The culture of cheap food in Vancouver
// Claire Vulliamy

One of the many challenges of a busy academic lifestyle is finding the time and money to feed oneself. As life is continuously frittered away on school and work, food tends to fall by the wayside. All things considered, coffee doesn’t count as a meal. On
top of that, in an expensive city like Vancouver, just keeping a roof over one’s head is a top priority.

Eating out is by no means a way to save, but it’s something that most people like to do (go figure). In 2007, the average British Columbian household spent $2,106 dining out, a figure that represents a quarter of all their food expenses for the entire year.

Life on the go, with little time at home to cook, makes this occasionally necessary. Often, people find themselves buying overpriced food solely because of geographic proximity. Restaurant mark-ups often sit in the range of three times the cost of wholesale food. Considering everything that goes into maintaining a sit down establishment (staff, rent, appliances, hydro), these mark-ups are necessary for making a real profit. A moderately successful restaurant typically keeps about 5% of its income.

This is not to say that reasonable food isn’t out there; it’s just hard to find. Social networks, blogs, and other online resources have contributed to the quest of living affordably:

Poor Starving Students ( Vancouver based blog that posts reviews of things such as Costco samples and inexpensive pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). is another great website that covers all bases, with the modus operandi to “live like the prince/princess of Vancouver on a pauper’s budget.” This blog points out various deals on not only food, but gas prices, shopping, and groceries, to names a few.

Smart restaurants operate based on target market, so when looking for a good deal, it’s advisable to scope out a part of town with a young or less wealthy population. Mount Pleasant is by no means an inexpensive neighbourhood, but it is relatively young, with the majority of its population being under 39. Many of the businesses take note of this and cater to the prototypical “starving student”.

The Foundation on Main and 7th is a pretty classic example, and is so clearly oriented towards a youth crowd that it’s hard not to do a double take whenever anyone clean-cut and over the age of fifty walks in. All prices already include tax, so at lunch you can get a saucy pile of vegetables for seven dollars on the dot.

This brings us to an important point: if you’re ever looking to spend less money in restaurants, stick to lunch. Restaurants often offer identical dishes at lunch and dinner, but hike up the prices after 5:00. However, if you have to do dinner, The Foundation is famous for their nachos, and at $11 this massive plate can feed at minimum two people.

Budgie’s Burritos is steps away on Kingsway and 8th, which serves up some good take-out fare for those short on time. However, making your own basic versions at home would cost approximately the sum of a tortilla, some beans, and rice (not exactly premium ingredients). The foil-wrapped burrito does stow away very well in a handbag, and is pretty discreet, eating-on-a-bus food if you nibble. Prices range from $6 to $8, depending on size and toppings.

Hawker’s Delight serves a cheap meal up on Main and Prince Edward. This is basic Malaysian fare, like fried rice dishes and vegetable curries, that runs about $5 for a bi gplate.

Sadly, unless you are a fan of Aramark, there isn’t a lot of food close to Capilano, but North Vancouver as a whole serves up some pretty good deals. Celina Kurz, jazz student at Capilano and long-time North Vancouver resident explains her experience
eating out around the Lonsdale area. Celina says that she typically eats out about two to three days a week, more or less depending on time, money, and friends.

“North Van does have way cheaper sushi than downtown, and pretty good quality,” says Celina. “In North Van, a bento box usually runs less than six bucks.”

“Yuko Maki [near Lonsdale and 16th] is my favourite sushi place,” explains Celina. “For $5.95 you can choose three rolls from a big list, plus you get miso soup. For the same price you get a chicken teriyaki bento box! It's super cheap and just good decent food, and they have huge portions. For even cheaper, you can split either of the specials with a friend and just order an extra roll or an appy.”

Pho Japolo is another favourite place, at 2070 Marine Drive, right next to Denny’s. “You can get a huge ass bowl of nice meaty pho— they have like, a hundred different types of meat— for around 6 bucks,” describes Celina. And veggie people, don’t despair : “My sister is a vegetarian and she orders the veggie pho, which just has lots of vegetables instead of meat.”

