97 Street Night Market: August 23, 2014

Last August, I was a part of a group that organized the inaugural 97 Street Night Market. The group was comprised of a number of young second-generation Chinese Canadians, and the market was our way to create a lively, energetic gathering to inspire a new vision for the neighbourhood.

97 Street Night Market
2013 Night Market

In many ways, I think we succeeded. It was heartening to see people of all generations from many different backgrounds convening in a single parking lot, feasting, shopping, and otherwise socializing. It was a gathering place not normally found in Chinatown, and one that I hoped would be replicated in the future.

97 Street Night Market
Fortune sticks were really popular that night!

A lot of things came together to make that event happen – from gathering some of Edmonton’s food trucks to serve up Asian-themed dishes, to organizing walking tours of the area, vendors to sell trinkets and other typical night market finds, and securing performers who fit the spirit of the market.

My favourite act was Convergence Dance Crew

We developed connections with like-minded groups and at the time, knew that the market would allow us to build towards other events in the future.

On August 23, 2014, from 6-10pm, we will be hosting our second 97 Street Night Market. This time, we will be situated right in the heart of Chinatown, at 97 Street and 106 Avenue.

2014 Poster and Postcard - modified

We will be building on the momentum from last year, and have invited some of the same food trucks and vendors to return. Molly’s Eats had a menu that was hard to beat, but Susan may have outdone herself again this year – check out the menus from Molly’s, Nhon Hoa and Yellowbird here.

97 Street Night Market
Molly’s Eats feeding the crowd

The tours were so popular that we knew we had to ask our volunteer guides back. The detailed schedule is here, but were thrilled to have Lan Chan-Marples and Peter Wong lead not one, but two historical tours this year, and Paul Giang returns to deliver a perspective on art in Chinatown. New this year (and something I’m most excited about), is our food tour. I’ve long thought Edmonton’s Chinatown deserves its own culinary walking tour, and I can finally say it’s happening! Wild Tangerine’s Wilson Wu will be guiding a small group through some of Chinatown’s food gems, complete with samples along the way. There are limited spaces, so it is first come, first served!

We’ll have a host of great performers. Convergence is back, and we’ve added a second K-pop dance group as well, R2B. Also joining us this year is a martial arts group and a tai chi instructor! We’ll be posting the performance schedule next week.

Our goal for the 97 Street Night Market is to ensure that Chinatown isn’t forgotten. Join us on August 23, 2014 to explore, taste and see what Edmonton Chinatown has to offer!

Find out more on our website, and follow us on Twitter at @yegchinatown.

East Meets West Festival 2014

Mack and I met up with Maria and Roxanne last Saturday to check out the East Meets West Festival in Chinatown, now into its sixth year. In the past, the timing usually coincided with an event in Little Italy (hence the name), but this year, the Business Revitalization Zone-organized Chinatown portion took place about a month earlier.

East Meets West 2014

97 Street

It was great to see the festival return to 97 Street, the main artery of the neighbourhood, and a location that gives the event much more prominence. A stage was set up near 105 Avenue, while vending tents and food trucks were spread out on the street.

East Meets West 2014

Stage

No doubt the weather was much improved from last year (when a flash hailstorm forced the event to shut down early), but I had to assume it was the poor experience the organizers had with small tents in inclement weather that caused them to go with the larger, heavier-duty cover this time. Though its hard to argue with their sturdiness, the walled structures felt disconnected from the rest of the street.

East Meets West 2014

Inside the tent

Most of the vendors beneath the tent sold items typically found at Chinese markets – trinkets, small toys, clothing and accessories. The theme didn’t necessarily continue throughout the marketplace – while it was great to see the Organic Box’s Fruit Truck, it would have been great if they had been able to incorporate some Asian produce into their wares.

East Meets West 2014

Fruit Truck

East Meets West chose to partner with Hawkers Market to organize a combination of pop-up food vendors and food trucks. I was hoping more of the trucks would be serving Asian-themed menus, but it was a bit hit or miss.

East Meets West 2014

Knosh and So-Cal Smoothies

Long Lost Foods was one that absolutely hit the mark with their unique vegan donair made with green onion cakes. Given the recent debate about whether the donair or green onion cake should be crowned Edmonton’s official dish, it was an ingenious way to settle the argument – why not combine the two?

East Meets West 2014

Long Lost Food’s green onion cake donair

With the scorching hot weather, we also couldn’t resist an ice cream sandwich from One Cool Cookie. The trailer is not only equipped with ovens (fresh baked cookies, anyone?), but because they assemble the sandwiches on-site, we were able to personalize our treat with our choice of cookie and ice cream.

East Meets West 2014

One Cool Cookie

I ended up with one of their suggested combinations – skor cookies with Pinocchio’s salted caramel ice cream. The thin, room temperature cookies made this one of the easiest homemade ice cream sandwiches I’ve ever had, and it was darn tasty, too.

East Meets West 2014

Mack’s double chocolate and black cherry ice cream sandwich

It was a great day to be outside, and though the heat may have chased away mid-afternoon revelers, we hoped more foot traffic would come in the evening.

