There is plenty of fun to be had at Vancouver’s newly revitalized Chinatown Night Market. The hurricane potatoes! The ping-pong tournaments! The polyester underwear!
Much to my surprise, I loved the ping-pong. On opening night earlier this month, I laughed myself silly while swatting paddles and chasing little white balls around a parking lot festooned with lights and thumping with rock music.
The table tennis, hosted by Dustin Bromley and Michael Unger (the bow-tied impresarios who also organize ping-pong nights at the Biltmore Cabaret), is but one of many new attractions designed to broaden the appeal of this formerly sad little market. Spearheaded by the market’s managing director, Tannis Ling, owner of the local restaurant Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, the new programming includes hip-hop karaoke, modern craft vendors, movie nights and street-fighter tournaments.
There is also more food. The bad news is that most of the hot-food stalls were reserved by vendors returning from last year. The good news is that they are not the only options for hungry market goers.
Even by greasy night-market standards, the BBQ Grill stall is gut-churningly awful. At the Richmond night markets, grilled squid is a hotly contested offering. This vendor would not last a weekend there. Their frozen squid is not marinated or pressed or slowly roasted over the fire. It’s simply thrown on the grill and served up chewy with a hefty whiff of propane.
At Dim Sum Express, you can order flavourless pork dumplings or marshmallow-like buns filled with oddly sweet and slimy bright-red barbecue pork. Everything comes out of plastic-wrapped boxes.
The hurricane potatoes are surprisingly good. Sliced like a Slinky, skewered onto a stick, deep-fried and sprinkled with flavoured powders (salt and pepper, dill pickle, jalapeno, etc.), they are cut thicker than average so you can sink your teeth into the flesh rather than just crack it like a chip. But the popcorn chicken served at the stall was inconsistently tender, bursting with stale oil and battered in a mysterious coating that had the melting texture of cotton candy.
The runaway crowd favourite, judging by the long lineup, is the wheel-cake stand. We had to wait 25 minutes for our $1 mini-cakes, served piping hot and filled with Nutella or peanut butter. (Try smooshing the two cakes together for a delightful flavour combination.) If gummy-textured fruit juice is your sort of thing (it’s certainly not mine), the Bubble Tea makers are said to be decent.
The only new vendor is Winner Winner Chicken on Rice, presided over by a zealously exuberant counter clerk who screams “Winner! Winner!” every time someone places an order.
“Sorry to interrupt,” one of my friends remarked dryly when the clerk finally turned our way after chatting up a couple of young fillies in front of us. “You’re not interrupting,” he obliviously replied. “Where are you girls from?”
The chicken paled in comparison to his performance. A modern rendition of Singaporean Hainanese chicken, it consists of poached chicken on jasmine rice cooked in a rich broth with slivers of cucumber and hot sauce. The rice was fabulously fluffy one night, but grainy and hard the next. The chicken is dumbed down with barely a hint of fish sauce. And the sauce is a blunt backhand to the palate. Disappointing.
Fortunately, on Saturday nights you will find a weekly rotating cluster of food trucks lined up along Columbia Street. I made a few delicious discoveries, including Soho Road Naan Kebab (which cooks naan to order in a tandoori oven), JJ’s Trucketeria (healthy Filipino fusion bowls chock-full of veggies) and Yolk’s Breakfast (do try the sinfully rich confit pork-belly croque monsieur topped with a poached egg).
Sprinkled among the new artisan vendors you’ll find To-Die-For Lemon Loaf and Banana Bread by media-personality-turned-bakerpreneur Erin Ireland, single-origin chocolate bars and organic coffee from East Van Roasters and addictively delicious salted butter caramels from Cocolico by Wendy Boys.
Thirsty? You can stroll into the Keefer Bar for a cocktail, quaff some suds in the beer garden or take a seat on the patio at Bao Bei. The latter is first-come, first-served (the wait for a table inside can be upwards of an hour). Ms. Ling is serving a limited snack menu on the patio, but plans to get a barbecue. Look out for pork jowl, beef tongue and house-made Taiwanese sausage baguettes in the near future.
Upcoming activities include kite-making workshops, storytelling and mahjong. The schedule is available online. But if I had my wish, there would be ping-pong every night.