Food downtown doesn’t run too cheap, but there are a few reasonable stand-outs other than pizza. The VCC Cafeteria is a training ground for students of the VCC culinary arts program. You can come support them by eating what they have just learned to make. For an hour and a half at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, five students in full chef uniform stand behind a row of cafeteria trays and wait to serve you. Dinner is served from 5:30-7:00. The most involved meal costs $6.90 and includes one main item, which is usually meat or seafood, and three sides: one starch and two vegetables. There is also usually at least one vegetarian option, which comes with salad.

When I visited, the featured item was baked yams with tomato asiago topping, which went for $4.75 plus tax. In this particular case, the price was diminished because the food is a by-product of another business, but low prices always have some kind of

The idea of having an eating establishment that is also a place of learning is a great one; it seems like a perfect reciprocal exchange. However, the students are learning how to make more complicated dishes for higher end fare, and the fussiness gets in the way of basic quality. Simple food done well is much better than involved food done badly. However, the portions are filling, and this is not a bad place to visit after spending hours studying in the Central Library.

“Going to Temple” is a ubiquitous expression among young East Vancouverites, and is actually applied to two different places : one is a Hindu temple close to Main Street, called the Shree Mahalakshmi Temple, which serves a free lunch around 2 PM on Sundays; the other is a Sikh temple, the Akali Singh, which serves a free dinner Monday to Thursday at 7 PM. Both attract a crowd that appear to be mostly in their twenties.

At the Sikh temple, the crowd gathers early, arriving by bike, sometimes decorated vans, but mostly on foot. Most are only social with the group that they arrive with, and two turned down an interview.

Adam, an attendee of the Sikh temple meal explains why he eats here. “It’s good food and I’m poor,” he says, and supposes that most others come for the same reason. “Most of them seem to be about my age,” he notes.

However, Adam does not believe that all the people there need it, and he admits that he himself is not hopeless without it. He explains that his understanding is that the free meal is meant to be shared with the community, in order to bring people together. Indeed, the Akali Singh website states that Langar, or the free meal, is served for “all visitors/travelers/passers by regardless of caste, class or creed.”

A member of the temple who did not disclose his name had something else to say. He explained that Langar is a tradition that is “over 700 years old” and was originally intended to help the “poor and needy.”

“These people,” he said, sweeping his arm across the hall “are not particularly poor and needy.”

Many other churches provide free meals as well, but have not developed the popularity of these two temples as a social destination.

The bottom line with food is that eating at home is always cheaper, and it also gives you more buying power. Not only can you afford to put your money into higher quality items, but more ethical products as well. If you shop wisely, the amount of money you can save is staggering.

Sunrise Market on Powell and Gore can’t be beat for incredible deals on produce, A dramatic, but not particularly appealing example is the piles of speckled bananas running at 19 cents a pound. They aren’t pretty, but freeze a dozen of those bad boys and you’ll be drinking smoothies for weeks. Nothing is faster than a liquid meal! Most other produce ranges in the realm of 50 cents a pound, with large bags of peppers, onions, and potatoes going for a dollar.

Dollar Grocers on Commercial and 6th is another popular joint for good deals on just about everything, including soy products and organic food. They also carry many basic ingredients like rice, oats, and dried beans in bulk. The owner, Quoc, explains that he constantly looks for new suppliers with items on special, and regularly changes his products in order to get the best deals. Most restaurants maintain the same suppliers throughout.

An excellent summary of all you need to know to keep your food spending low is the Vancouver-based book “Eating Well on Practically Nothing,” available at Spartacus Books on 310 West Hastings St, or through some Megaphone vendors. And, bonus, it contains great instructions on how to make your own home brew.

Let’s face it : almost anything you can make for yourself will be better, because you know exactly what you like. Don’t spend money needlessly! Eating in Vancouver is an adventure, but while there is a wide range of options available, there’s nothing cheaper or more satisfying than home cooking.

For a quick fix here is one last word of advice: get on the best of terms with your friends’ parents, and never go hungry again.

// Claire Vulliamy,
Arts Editor

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