East Meets West 2014

Squinting in the sun

If you missed this event, not to worry –  we’ll be announcing the details of our follow-up to our successful 97 Street Night Market shortly. Stay tuned!

97 Hot Pot: To Chinatown We Go!

Growing up, hot pot was very much a family affair. It was a way, with comparatively less effort than cooking, for my Mum to gather us all around the dining table. Sure, she’d have to source ingredients in Chinatown (fresh vegetables, meats, tofu), then prep them for consumption, but it was definitely one of her go-to meals on nights she didn’t feel like spending too much time in the kitchen.

For a brief period of time in high school, hot pot restaurants were the birthday venue of choice, given they could easily accommodate large groups (and given the appetite of some of those teenage boys, the buffet-style offerings were ideal).

Since that time, hot pot has been something I’ve enjoyed exclusively at my parents’ house. As a result, it’s been easily over ten years since I’ve stepped foot inside a hot pot restaurant in Edmonton.

Cue the local hot pot revolution, with two new restaurants opening up in Chinatown within six months of each other, located less than a block apart. And not only are they reinvigorating the hot pot scene in the city, but they are also injecting new life into the area.

Both Urban Shabu and 97 Hot Pot have brought the trend of individual hot pots to Edmonton. I have to say, when I first heard of this set-up, I really balked at the idea of reducing a communal experience to an individual one. What I didn’t take into account at the time, however, was that the seduction of convenience and control would win me over, too.

97 Hot Pot moved into a storefront in Chinatown that had been vacant for years. The owners overhauled the space with eye-catching signage and a brand new interior. It’s bright, clean and welcoming, and if this trend continues with other businesses, will hopefully help chip away at the stereotypes that continues to plague the neighbourhood as a whole. In addition, it was refreshing to see the number of younger patrons dining in that night – based on my own high school experience, it’s not surprising, but it does give me hope for Chinatown’s immediate future. Last month, I had dinner at 97 Hot Pot with Maria and Roxanne, and learned firsthand what all the fuss was about.

97 Hot Pot

Interior

All of the tables had built-in induction burners meant to accommodate individual pots. As a result, instead of the circular tables to accommodate larger parties at communal hot pot restaurants, all tables were rectangular. Although we still ended up sharing everything, it was a nice change not to have to reach for the pot, or to argue over who put in that last tofu or meatball. Individual hot pots will do much to smooth over family conflicts at the dinner table, heh.

97 Hot Pot

My personal hot pot!

97 Hot Pot charges $25.95 per adult, and $12.95 per child aged 3-9. Choosing a soup base other than the basic chicken broth adds $2 to that cost, as does opting for the choice of two broths in a divided pot. In addition to the selection of about one hundred different raw and fresh meat and vegetable items, salads, cooked dishes and desserts are also included in the per person cost, making this one of the most value-laden buffets in the city. It also differentiates the dining out version of hot pot from its home-based cousin; it isn’t economical for a family to purchase the kind of variety that can be found at a restaurant, and when a group of picky eaters is present, the range of options should satisfy everyone. Our only minor quibble with the ordering system was that it wasn’t logical – specifying “1” vs. “2” or “4” would yield seemingly random amounts of food.

Given the breadth of choices, I was happy to see that 97 Hot Pot didn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. The greens were crisp, and the sliced meats were fresh. I easily consumed a half pound of sliced lamb that night.

97 Hot Pot

Spread part one (I forgot to take pictures later on, unfortunately)

97 Hot Pot introduced me to the oddly translated “fresh meat and seafood mash” – blended meat and herb mixtures served up in plastic sleeves. Using a plastic spoon, the meat is meant to be dropped into the boiling soup to create meatballs. They were darn tasty, and like the cooked dishes, really added value to the meal.

97 Hot Pot

Meat and seafood mashes

We spent the better part of two and a half hours at 97 Hot Pot. Although the menu indicated that only two hour stays were permitted, we never felt that the service staff were trying to push us out. Refills on soup and water were timely, and orders were taken and delivered in a punctual fashion. Dessert was a bonus, and the sweet soup (tong sui) was notably well-prepared.

97 Hot Pot

Maria and I amongst the steam (from now on, I will be making more frequent visits to hot pot facilities during the cold weather months – the chicken soup sauna was like a gift for my winter-disparaged skin)

I had a great experience at 97 Hot Pot, and would not hesitate in recommending it to those new and familiar with this type of dining. I really am hopeful the additional traffic to Chinatown from both new hot pot ventures will turn the tide in the area, and spur even more development in the neighbourhood.

97 Hot Pot
10602 97 Street
(587) 521-1888
Sunday-Thursday 4:30pm-midnight, Friday-Saturday, 4:30pm-2am

Lunar New Year Disappointment in Chinatown

I suppose I shouldn’t complain – after all, it was our wooden, weekend morning feet that prevented Mack and I from getting to Chinatown on time to take in the Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday. Still, for the most significant date on the Chinese calendar, and the most mainstream holiday with which to attract the public, it was more than a little disappointing that the only information I could find about the day’s activities was limited to a tiny box on the Chinatown/Little Italy Business Revitalization Zone website.

