I finally made it to Richmond’s Summer Night Market last week. The Lower Mainland tradition is still an undeniable feast for the senses. Brand-name fashion knock-offs, anime toys, over-the-top electronics and Cantonese pop music are all part of the fun.
But what really sets the outdoor event apart is the seemingly infinite array of food stands, serving up dishes from across Asia and around the globe. The massive crowds that descend on these purveyors of skewered grilled chicken, octopus dumpling balls, and watermelon-infused bubble tea underscore how special this foodie festival really is.
Strangely enough, none of this culinary magic spills out into Metro Vancouver’s urban sidewalks, where the street food scene is virtually non-existent. The absence is particularly conspicuous downtown — outside of the ubiquitous hotdog stands.
This isn’t to take anything away from sausage vendors, and especially the hugely successful Japadog — which lives up to the hype and has become to Vancouver what the cheesesteak sandwich is to Philadelphia. Earlier this year, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain even popped in on the hotdog cart on his No Reservations television show. Japadog has imitators popping up at, where else, Richmond’s Night Market.
But surely there is roadside nourishment beyond the frankfurter. Where are the street cart vendors selling dim sum or souvlaki wraps or Pad Thai? Or the cheesesteak, for that matter?
Overbearing government restrictions are the problem. According to the City of Vancouver’s website, vendors offering something other than tube steaks, popcorn, pretzels or nuts have to obtain approval from the Vancouver Coastal Authority, which regulates food products. “If your product is deemed acceptable by the Health Department it will still need to be reviewed by the Engineering Department for approval.”
How’s that for bureaucracy in B.C.?
This is in sharp contrast to what’s happening in at least one major city south of the border. On a recent road trip down Interstate 5 to Portland, I was stunned by the variety of food carts and lunch trucks in that city’s downtown.
Indeed, during my short visit I was lucky enough to visit vendors serving delicious, authentic and economical Korean barbecue and Japanese homestyle cooking.
Food carts in Portland are a key facet of that city’s urbanism — helping to create a vibrant and friendly downtown that reflects a diversity of cultures.
Vancouver’s street food scene, by contrast, is lifeless. This city’s hungry residents deserve better.