Today I was invited back to the “Illumination night market”, as part of a “Chinese Bites” media event. This was an offer I just couldn’t refuse, as my VIP blogger pass included access to over 30 of its food vendors. The goal, to try a little bit from each and to help spread the word on the market, and shed some light on each of the participating hawkers. Truth be told, many of the stalls were ones I wouldn’t otherwise consider visiting, if not for this opportunity. So let me give you the highlights, and direct you on where your dollar will be best spent at the “Illumination Night Market”, the food vendor edition.

We were assigned co-companions and in groups of six we worked our way systematically through the food pavilion, crossing off numbered stalls name by name. Our group focused on the need for speed approach, running through the savoury food stands first, then the chilled drinks, ending on sweet desserts. And for our efforts, we were one of the few groups that got through the entire list, trying everything and finishing it all between us.

To watch my vlog of this event, and learn our tips and tricks on avoiding lines and maximizing our time at the market, click the link below.

We arrived early and took advantage of the stalls that were already open before the market did at 7pm. We bee-lined it to the stalls that typically saw a larger turn out, to avoid their would-be lines later.

At the “Hurricane Potato” stand we enjoyed one of their whole potatoes peel and spiraled, spread skewered on a stick, and then deep fried and dressed in our choice of seasonings and sauces. With over 9 different sauce types deciding was difficult. We eventually went for the salty and spicy combination of “Korean spicy” and white cheddar. The enjoyable part about this popular street snack is its chewy yet crispy texture, achieved through its unique presentation and the ability to fry so many edges to a crisp. And the fact that they look like battling swords when crossed, this will forever be one of the more popular street style snacks offered here.

Another one with lengthy lines is the “BBQ Squid’ stall. I love it when vendors name their booth after their most popular menu item, it helps you decide what to order. I mean it must be good if it is their namesake, right? We were able to try a split order of squid tentacles, both fried in oil and barbecued over their grill. Both methods of squid preparation is seasoned the same, but there is a big difference between a chewy grilled tentacle and one that is fried to a crisp. This is one I always get at the market and never seem to grow tired of.

Currently popular in the Vancouver food scene is the taiyaki. A fish shaped pastry filled with various creams and custards then topped with ice cream and biscuits. There are a couple of vendors offering this at “Illumination”. But “Sweet Fish” is the only one dedicated to this sweet treat. Here it is available in red bean, vanilla custard, or chocolate Nutella. We had the former most, and it and all the other flavours come with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This one was hard to share, although equipped with our own plastic containers and metal cutlery, we were easily able to trim it down to size and split it six ways.

One of the more fragrant stands is the one offering “Halal BBQ”. Meet on skewers grilled before your eyes, without a screen or protective barrier between you and the meat. The smoke is blow out into the market lanes, and you can’t help but follow your nose to the sweet scent of spicy meat. We had a split order of chicken and lamb and both were as tender as they were tasty. Definitely my favourite meat on sticks from “Illumination”.

At the “Cheese Potato” stand we ordered their name sake. A warm baked potato dressed with green onion, julienne cucumber, broccoli florets, sausage, bacon bites, and plenty of spices and seasonings; then finished with a healthy ladle of a melted cheddar cheese sauce. It was good, but not memorable. I prefer the traditional fully loaded baked potato with a blackened char, salty shredded cheese, and cooling sour cream. This just lacked the punchy flavours I wanted over a neutral potato base.

The “Porky Fries” stall was misleading with its name. I imagined deep fried pieces of pork, cut up and served like fries in a carton. So the display demos under a protective acrylic did help level set expectations. What you saw was a skewered slab of meat. What you got were thinly cut pieces of breaded and fried pork with spam; available either in a wasabi cream dressing with bonito flakes, with a hot and spicy orange sauce, or seaweed with sweet mayonnaise. Despite your assumption on being able to hold it upright because of the skewer, doing so meant you loss half of your toppings to the group. It is easy to share and eat if laid flat in a carton/plate, but you are handed the stick wrapped in a napkin. As for taste, it was bland, with salty pops thanks to the spam. I was left wanting more cream, something refreshing and light to dip into.

I was not optimistic about the “Spicy Crayfish” stand. Night market eating is all about convenience. Standing up and snacking while you either walk or get shoved by those trying to walk around you. There are tables, but they are often camped out by families, and really not all that convenient if you grab your snack at point A and travel all the way to enjoy it cold at point B. And keep in mind the distance in between is lengthen by the unorganized pedestrian traffic. So how were you going to hold a paper bowl and crack a crustacean with one hand? There are pictorial instructions posted up on the stand, but even then I don’t think it would have been as easy as they make it look. Lucky for us, we approached at a slower time, and the stall owners and staff were able to assist in the cracking part. With gloved hands and simple twists of her wrist, a young clerk was able to pull the shell off the tails, giving us easy ability to slurp sweet crayfish meat into our mouth. They are pretty tasty when you don’t have to do it yourself, but I can see others being dissuaded from ordering this one for its complexity. Maybe they can sell it pre-shelled? Although, admittedly, they are less impressive that way.