From the looks of it, the event was the same as what they’ve organized in the past – remarks from various dignitaries, lion and dragon dances, and the lighting of firecrackers. It appears there was a modest crowd on hand for the hour-long festivities, but with more exposure and better advertising, I really think it could have been bigger.

Lunar New Year 2014

Party on the street

For one thing, there was no detailed program available online, just a single start time. It would have been helpful for prospective attendees to be aware of the schedule and the length of the program. At the end of the day however, I think the barebones event was a missed opportunity that failed to encourage Edmontonians to discover their Chinatown.

I recognize it’s not easy, planning an outdoor program to take place in the middle of potentially uncooperative winter weather, without the cushion of a large indoor back-up option on 97 Street. In addition, in the last decade, the family-friendly Lunar New Year carnival has moved away from Chinatown, from being staged in Heritage Chinatown at the Edmonton Chinese Multicultural Centre (drawing attention to the problem of “two Chinatowns”), to the Expo Centre, and now, at West Edmonton Mall.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that Chinese residents (and other Asian immigrants) also live all across the city, and may have more convenient shopping and hospitality options elsewhere. Chinatown has become somewhat of a destination, instead of a routine, but if the occasion of Lunar New Year can’t entice people, what will?

From what we caught of the tail end of festivities, bystanders were enthralled by the sights and sounds of firecrackers and colourful lions bucking around the pops and sparks.

Firecrackers!

We also tailed one of the lion dance groups into a few storefronts, as they performed inside to bless the businesses for the coming year.

Lunar New Year 2014

Inside Super Tasty BBQ

The potential is definitely there, to feed the curiosity of those unfamiliar with Lunar New Year traditions and the cultures that celebrate them. It was evident through organizing the night market last year that people had a hunger for learning (our tour groups were oversubscribed!), and the Chinese New Year dinner hosted by the Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum Society sold out in a matter of days.

I’d expect the Business Revitalization Zone to lead the charge – after all, they are tasked with the job of increasing the economic activity of the area, and have the resources and connections to do so – but they seem to be resting on their laurels. Their events throughout the year amount to this seasonal foray, and the annual East Meets West festival. No historical tours, food tasting events, and nothing to highlight the influx of exciting new businesses (such as the rise of hot pot).

I’m not sure what it will take for the shift to happen – I just hope it does, and the sooner the better.

Recap: 97 Street Night Market

Over the summer, I worked with a team of volunteers to put on an event that we hoped would encourage Edmontonians to rediscover Chinatown. The neighbourhood is so full of history and possibility, but has largely been overlooked over the last number of years. While we recognized that the Business Revitalization Zone and to a greater extent, the McCauley Revitalization Strategy, had attempted to facilitate positive developments, we believed that something different was needed to foster the imagination of what Chinatown could be.

From there, the 97 Street Night Market was born. With a generous grant from the City and some committed supporters, we were able to transform a vacant parking lot into a welcoming space that introduced or reacquainted patrons with the dynamic nature of night markets right in the heart of Chinatown.

97 Street Night Market

97 Street Night Market

Vendors were the commercial anchor for the event, and we were happy to have engaged some area businesses, including Universal Music and Pacific Café, as well as others from around the city. The range of trinkets to fashion items was varied enough for visitors of all ages!

97 Street Night Market

Gama

No doubt, one of the most popular booths that day was actually one of ours – we had borrowed a set of fortune sticks from the Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Education Association, and volunteers sold fortunes for $1 a pop. That night, nearly 200 fortunes were told!

97 Street Night Market

Step right up!

We were fortunate to have The Lingnan Express, Molly’s Eats and Swich on-site, offering Asian-inspired dishes, including oyster omelettes, curried fish balls and matcha green tea ice cream sandwiches. Though not from the window of a food truck, Gama was able to offer another night market staple – bubble tea.

97 Street Night Market

Food trucks

97 Street Night Market

Char siu pulled pork sandwich from Molly’s Eats

In addition, the market provided us with an opportunity to highlight many young performers. Some were more traditional, such as 5 Elements, who opened the evening with an engaging lion dance, while others displayed a fusion of cultures, including Nanyen Lau, who played the Titanic anthem of “My Heart Will Go On” on an erhu.

97 Street Night Market

5 Elements

97 Street Night Market

Edmonton Chinese Dance Academy

My favourite act was the energetic Convergence Dance Crew, who drew the biggest crowds to the stage with their infectious K-pop covers of Psy’s recent hits.

Convergence Dance Crew

Patrons also had the chance to participate in three different walking tours of the neighbourhood that highlighted various facets of Chinatown. The first had nearly thirty participants so engrossed in the tour the guides ended up doubling the originally-intended length! No question, we learned that tours of all varieties should be offered of Chinatown on a regular basis; people are curious, and want to learn about the neighbourhood’s rich history and hopeful future.

