”

“She and I both love it and we pass it on to the customers,” he added. “And yeah, it’s been a success.”

Unlike Japadog, the Lion’s Den has felt some effects of the recession.

“Anytime of the day you walk in here, the room could be full, [but] that’s not happening a lot like it used to,” Brooks said. “It used to be everyday, now maybe three, sometimes four days a week. Your weekend is guaranteed, but your Monday to Friday, there’s no guarantee.

“It was mostly in December and January, but now we’re making a comeback.”

Brooks credits the restaurant’s strength to its laid-back atmosphere and inexpensive food.

“You don’t have to put on a suit to come here, you don’t have to work a week to bring your family out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner,” he said.

Related: Vancouver’s Japaribbean restaurant

Green says it’s fusion restaurants with attitudes and atmospheres that will survive the recession, instead of suffering the fate of being a flash in the pan trend.

“Ultimately it comes down to the overall dining experience and value that people have,” Green said. “When you find something that is good quality, good value, and you have good service — no matter what it is that you have — you’re going to find a solid clientele for that.”

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