At the “Taiwanese Snacks” stand we had their deep fried squid and deep fried chicken nuggets. They both had a similar crunch from the lumpy breading used. Salty and chewy, the squid was made spicy with a pasty chili sauce. I like the sprig of fried crispy basil for its visual attributes, as well as for its ability to change the taste. The chicken nuggets came undressed, they were tasty enough, but given the portion size, a nice sauce to also help change the taste mid way would have been nice.

At the “Lucky House” booth they offered Chinese style dim sum. We had some of their siu mai (steamed pork dumplings). It was good, nothing out of the ordinary, and not my first choice in such a setting. Especially when there are so many Chinese restaurants nearby offering the same thing, and better prepared in a kitchen for less.

At “Dragon Crepe” they offered Chinese style savoury crepes. The method of preparation used was that of a battered crepe. A thin sheet prepared over a heated, cast iron round. But the way it was finished was more like an omelet, cooked thin and folded over with green onion, cilantro, various sauces and crispy pork rinds (I think, I eat everything and didn’t bother to ask). The latter gave the crepe some crunch. I was left wanting more sauce from it, maybe something with a tang similar to ketchup?

The “Yuan’s Chuan Chuan Xiang” booth was here presenting their restaurant located in Aberdeen Centre. They offered stewed meat and vegetable skewers giving customers a “taste of Chengdu”. Meat and seaweed on sticks that are already cooked and kept warm, soaking in a pot of broth. They are brought to a boil to order, then painted over with oil and spices, before being served to you in a cup. I advise being careful with this one, as it does get messy with the potential for drips. As for flavour, it tasted washed out. I would have liked some sauce on the side for dipping into, I wanted more salt, some soy sauce even would have been nice. Otherwise the texture of the meat was water logged, and soggy compared to the nice starchy chew of the thick cuts of seaweed bundled in to kelp knots.

I was a little lost with the “Backyard Cuisine” stand. Its name made me think barbecue, but what they offered was cold noodles, bird’s nest soup with ice wine, and fruit juice out of pineapples. I like their playing of hip hop music though, as it singled them out. From them we tried their cold noodle with seaweed and some seasonings. This was lack lustre, nothing about it stood out or would be worth me revisiting.

 

By comparison the “Chinese Escargot Rice Noodle” stand and their noodle dish had more pop. Although despite its name, the use of snails was not obvious. There was so much going on in this broth of orange that you couldn’t tell ingredients apart let lone isolated the small chunks of snail meat. Just as well, as I am not a fan of them anyways. It was spicy with tongue singing heat, followed by the enjoyable crunch of roasted peanuts and deep fried wonton wrappers. But this I would have enjoyed more in a sit down setting with tissues to wipe the snot from my running nose.

The bubble waffle stand was pretty standard. We got the original, but were left waiting, do that by the time we claimed it, it was no longer crispy on the outside and chewy at the middle. Instead they were hard and unsatisfying.

The “BBQ Corner” stall was an interesting one. They offered barbecued gluten, claiming it as a traditional handmade snack of China (by way of their awning). Just excepting the bundle of skewers, we didn’t know what we were having until we bit in. Instead of stringy meat we got chewy dough that was easier to unravel from stick then chewing off chunks with teeth. I like the texture of carbs, so liked the chewy bounce to this. However, I wish it was seasoned differently. The coating over it gave it a grainy finish, like ground up peanuts. I would have preferred a deep fried coating and this springy chew hiding in the middle. Or the dough served in balls that you can easily pop into our mouth like popcorn.

At the “Naximuyi” stand we tried some pickled meat and vegetable skewers. I haven’t had nothing like this, so didn’t know what to expect and therefore could not be disappointed. It was soupy and tangy with vinegar notes. The lotus root and seaweed looked tastier, so I avoided the washed out meat in exchange for more textured chewing.

The “Sexy Salad” stand was new, and an interesting idea. The girl behind the booth was hustling, earning revenue for the hard sell. She declared their salads a great alternative to all the deep fried and greasy foods of the market. She was charming and knew how to joke around with all those passing by, willing to stop and listen. However, in my humble opinion, the night market is more about pigging out on junk food and salty snacks. If I wanted something healthy, I would be cooking for myself at home. Therefore I don’t believe they were doing too well. However by night’s end I did find myself craving for something sweet, and either their vegetable or fruit salad would have done the trick. The bowl of the latter that we got to try was okay. There wasn’t enough dressing for my taste, and more lettuce than tomato or oranges than I would like. I wanted more from a night market salad, competing against the pageantry and novelty of its neighbouring stalls.

The “BBQ Noodle” stand was more barbecue tofu. Tofu blocks on the grill; and sheets of tofu used to make a wrap, along with green onion, cilantro, an imitation crab stick, and a slice of spam. It tasted exactly as expected. Alright, but I prefer my spam with something more dense to off-set its saltier finish.

The crispy and flakey balls from the “Radish cake” stand were nice. I liked the flag marking the vendor in which it came from, the most. As for flavour, it was ashy and dry. I wanted more punch from the filling to give the shell some more moisture and flavor. A dipping sauce would have been nice here.