97 Street Night Market

Tour group

For me, it was the creation of a neutral, safe space that most excited me. The perceived “ethnicity” of Chinatown is daunting to some who aren’t familiar with its businesses, while for others, the stereotype of an unsafe, neglected neighbourhood discourages exploration. That night, it was heartening to see people of all generations from many different backgrounds convening in a single parking lot, feasting, shopping, and otherwise socializing. It was a gathering place not normally found in Chinatown, and one that I hope will be replicated in the future.

97 Street Night Market

Beautiful sunset

There are a litany of people to thank who helped make this event a reality. Qualico and Ledcor generously donated the site, and worked around our request, in spite of the ongoing demolition of the building directly south of the lot. Jane Molstad of the McCauley Revitalization Strategy immediately recognized the potential of this idea, and worked tirelessly to ensure the grant came through! We also couldn’t have done without the enthusiastic and hard working day-of volunteers. Lastly, thanks to all those who came, taking a chance on a first time event!

I’ve been asked more than once if the night market will become an annual event. Although I can’t answer the question definitively yet, I can say that a few of us are working to continue the momentum we began that day in some form or another. Stay tuned!

Rediscovering Chinatown: 97 Street Night Market

I remember spending weekends in Chinatown with my parents as a kid. It was always busy; parking was hard to come by, and the sidewalks were lined with people shuffling from shop to shop. At the time, I’m not sure I understood why my Mum would drag us to four seemingly identical grocery stores, but now, I understand it was not only the price differential, but the fact that each establishment offered a particular specialty that was worth seeking out.

In my teenage years, I accompanied my parents on their errands less and less, though on the odd occasion out and about in Chinatown, it was evident the neighbourhood was changing – businesses once vibrant were shuttered, buildings were falling into disarray, and the streets were noticeably quieter. I’m sure the opening of megastore T & T didn’t help matters, offering convenience and easy parking, but the visual aesthetics of Chinatown – neglected and unkempt – probably also didn’t do much to boost the image of the district.

Chinatown

Chinatown today

Five years ago, I began to rediscover Chinatown. My office is within walking distance of the main shopping hub, and at lunch time and after work, I’d pop over for a bowl of pho at Pho Tau Bay, a banh mi from Nhon Hoa or pick up a box of buns from Garden Bakery for breakfast. For Asian groceries, Lucky 97 is my first stop, while Ying Fat meets all of my tofu needs. And though not Asian at all, the Italian Bakery is my go-to deli.

You can now find me in Chinatown at least once a week, eating, shopping and appreciating a neighbourhood that is still very much pedestrian-oriented. We now celebrate streets like the 104 Street Promenade and 124 Street for their walkability, independent businesses and diversity – but what about Chinatown?

The area has made some strides in recent years, adding Urban China, and its new sister eatery Urban Shabu, which have helped draw crowds as destination restaurants. The Wild Rose Circle Project, with housing and retail, is finally under construction, and the McCauley Revitalization Strategy continues on. But in the short term, what else can be done to encourage Edmontonians to discover or rediscover their Chinatown?

I am part of a new group called Our Chinatown. We are a group of young professionals working to revive Edmonton’s Chinatown – reclaim its heritage, embrace its present and imagine its future. As our inaugural event, we are organizing a night market as a way to create a lively, energetic gathering that inspires a new vision for the neighbourhood.

Event: 97 Street Night Market
Date: Saturday, August 17, 2013
Time: 6-10pm
Location: parking lot on 97 Street, south of 105 Avenue

Heritage Chinatown Night MarketPart of our organizing team

Building on the success of the Heritage Night Market organized by the Chinese Benevolent Association on July 1, 2013, our market will set a different tone, anchored by a DJ and three food trucks.

We’re thrilled to have The Lingnan Express, Molly’s Eats and Swich offer Asian-inspired dishes, which will include ever-popular night market items like curried fish balls, green onion cakes and oyster omelettes, and modern takes on Asian cuisine such as Korean smoked meat and matcha ice cream sandwiches. Gama will also be serving up bubble tea! Check out the menus here.

Besides food, vendors also form the cornerstone of night markets, and we’ve assembled a great selection of items for your shopping pleasure! You will find everything from accessories to clothing, CDs and movies, toys and stationary to hand-made art and keepsakes.

Heritage Chinatown Night MarketHeritage Night Market vendor

We’re also excited that a few young performance groups will be on hand for entertainment. 5 Elements Drums and Lion Dance Crew will help us kick off the market at 6pm, and at 8pm, Convergence Dance Crew will bring us their best K-pop dance covers! I had the pleasure of watching Convergence at this weekend’s Heritage Festival – they just nailed Psy’s Gentleman!

Convergence Dance Crew!

For those who are interested in learning more about Chinatown’s past, present or future, we have also lined up several tours on the history, future development and artistic side of the neighbourhood. The schedule will be posted on the website on Tuesday.

