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The Power of a Night Market

Looking to Asia’s back alleyways to stoke a new Bay Area craze.

SLIDESHOW

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The Night Market, in South San Francisco, is inspired by Hong Kong’s traditional dai pai dong street vendors.

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Undiscovered SF: like a Filipino cross between Off the Grid, Outsidelands, and the Renegade Craft Fair.

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Elote lumpia from the Lumpia Company.

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A satisfied young customer.

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How to explain the magic of a Taipei night market, circa 1999, for a Chinese American college kid (i.e., me): There was the grand scale of the thing, spread across what seemed like endless open-air blocks—a dense sprawl of humanity, grilled meats, and neon-lit commerce. Every night, dozens of food vendors would share sidewalk space with stray mopeds and makeshift storefronts hawking faux brand-name sneakers or cut-rate underwear. And of course there was the food itself, in all its soul-satisfying, bargain-priced glory: stinky tofu sizzling in vats of bubbling oil, and little sausages wrapped inside larger sausages, and spicy fried chicken cutlets roughly the diameter of a person’s head, and on and on and on. I never felt more deeply connected to, or more inordinately proud of, the city of my birth.

However many buttoned-up restaurant meals I’ve put under my belt since then, I still yearn for the unvarnished, elemental pleasure that I associate with a proper night market. The Bay Area certainly doesn’t have that kind of street food culture. We have Off the Grid, sure. And, thank the gods, we have our taco trucks. But, for any number of reasons (cold nights, overeager health inspectors, a bonkers real estate market, etc.), we don’t have anything that rivals the depth and breadth of Asia’s night markets.

However, in the past several months, Asian American street food entrepreneurs in the Bay Area have channeled their nostalgia for night markets they grew up frequenting overseas, or came across in their travels, to open their own takes on the genre. Even though these differ in significant ways from their forebears in Asia, they all succeed in capturing at least some of those elusive qualities that make night markets great: a certain energy, a bold flavor palette, and a sense of home.

Hong Kong Street Scene 

Despite its name, the Night Market, in South San Francisco, isn’t an actual night market—it’s a regular restaurant, with four walls and a roof. But it might be the next-best thing. Modeled after the traditional markets in Hong Kong known as dai pai dong, the Night Market opened this past February in an industrial part of town. The place really does feel like an open-air night market: The high ceilings and laid-back configuration of folding tables and colorful plastic stools create the illusion that you’re kicking it in some back alleyway. Metal street carts imported from Hong Kong line one side of the room. To complete the effect, on the back wall a life-size projection of a bustling Hong Kong street scene runs in a continuous loop.

First-time restaurateur Kevin Lee says he was inspired by trips to the island city, where his parents grew up. “The lure of the old Hong Kong caught me,” he says. And so when he opened his own restaurant, he decided to do a modern take on old-style Hong Kong street food. The Night Market’s menu features classic Hong Kong street food dishes like curry fish balls ($3) and cart noodles ($8)—a near-infinitely customizable bowl that comes with a savory broth, one of five types of noodles, and topping options that run the gamut from pork knuckles and quail eggs to fried tofu and Spam. Lee isn’t dogmatic in his view of what belongs on a dai pai dong menu, so there are also Taiwanese-style pork belly buns ($5) and Hainanese chicken ($10), typically associated with Singapore, cooked sous vide and served with a mound of yellow-tinted rice that glistens with rendered chicken fat. Everything is shockingly inexpensive by Bay Area standards.

To a certain extent, Lee says, the food is almost secondary. What he wants is for customers to experience the vibe of a night market, and the sensory overload: the smell of fresh clams, the sound of meat sizzling in a hot wok. He tells his staff to aspire to the kind of “controlled chaos” that he associates with old dai pai dong stalls in the scattered alleyways of Hong Kong’s Central district. And he’s working with San Mateo County to get his street carts—which are currently just decorative—approved for food service. By early 2018, he hopes, customers won’t sit down at a table and have a waiter take their order, as they do now. Instead they’ll walk around the room and see the food being cooked right on the cart. Just like at a real night market.

Plus-Size Fried Chicken

Berkeley’s Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks is also not a real night market. Rather, it’s the newest outpost of a Singapore-based fast-food chain that specializes in dishes that are associated with the Shilin Night Market, the largest and most famous of Taipei’s many night markets—and, incidentally, the one that served as my own introduction to Taiwanese street food culture.

The tiny Berkeley storefront, only the second Shihlin location to open in the United States (following one in Milpitas), debuted in September in a cluster of mostly Asian takeout-oriented restaurants near the UC Berkeley campus that’s known, in Cal parlance, as the Asian Ghetto—itself an entity that, if you squint hard enough, might be described as a kind of “night market.”

