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Vancouver Island for Foodies

Dallas Morning News

It’s 10 a.m. in forest-fringed northern Vancouver Island and I’ve just pulled the kind of neck-whipping double take usually reserved for large animals spotted along the roadside. But it’s not everyday you find a diner entirely wrapped in thick steel rope as if a giant had coiled a shoebox in licorice bootlaces.


Built in the early 1970s, the landmark Cable Cookhouse Cafe near Sayward – one of the smaller communities on British Columbia’s largest island – is well-worth stopping for. And since my photographer buddy and are on a food-forward regional road trip, breakfast suddenly seems like a good idea.


“You just missed the cinnamon buns!” twinkle-eyed Jacqueline Mewis – self-described chief cook and bottle washer – shouts as we push through the squeaky door and claim one of the mismatched wooden tables. The morning rush is over so there’s plenty of time to peruse one of B.C.’s most eclectic eateries.


“It’s wrapped in 8,200 feet of old logging cables and it took three months to cover the whole building,” says Mewis, pouring coffee and pointing to some paintings on the back wall. Built as a fuel-up spot for forestry workers, this tongue-in-cheek folk art depicts pertinent scenes including an endless truck winding around a mountain and a logger trying to sleep while his workmate plays violin.


It’s an entertaining side dish to a heaping plate of eggs and bacon. But after poking around the menagerie of rusty old logging machinery outside, we’re soon back on the road. It’s 300 miles from the top of Vancouver Island to Victoria, B.C.’s capital city, and we have some tasty pit stops to sniff out en route.


Next afternoon, we reach the mid-island village of Cumberland. A historic coalmining settlement with a clapboard heritage feel, newer residents have revitalized it in recent years, creating a Dunsmuir Avenue main drag with the kind of hip businesses usually found in larger communities.


We hit Dark Side Chocolates for some salted caramel truffles then grab dinner at the saloon-look Waverley Hotel Pub. But nearby Cumberland Brewing is the highlight. Its woodsy little tasting room is full of locals refilling their growlers while the communal tables outside are jam-packed with chatty quaffers.


“There’s a younger population here now and they really want craft,” brewer Michael Tymchuk tells me as I dive into a four-glass tasting flight. The winning brew? The lip-smacking Forest Fog Unfiltered Wheat Ale.


Up early the next day, we soon reach the town of Qualicum Beach where Saturday’s al fresco farmers market is in full swing. This year-round affair (it shifts inside in October) is perfect for a sunny day wander, with everything from regionally made vodka to pear-ginger jam on offer. Always ready to indulge, I follow an imaginary breadcrumb trail to Bodhi’s Artisan Bakery stall.


While I scoff my pain au chocolat and bread and butter pudding purchases, stallholder Bill Clay serves the rest of his hungry line-up. “I have to get up at midnight to do the baking but I love it. As for my social life: this is basically it,” he says with a smile, waving a hand at the crowd.


Fully sated (but regretting not buying some extra goodies for the road), we’re soon weaving from town towards Little Qualicum Cheeseworks. One of B.C.’s most popular artisan producers, this visitor-friendly farm is full of photogenic cows, pigs and donkeys. But I’m here for the cheese.


The busy onsite tasting room is stocked with samples – they’ve won many awards for their wide array of luscious treats – and I soon discover the piquant-but-smooth Bleu Claire is my favorite. But there’s also wine to try.


The farm’s Mooberry Winery produces many fruit varieties and I sidle up to the tasting bar to dip into everything from pinot-grigio-style pear wine to delicately floral blueberry wine. Not usually a fruit wine fan, it’s easy to understand why these smooth concoctions are popular.


Even more popular, though, is B.C.’s seafood smorgasbord. Everywhere you go on Vancouver Island, excellent marine-based meals present themselves. Nosing west the next day, we stop for a succulent batter-fried salmon lunch at Port Alberni’s Bare Bones Fish & Chips – located in a former church – before casting our net further afield.


Reaching the island’s wave-licked west coast, we pull over for the celebrated fish tacos at Tofino’s beloved Tacofino food truck. When we arrive, though, there are dozens of diners ahead of us. Plan B? Drive on to Ucluelet instead.


The grittier brother of resort town Tofino, Ukee – as locals call it – has found its foodie groove in recent years. Zoë's Bakery & Cafe (breakfast egg bake recommended) is a local favorite, while neighborhood hangout Howler’s has mastered great comfort grub (go for the elk burger). But there’s also an excellent food truck here.


Ravenlady specializes in oysters plucked from nearby Effingham Inlet. But it’s not just about fresh-shucked. The gourmet menu serves everything from octopus linguini to seared tuna po’boy – plus some velvety panko-fried oysters that I down with indecent haste. It’s one of the trip’s culinary highlights. But it’s not the only one.


Two days later, we finally roll into capital city Victoria. Until recent years, the city offered little more than lame restaurants serving limp tourist dishes. But a wave of eatery entrepreneurs has transformed the menu with everything from vegetarian teahouse Venus Sophia to charcuterie and craft beers at the Drake.


But downtown’s restaurant-lined Fort Street is Victoria’s tastiest new restaurant row. And Fishhook, which opened in 2014, may be its best catch. Fusing B.C.’s seafood bounty with some spicy, Indian-influenced approaches, we snag a communal table perch and dive into coconutty smoked fish chowder and a succulent salmon biryani that effortlessly encourages over-eating.


It’s a great finale to our belt-busting Vancouver Island road trip – and a reminder that there are plenty of unique dishes to discover here if you follow your taste buds. It’s also a reminder that I need to buy larger pants for my next visit.


If you go:

Cable Cookhouse Cafe: 1465 Sayward Road, Sayward.

Dark Side Chocolates: 2722 Dunsmuir Avenue, Cumberland;

Cumberland Brewing: 2732 Dunsmuir Avenue, Cumberland;

Qualicum Beach Farmers Market: intersection of Memorial Avenue and Veterans Way, Qualicum Beach;

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks: 403 Lowry’s Road, Parksville;

Bare Bones Fish & Chips: 4824 Johnston Road, Port Alberni.

Ravenlady: 1801 Bay Street, Ucluelet;

Fishhook: 805 Fort Street, Victoria;

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