August 17 is shaping up to be a Chinatown equivalent of Downtown’s Super Saturday. The Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival rocks the North Saskatchewan River from 9am-5pm in Louise McKinney Park, while the 5th Annual East Meets West Festival runs 11am-8pm on 107 Avenue and 99 Street. End your day at the 97 Street Night Market from 6-10pm.

We hope you’ll join us in (re)discovering our Chinatown on August 17!

Recap: Heritage Chinatown Night Market

When I heard that the Chinese Benevolent Association was organizing a night market, I applauded the effort. After visiting the Waterfront Night Market in Toronto last year, I started thinking about how something similar could be replicated here – though we don’t have the same level of density or Asian population numbers, Edmonton makes up for that lack in spirit!

What I didn’t know was that the CBA was planning to pull this inaugural event together in just over a month, after the idea came up at the Chinatown Unveiled Conference that took place in May (something I’m more than just a little sad that I only heard about after the fact). As a result, I didn’t know what to expect as a final product, but I’m happy to say that the results should be commended!

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

I was among forty or so volunteers who helped on the day. We were all given (and proudly wore) “I (heart) YEG Chinatown” t-shirts. It will be interesting to see whether or not others embrace this logo as readily as others have taken to “I (heart) #yegdt”.

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

We love Chinatown

102 Avenue from 95 to 96 Street was closed for the event, which ran from 4-9pm. The Lingnan Express anchored the west side of the street, and offered location-appropriate spring rolls, pork dumplings and crack chicken.

More than a dozen vendors lined the rest of the street, selling wares ranging from art, jewelry, tea, and small toys. On that scorcher of a day, I’m sure tents would have offered a welcome reprieve from the beating sun for both merchants and shoppers alike.

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

Vendors

A stage was set-up on the east end of the street, and a continuous program offered five solid hours of performances, including martial arts demonstrations, Chinese dancing, choir songs, and spoken word poetry entertained the solid crowd.

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

Choir

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

Dancers

And ever the scene-stealer, there was not one, but two lion dances! I’ve seen my share of lion dances, but they always manage to stop me in my tracks – I love the spectacle of noise, colour and drama.

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

Lion dance!

The event also managed to incorporate a bit of history, with photographic displays of Chinatown past and present. Though organizers had to scrap the walking tours due to the short lead time, they did distribute pamphlets for self-guided walking tours of notable locations.

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

Displays

As a first time event, I think the Heritage Chinatown Night Market was very well attended! It was especially wonderful to see many generations on the street – Chinese and otherwise! Given the plethora of Canada Day attractions available in the city and beyond, it was a coup that so many chose to stop by the market – I think it speaks to the need for more events like this!

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

The crowds

As my fellow volunteer Kathryn pointed out though, events at that very site won’t be possible in the near future. With Downtown LRT Connector construction set to start as early as 2015, organizers intent on this night market becoming an annual one will have to contend with some location pains.

Heritage Chinatown Night Market

With my fellow volunteers Olivia and Kathryn

Bravo to the Chinese Benevolent Association for a well-executed event! For those who may have missed out, you may be interested to know a few of us are working on a follow-up night market to take place later this summer. Stay tuned for the details!

To T.O.: District Diversity

One of the things I liked most about Toronto was the diversity of neighbourhoods – it was great to be able to take in such a variety of areas even in the short amount of time I was there. I know there were many neighbourhoods I just didn’t get to – I look forward to exploring them on my next visit!

North York

On my first night in Toronto, Amanda and I stayed in her ‘hood of North York for dinner. What blew me away around Yonge Street was just how dense it was (the 2006 Census recorded a population of 635,370 in North York, only about 100,000 less than the entire population of Edmonton in that year).

North York

High rises

With high rises all around us, it was a reminder of the kind of amenities that can bloom around that sort of density. One great example was a complex with a Loblaws on a ground floor, entertainment and shopping above that, and condo towers on top – and all connected to a subway station across the street.

North York

Amenities galore

Unfortunately, it was clear what was the priority means of commuting in that neighbourhood: given the number of storefronts that lined both sides of Yonge Street, there was a dire need for crosswalks in smaller intervals. Instead, we saw innumerable pedestrians jaywalking across the five lane road.

North York

Inhospitable Yonge Street

West Queen West

Although Amanda currently lives in North York, her dream neighbourhood in Toronto is West Queen West. An eclectic mix of boutiques and lofts, I could easily see why she’d want to move here.

West Queen West

Picturesque walk-ups

The Spice Trader

The Spice Trader, a great little shop

Dufflet

Cookie from Dufflet – tasted like a Reese peanut butter cup!

Harbourfront

On those hot and humid days, there was nothing better than standing out by the lake, taking in the cool breeze.

Harbour

Feeling refreshed

I didn’t get to do this as often as we would have liked during that week, but I did really enjoy the stroll on the boardwalk we did get to take that night!

Harbour

Out on the lake

Chinatown

Our trek through Chinatown was brief, and focused – Amanda and I spent most of our time trying to track down something for our Mum.

Chinatown

Gorgeous murals

Chinatown

Yum!