But more to the point: Owner Jason Shiao, who also runs the Milpitas shop and has plans to expand to Pleasanton and to the Stonestown Galleria food court, says the original idea behind the chain was, very simply, to put together a collection of famous night market dishes, many of which he grew up eating in Taipei. That in itself might not be so newsworthy were it not for how difficult it is to find some of these items in the Bay Area

The headliner is the XXL Crispy Chicken ($7.99)—the aforementioned oversize fried chicken cutlet—which comes dusted with chili powder and is almost unspeakably luxurious in terms of both portion size and succulence, especially if you choose the leg-and-thigh version. Perhaps the even rarer find is the oyster mee sua ($7.79), a street-style noodle soup that features oysters (frozen ones from Korea), a dense nest of thin wheat noodles, and a very dark and very delicious gravy-like broth.

Despite Shiao’s best efforts, some things do get lost in translation. One of the pleasures of eating that fried chicken cutlet is the decadence of walking around the market holding this impossibly gigantic thing in a paper bag and gnawing off a bite every now and again. It’s designed to be served whole. But the restaurant started cutting it up by default, Shiao says, after some 95 percent of its customers asked for it that way. Not yet fully versed in the vernacular of the night market, they didn’t know how to eat it otherwise. Maybe it’s time they gave it a shot.

Pinoy Pride

Perhaps the most ambitious of the Bay Area’s new night market–inspired outposts is Undiscovered SF, the only one of the three that isn’t a restaurant but a monthly festival that stems from a broader cultural movement: the establishment, this August, of SOMA Pilipinas, a Filipino cultural district in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, where thousands of the city’s Filipino residents settled during the ’70s and ’80s after they were displaced from what had been a thriving Manilatown on Kearny Street. The goal is to promote local Filipino businesses and, hopefully, to eventually help them open brick-and-mortar shops in SoMa.

Event producer Gina Rosales recalls that she and Desi Danganan—the executive director of Cultivate Labs, the nonprofit that runs the market—were brainstorming ideas for a launch party to kick off the cultural district when they came up with the night market concept, an idea that eventually snowballed into this massive indoor and outdoor Filipino cultural festival, generally held on the third Friday of every month, at the San Francisco Mint. “We are creating an extension of our home to showcase for others to come to visit,” Rosales says. “Not just San Francisco, but what does the Filipino American community in the Bay Area feel like, and look like, and sound like, and taste like?”

To be sure, unlike the two night market– themed restaurants, Undiscovered SF traces its roots to Asian America rather than to Asia proper. The primary model, Danganan says, was never the palengke night markets that you can find all over Manila, but rather some combination of Off the Grid, Outsidelands, and the Renegade Craft Fair. The food is what Danganan calls the “third wave” of Filipino cuisine in America—not steam-table joints (the first wave) or Frenchy fine dining (the second), but next-generation Filipino American chefs “flipping Filipino food in a hundred different directions,” whether that be via lumpia that tastes like a cheeseburger or a Filipino-Mexican burrito stuffed with pork sisig.

With its mix of food trucks and food carts, all lined up in a row, the main outdoor food area of the October edition of Undiscovered looked and felt, truth be told, not so dissimilar to an average-size Off the Grid—except with almost all Filipino vendors and maybe a 40 percent higher chance of an impromptu outdoor hip-hop dance party breaking out. What was notable, though, was a certain kind of diversity of vendors that you might not find at your typical food truck festival. Yes, the October lineup featured perennial favorites like Señor Sisig and the Lumpia Company, the latter of which was dishing out lumpia stuffed, variously, with spicy ramen and Mexican elote. The Pinoy Heritage pop-up, run by fine-dining veteran Francis Ang, was serving precise, gorgeous, “chef-y” food: grilled chicken skewers ($6) coated, strikingly, in black coconut ash, and sisig fried rice ($8) topped with bits of crispy pork skin and a creamy-yolked poached egg.

But there were also fresh-faced stands like P.I. Wings, which was serving its specialty— fried chicken wings ($10) with the flavors of traditional Filipino dishes like kare kare and pungent, fermented-fish-spiked Bicol Express—to the public for the very first time. It probably had the longest line of all.

The next edition of Undiscovered will be a smaller, holiday-gift-oriented market on December 16. After that, it will go on hiatus until the spring. And while there’s no immediate plan to expand the market’s once-amonth schedule, Danganan says it isn’t so crazy to think that it might eventually straddle both days of the weekend. After that, who knows? Maybe it would open every week, and then every day. “Every day,” Danganan says, “means a new cultural district.”

The Night Market 230 S. Spruce Ave. (At Myrtle Ave.), South San Francisco, 650-634-8388
Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks 2521 Durant Ave. (Near Telegraph Ave.), Ste. E, Berkeley, 510-429- 4166
Undiscovered SF San Francisco Mint, 88 5th St. (At Mission St.); Dec. 16, Noon–8 P.M., Covo, 981 Mission St. (Near 6th St.)

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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