“Mama’s Kitchen” specialized in hand-made, home-made dumplings. We had some pre-made gyoza, already pan-fried with a nice crust of char around them. They were tasty and exactly as I expected, no complaints.

We were spoiled at the “Shine Valley Lamb Soup” stall, being able to try two different items off their menu and lots of it. The first a flaky, sweet pastry with a chewy centre.

But the highlight was definitely all the meats that they were non-stop barbecuing off their grill. A grill that stretched the length of the stand. You were kept at an arm’s distance by the plexiglass wall, but still got a good look at the rising flames and the smoke being fanned away. The outcome: some tender and smokey beef and deliciously chewy pork chop. For our connivence, it was all cut up and served piled high on a styrofoam plate. Although I would have preferred to rip meat from bone from the chop.

At the “Bi Bim Rito” booth they made Korean style fried rice portable by stuffing it into a folded wrap, but for those wanting to share, it was easier to order it as a meat and rice dish on a paper plate. Well seasoned rice and chicken served with fresh greens and a drizzle of spicy mayo. I just wished for more sauce through out the wrap, and not just with the first few bites,

The “Szechuan” stand offered us a dish of spicy stewed beef with specks of red chilli. It was spicy and stringy. To enjoy it fully I would have to sit down and order it with some rice and greens on the side.

Their joint “Skewers” stand offered another version of meat on sticks, as well as whole quails split open on the grill. We had a plate of the former and enjoyed them for their thicker cubes of tender meat.

We ended the savoury food portion of our night with a visit to the “Top Wok” stand. They offer two booths worth of pre-made dim sum favourites, kept warm by steam. Due to the pre-made nature of their food, there often isn’t a wait, and therefore no line. We were gifted a generous plate of curry fish balls, peanut butter sauced rice rolls, fried noodles, and glutinous dumplings. They were a great carbo-loaded end to our meal, in case anyone was still hungry. These are all things I like and would order at any dim sum.

The “Fruit Me” booth was a colourful offering of blended fruit juice served within their own husks. Pineapple juice in a pineapple rind and watermelon juice blended in a baby watermelon. They ran out of the former, so we helped ourselves to the latter. It was a refreshing drink, but given the weight and hassle of having to hold a whole watermelon around, you just wanted to drink it and be done with it. Given that there are other stalls serving something similar, I appreciated them trying to stand out with plenty of decorative pieces to attract your attention. A paper flamingo straw and skewer with watermelon balls and marshmallows, a paper umbrella, and a gummy worm. They also offer their other drinks in as interesting vessels. An LED lit, tower high, adult sippy cup. A plastic cup that allows two drink to co-exist separately, but together. And cups that are shaped like upside down light bulbs. It all screamed novelty and fun, just like how their booth was dressed in colours and strung up lights.

Similar, but more simple was the “Ice Garden” stand, they too offer fresh fruit slushes. There were also watermelons and pineapples, but underdressed when compared to the offering above. So instead, we ordered a cup of blended mango slush. It was cool and refreshingly sweet.

And similar to it was the mango slush drink we got from the mango focused stall: “MangoHolic”. But their blended mango slush was much sweeter, and a lot more smoother, with chunks of mango on top.

At “My Tea” they offered various fresh fruit and sparkling teas. The main selling point being the plastic cups they came in. Each included a little heart to place keep the spout for drinking. They also arranged the orange slices in our order to be visible and visual. Otherwise it was just a fizzy citrus drink.

At the “Comebuy” booth they declared their themselves as “the world’s tea shop”. Offering many familiar bubble tea flavours like milk tea, taro milk, and passion fruit. We had the “lychee delight” and enjoyed the light flavour of the rarely seen/used lychee.

And at “Alcool” they offered alcoholic alternatives: mocktails. Although I can see them being far more successful if they could obtain a liquor license and add a shot or two into each of their colourful mixed drinks. However, I can only imagine the price they would charge, and the outcome if any one person got drunk at the crowded night market.

As for the drink we ordered, we weren’t sure of its flavour or even of its taste. I requested it for its colour, or should I say, many colours. For extra theatrics they even added some smoke into the cup for us. It served no other purpose than for visuals, and I was happy for it.

And we finally rounded off our night at the “Snowberry” stall for one of their fruit ice desserts. Half a melon with its fruit balled and stacked in a pyramid surrounding a mountain of ice. It is coated in condense milk for a sweeter, milky finish. We all agreed that this was the right thing to end our night on. Delicious and the perfect palette cleansing refresher.

 

Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
If you are looking for good food this can be a minefield of hit and misses, but more likely you are here for the atmosphere and the feeling of community in eating in such cramped quarters. So try many and have fun playing with your food at the “Illumination” summer night market. And I hope my review of majority of the food vendors was helpful in the above. Don’t deny your cravings.

 

To watch the tour version of my night market review, and to check out all the photo ops set up, visit the link below.

 

ILLUMINATION
12631 Vulcan Way, Richmond BC, V6V 1J7
778-985-5267
summernightmarket.com