We also didn’t wander past the tourist-driven shops, a shame because I know it would have been a great area to eat our way through.

Chinatown

Couldn’t resist a picture of sushi-bobbleheads

Kensington

Kensington, with its hippie sensibilities, reminded me of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury (though maybe not as rough around the edges). I loved the colourful homes-turned-shops, with wares spilling into their yards and onto the sidewalk. The area actually closes its streets once a week as well for “pedestrian Sundays”.


Charming

Judith Deutsch Park

One of the most rewarding byproducts of exploring a city on foot is the things you end up stumbling upon. Judith Deutsch Park was a fun example of this, a narrow playground we came across on our way from Chinatown to Kensington.

Julius Deutsch Park

Amanda loves to exercise!

The playground was made up of sturdy metal versions of popular gym equipment – everything from an elliptical to resistance machines.

Julius Deutsch Park

Whee!

It just seemed so random, but was such a neat interactive little pocket that definitely livened up a dreary strip of pavement.

Distillery District

Historically, the Distillery District dates back to 1832, and represents the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America. The area was purchased by developers and re-opened in 2003, offering a mix of cultural and retail experiences, as well as residential options.

Distillery District

Distillery District

Without a doubt the neighbourhood itself is picture-perfect: the area is enclosed, bastion-style, with brick and stone walls. Paired with the cobblestone, pedestrian-friendly streets, it was no surprise when we saw a wedding party traipsing through for photo opportunities. The Distillery has also been home to all sorts of interesting events, including food truck festivals and Toronto’s first Diner en Blanc.

Distillery District

Photo op

They had some interesting outdoor sculptures as well, which nicely juxtaposed the historic backdrop.

Distillery District

Arts market

Distillery District

Straight out of War of the Worlds

It was a great area to browse – an outdoor arts market was set-up, in addition to some funky gift and houseware shops. We especially enjoyed the art on display at Cube Works, all constructed entirely out of Rubik’s cubes.

Distillery District

Shopping

Distillery District

KD!

Distillery District

Only limited by their imagination…

We decided to grab a coffee at Balzac’s, which seemed to be a top-rated café in Toronto. We were puzzled, then, to encounter a sign that warned that no photography was permitted inside the shop. We had to wonder about this policy, especially for a third-wave coffee shop – wouldn’t they want the publicity from coffee addicts posting candid photos taken of their drinks?

Distillery District

Balzac’s

Mack defied the signage and snapped a quick photo of the interior, which was quite striking. The coffee, on the other hand, wasn’t a highlight.

For lunch, we stopped inside Mill Street Brewery, a microbrewery known for their organic lager (it can be found in Edmonton). The restaurant side was comfortable, serving up predictable, but comforting pub classics. Amanda liked her turkey club, and Mack’s beer-battered fish and chips were decent. My chicken pot pie was all right, though I could have done without the side of mushy, thawed peas and lead potatoes.

Mill Street Brewery

Mill Street beer

Mill Street Brewery

Inside the pub

Mill Street Brewery

Turkey club

Chicken pot pie

We stuck around for the free tour inside the small on-site brewery, which is now mostly used for R & D purposes (at that time, for example, they were trying out an Italian rice brew). Our guide reinforced how small they were in comparison to some of the big fish in the industry – what Mill Street produces in a year can be replicated by Labatt in eighteen hours.

Mill Street Brewery

Cheers!

Although it was a stunning neighbourhood to visit, I was hoping our food and drink experiences would match the grandeur of our surroundings.

Waterfront Night Market

A festival can be considered a temporary neighbourhood, which is how I thought of the Waterfront Night Market. It was such a serendipitous moment when I wondered aloud to Amanda whether or not Toronto hosted any night markets similar to the one found in Richmond, BC – then promptly stumbled across a poster advertising the Waterfront Night Market taking place that weekend.

As we didn’t have a car, we decided to take the free, advertised “fun bus” from City Hall down to the festival site (which happened to be the parking lot of the downtown T & T Supermarket). Apparently organizers didn’t learn from the previous year when similar problems happened – they again only had three buses, resulting in massive wait times. Although we waited an hour for the promised ride, they did avoid a #funbusfail.

Waterfront Night Market

The fun bus, living up to its name

When we reached the festival grounds, it was busy, but not quite as packed as I remember the Richmond equivalent to be.

Waterfront Night Market

I’m sure the smoke could have been seen for miles

It was clearly a food market, with merchandise vendors outnumbered ten to one. The hawkers in particular were entertaining, and reminded me of some of the Asian markets my family and I had visited long ago.

Waterfront Night Market

Meat on a stick

And though we had dinner not long before, we indulged anyway. To do so, Mack did have to get over the overpowering aroma of both stinky tofu and oyster omelettes though.

Waterfront Night Market

The bane of Mack’s existence

Waterfront Night Market

Thirst-quenching

Waterfront Night Market

The strawberry ice drink I ordered (featuring fruit popping pearls) had the consistency of ice cream!

