What's not to love about the Richmond Summer Night Market?
I went two weeks ago, reluctantly, as I was feeling ill. By the end of the evening - stuffed to the eyeballs and toting a $10 supermop in the most hideous shade of mauve - I was giggling like a schoolgirl and begging my significant other to shell out for a laser penlight to torment our cat (until I realized that the gadget could potentially blind her).
Eating contests, snake exhibits, arcade games, Michael Jackson impersonators and 200 vendors selling everything from nylon girdles to samurai swords - this is lowbrow entertainment at its best.
Amid all the outdoor festivity, the food court is by far the main attraction, and not just in my mind. The 60-stall assembly of shouting hawkers, smoking grills, sizzling woks and swarms of people makes you feel like you're at Hong Kong's Temple Street market (without the beer, street-side dining tables and abundance of organ meat).
Don't get the wrong impression. The fare here, for the most part, is not great. Some of it is downright awful. For instance, I suggest you avoid the starchy jap chae noodles and watery siu mai dumplings ($2.50 each) at the B&W Dim Sum stall, unless you happen to enjoy sharp stomach cramps induced by excessive MSG. (The telltale symptoms did, at least, dissipate fairly quickly.) And even though duck wraps ($2 at Lucky House BBQ) appear to be a popular item, I didn't discover any worthwhile reason to risk losing a tooth on these rock-hard, deep-fried, Pop Tart-type pastries, frosted with squiggles of sickly sweet hoisin sauce.
That said, the quality of vendors does seem to be improving. New this summer, there are a couple of intriguing outfits, which motivated me to go for the first time in several years.
Up first is the Roaming Dragon, a bright red truck (located next to the main stage) that offers complexly ambitious, pan-Asian dishes created by Don Letendre, the former executive chef at the Opus Hotel.
After nine years at the boutique Yaletown hotel, Mr. Letendre left last spring for a much-needed hiatus, only to be quickly recruited by the sharp-thinking entrepreneurs at Gourmet Syndicate, a newly formed company that has grown in response to Vancouver's nascent food-truck pilot program.
In addition to operating its own food truck, Gourmet Syndicate is a turnkey operation that helps prospective street chefs navigate the red tape at City Hall, purchase and equip vehicles, pimp their rides and market their brands. The service will eventually include an industrial hub that includes secure parking, shared kitchen facilities, food storage and refuelling stations.
It's a brilliant idea, if you ask me. And the Roaming Dragon's initial menu is impressive - though perhaps wasted on Summer Night Market's bargain hunters.
The truck's fried rice balls and chicken karaage ($6 an item or three for $15) are a bit pricier than the fare of other vendors, but not totally out of whack, and actually quite reasonable for the quality of ingredients used.
A splendid duck confit salad is chock full of pickled pineapple, fresh watermelon, aromatic herbs and salty cashews. The meat is a generous portion, shredded into crispy bits. Stir it up well for a palate popper that bounces off every taste bud imaginable.
Korean short rib tacos are a neat fusion treat. Stuffed inside two corn tortillas lined with sheets of nori, you'll find a cold, precooked assortment of bibimbap vegetables (sprouts, carrots, spinach and so on) alongside steaming hot clumps of fatty short rib, all drizzled with a spicy red sauce.
Even the Asian spice brined pork belly sliders, which are somewhat spoiled by exceptionally sweet, marshmallow-flavoured buns, knocks almost every other vendor out of the park.
Yet for all its catchy decals, slew of helpful attendants and highly efficient ordering system, the screaming-red Roaming Dragon doesn't seem to be attracting very many customers. Go figure. Maybe it will do better in downtown Vancouver, if the owners win a permit in the lottery.
Also new this year is Sumo Bites, a stall that sells rice burgers similar to the kind popularized in Asia by the Japanese fast-food chain Mos Burger, but almost impossible to find here.
It's easy to find. Just listen for the two young sisters who own it.
"Lice burgers" they tout in a sing-song voice, playfully mocking a Chinese accent. "Yummy for your tummy! Make you big and strong!"
The burgers (sukiyaki beef, teriyaki chicken and Berkshire pork sausage for $4 each) are stuffed between two patties of pressed sticky rice. The beef - tender grilled strips, drippy with barbecue sauce - was addictively scrumptious. So was the minty fresh ginger-syrup cooler on shaved ice ($2.50).
The Japanese charcoal skewers, next to Sumo Bites, are also very tasty. I tried the quail egg and asparagus (two for $3), which were both wrapped in thin sheaf of smoky pork belly.
You have to try some grilled squid. It's the most popular dish in the market. But take time to scope out the various vendors. (Some look more sanitized than others.)
Save room for dessert. The barbecue ice cream in choux pastry is surprisingly good.
And if you really want to feel like a kid again, get in line for twirled potatoes. This new novelty item ($3 or two for $5) is a deep-fried potato sliced like a Slinky. It's stretched out on a stick and rolled in powdered cheese or drizzled with ketchup.
There are two vendors selling them (Hurricane Potatoes and Korean Food Street) and people were going absolutely mad for them.
"Please make one line," pleaded a young vendor on the verge of tears, while the cook behind her screamed at the hungry mobs.
The market organizers, new last year, may seriously want to consider allotting more space to the food side of the fair, which is much busier than any other section yet only two aisles wide. At times, there isn't even enough room to move, let alone sit down and eat.
But for all the pushing and shoving, this boisterous, seemingly good-natured crowd is part of the appeal (especially for those experiencing Olympic-fever withdrawal). If you go early or very late (people were still streaming in at 11 p.m.), there's great fun to be had.
Summer Night Market: 12631 Vulcan Way, Richmond, B.C.; summernightmarket.com. Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and on public holidays until Sept. 26.