Waterfront Night Market

The tornado potato was unfortunately not crispy

In addition to the vendors, there was a live music stage and an NBA tournament going on – the sights and sounds were almost overwhelming!

I’m happy we made our way to the night market – it was definitely something we wouldn’t have been able to experience at home.

Ramen on the Brain: Meguro Ramen

The topic of Chinatown revitalization has been bandied about a lot in the past year, especially with flashy projects like the Yorkton Development residential towers and the Wild Rose Circle Development. But in the short term, existing businesses that bring people into the area will have a greater impact – no area can rely on large-scale developments alone.

That’s why it was great to see that a new ramen joint joined the Chinatown fray in recent months. Instead of opting for a newer, suburban location, Meguro Ramen chose to situate itself in the heart of Chinatown on 97 Street, in the space formerly occupied by Padmanadi.

In other large North American cities, the ramen trend has exploded, with eaters ravenous for hand-pulled noodles and umami broth. Ramen doesn’t yet have the same foothold in Edmonton, but we may get there soon if more restaurants with this focus continue to open up. During November’s cold snap, I met Annie at Meguro Ramen for lunch on a Saturday.

Save for the instant version, my experience with ramen has been limited. But in many ways, because of my love of pho, I am already partial to oversized bowls of noodle soup. At the same time, I knew my bias would affect my reception of dishes outside the realm of beef broth and rice noodles.

The interior has been completely transformed – gone is the buffet service, the dated paint, the wall of thumb tacked photos. In its place is a dramatic red and black room with paper and glass lantern accents, a space that I think would look even better after dark.

Meguro Ramen

Interior

Although Meguro does serve dishes outside of the ramen family (about ten appetizers, and three different rice bowls), we zoned in on their namesake entree. We had the choice of ten varieties, made up of different kinds of broth and toppings, including the most unusual combination of ramen and cheese of all things. I didn’t stray far from pho, ordering the beef noodle ($10.95), while Annie opted for the curry ramen ($9.95).

Meguro Ramen

Menu (I really appreciated the pictures)

Given we were among just three other parties, it wasn’t a surprise that our food arrived quickly. But we appreciated the expedient service, especially on that cold afternoon. The steaming bowls were garnished beautifully, while the atypical soup spoon helped round out its presentation.

Meguro Ramen

Beef noodle ramen

I enjoyed the beef very much, tender, with just the right amount of fat. The noodles were quite good as well, thicker than I had anticipated, but satisfyingly chewy. The broth was a bit of a disappointment for me; bland and lacking flavour, I had to reach for quite a bit of the spice shaker on the table to liven it up. Annie had similar thoughts about her dish – thumbs up to the pork (which she found to be better than Nomiya), but was expecting a broth to have much more kick.

Meguro Ramen

Curry ramen

When we went to the counter to pay, we asked the staff whether or not their noodles were made in-house. He responded, “It’s a secret.” Maybe it was meant tongue-in-cheek, but we interpreted that to mean, “No.”

Though our lunch didn’t quite show me what all the ramen hype was about, Meguro Ramen is close enough to my workplace that I think I will be back again soon – there are at least nine other ramen dishes that I’ll have to work my way through after all!

Meguro Ramen
10626 97 Street
(780) 497-8280
Sunday-Thursday 11am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-10pm

Day 2 in San Francisco: Fruitful Wanderings

When travelling, I have a tendency to try and plan out our days as much as possible. In the case of San Francisco however, I didn’t have much time to do so (I was still frantically reading guidebooks on the plane ride over). But because we had ten glorious days to spend in the Bay area, having a lack of itineraries actually worked out quite well – day two was a great example of that.

We started our day on a walking tour, something that has become a bit of a tradition on each of our last few trips. I was happy to find out that San Francisco is home to a bonanza of complimentary tours: San Francisco City Guides is a non-profit organization that offers over thirty different walks each month that span all areas of interest, for free (though donations are gratefully accepted).

We decided to start in Chinatown, given our hotel’s proximity to the neighbourhood. Our group of over thirty people trailed a guide for two hours or so, and though we were hoping it would get better along the way, we were disappointed.

Chinatown

Chinatown

Sure, we did learn some history (our guide pointed out some tiny windows that captive prostitutes would have used to solicit customers), and he did lead us through a live seafood and poultry shop that we probably would not have stepped foot in on our own, but having prefaced his tour with not wanting to perpetuate stereotypes, he seemed to create some of his own (among other things, he claimed that all Chinese, even those with several generations of American ancestors, were fluent in Chinese).

Chinatown

Such narrow alleys

Chinatown

Colourful lanterns

ChinatownChinatown

Not pets

One of the tour stops was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which was on our “to visit” list anyway. It was rather underwhelming as well – dim, and set-up almost like a front with two women forming the v-shaped cookies out by hand, the owner seemed to be more annoyed with visitors than anything else, which just seemed counterintuitive given tourists probably made up most of his business. We left with a few bags of cookies, and also the following photo which cost us 50 cents to take.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

Inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

The guide did make one impression – he said that in the past, restaurants in Chinatown would build their restaurants on the ground floor so that customers would be able to “conduct their own health inspections” as they walked past to the seating area on the upper floors. The only relic left from this era of dining was Sam Wo, and since it was lunch time anyway, we thought it was a good choice as any.

Sam Wo

Sam Wo

The food was definitely westernized, but was decent (and really, for $15, pretty darn cheap). The broccoli was the better dish, nicely cooked and coated in a savoury sauce.

Sam Wo

Broccoli and beef, and yang zhou fried rice

Satisfied, we decided to continue on to Fisherman’s Wharf (aka Tourist Mecca).

Fisherman's Wharf

The Wharf

The Wharf/Pier 39 turned out to be a great place to wander, especially on a hot day – the cool breeze off the water was refreshingly welcome.

Pier 39

Mack with Alcatraz in the background

Pier 39

I could have easily spent the afternoon watching the sea lions belch and flop

We did some browsing (it was hard to imagine the shops pre-tourist days – what did they sell if not t-shirts, postcards and cameras?), and eventually ended up at Ghirardelli Square.

Fisherman's Wharf

Segway tours

After sampling free chocolate (the pumpkin spice chocolate tasted exactly like a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks), we skipped the crazy line up at the Ghirardelli ice cream bar in favour of a treat from Kara’s Cupcakes.

It’s a lovely pink store, with the pricey $3.25 cupcake justified by Kara’s dedication to using local ingredients. My Fleur de Sel cupcake was rich, but the salty-sweet combination is slowly growing on me, and better yet, it had the perfect icing-to-cake ratio. Mack enjoyed Kara’s Carrot, pointing out that the cake was studded with raisins, and liked the cream cheese icing.

Fisherman's Wharf

Cupcakes

Being an adult fan of Chuck E Cheese, it was no surprise our next stop was the Musee Mechanique on Pier 45 (something I had read about in one of the guides).

Musee Mecanique

A different kind of football

The Musee Mechanique is an interactive celebration of antique arcade machines and mechanically operated musical instruments – instead of viewing the machines from behind a rope or pane of glass, you could actually play them!

Musee Mecanique

Mack tried twice, but couldn’t beat the machine

I had such a blast! And given most machines cost a quarter to play, it was probably some of the cheapest fun we had in San Francisco (and one of my favourite destinations overall).

Musee Mecanique

Aim and fire!

Back on the tourist path, we stepped inside Boudin Bakery, where San Francisco sourdough was invented. They had quite the little empire – a bakery, grocery/gift shop, and a formal restaurant. I loved the moving baskets whizzing overhead, “delivering” bread to the counters.

I had a good time just browsing the pretty bottles of olive oils and vinegars and marvelling at their novelty loaves shaped like crabs, turtles and teddy bears.

Boudin

Bread, glorious bread!

We settled on a sourdough baguette ($2.69), just to get a taste of something made with the same wild yeast from 150 years prior. The bread was distinctly sour (too sour for our palates, anyway), but we loved the crackly crust.

Boudin

I love me some bread

All the bread in the world couldn’t have prepared us for the “hill of death” though (seriously, if it wasn’t paved, it would have been a cliff of magnificent proportions), which we chose to walk up to reach Lombard Street.

San Francisco

Mack smiles through the burn

Lombard Street has the distinction of being the “crookedest street in the world”, with eight hairpin turns. Being the tourist destination it is, with people walking down either side, or driving through it, Mack and I could hardly believe it was a residential street – who would want to live with gawkers constantly in your front yard?

Crooked Street

Lombard Street

Like visiting Lombard, riding a streetcar in San Francisco is another tourist must, so we thought we’d check it off early, and hopped on one to take us up the rest of Powell. It was standing room only, and rather uncomfortable with the jolting stops and sardine spacing inside the car. We did love that the streetcar had complete right of way though – it would stop right in the middle of intersections, immune to traffic laws.

Fisherman's Wharf

Streetcar

We hopped off the streetcar at Union Square (a five minute walk from our hotel), and spent the rest of the evening exploring Westfield Shopping Centre. They had an intense food court (both in terms of options and decor) as well as a Bristol Farms (similar to Whole Foods). We didn’t have plans for dinner, so the cafeteria seemed like a good choice as any. And how could you not order from a place called Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom?

I had the 100% Kobe beef wiener ($6.89) – it was unbelievably juicy, but would have been enhanced with some caramelized onions. The onion bun was a great choice. Mack’s chili dog ($4.69) was piping hot, but he would have appreciated a thicker ‘dog.

San Francisco

Hot dogs from Jody Maroni

Since we scrimped on dinner, we treated ourselves to dessert – cream puffs ($2.50)  from Beard Papa. The vanilla custard filling was tasty (and seemed to be made with real vanilla beans), and the pastry shell was fresh, but to me, was nothing special. Mack liked his chocolate cream puff a little more than I did.

San Francisco

Beard Papa cream puff

We returned to our hotel, ready to rest our feet, as day 3 would see us behind bars – in Alcatraz!