Packed into the back-alley lot behind Honest Ed’s at Bloor and Bathurst, several hundred serious culinary explorers took to the food carts on Wednesday evening for Night Market at The Stop, a fundraiser to help the local food-services organization.
The Stop had brought in several local designers and studios to create booths for each vendor, creating innovative showcases for the food and celebrating the summer solstice. Decorated with fairy lights and a rainbow of paper lanterns, and surrounded by the surprisingly colourful brick backsides of restaurants on Markham Street, the lot seemed to be home to the best street party in Toronto, despite the sizzling surface beneath the guests’ feet.
The evening’s primary purpose was to serve as a fundraiser for The Stop‘s anti-hunger programs, but it was also a great way to highlight the booming street-food scene in Toronto. The parking lot was filled with a young, creative crowd—one that caught attendee Melissa Goldstein by surprise: “I thought it would be an older crowd, the type that you would expect to see at a fundraiser,” she said.
For $50, the Night Market functioned as an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of 27 of the city’s best culinary treats. Amid the snapping cameras and flowing beer, the lines at each cart moved—happily—very quickly, and booths were more than happy to offer seconds, thirds, fourths, and, dare we say, even fifths. (Torontoist reeeeeally liked Jack and Lil’s passionfruit marshmallows.)
Some carts, like Sullivan and Bleeker‘s, were self-serve. By 8:37 p.m,. bakery owner Elysa Wahle said she was nearly out of her 750 mini-cupcakes, and could not believe the success she was having. She also said that she liked working out of her cart, createded by design firm Halcrow Yolles. “It was a bit like a blind date,” Wahle said about seeing her cabana-like cart for the first time. “But I really like it. I think there will be a second date.” She said she plans to collaborate with the studio to make a table for her new kitchen at Dufferin and Finch.
A group of Ryerson students called [R]ED[U]X was responsible for Woodlot’s cart, a wooden structure of graceful arcs and a tiered body with purple lighting. Vincent Hui, the Ryerson architectural science professor who got the students involved, sees architecture and food as a natural marriage. “It’s using fundamental resources for a fundamental need,” he said of the kinship between culinary creativity and architectural design. One of the students, Jason Ramelson, said that the studio visited Woodlot ahead of time to get a feel for the restaurant and incorporate its vision into the cart. He called The Stop’s event “an amalgamation of different tastes” and hailed its use of “informed architecture.”
Suresh Doss, the man behind Toronto’s Underground Market and a street food activist, commended the use of the well-located parking lot. “It’s prime real estate to use for an event,” he said, adding that it achieved the air of a garden party, reminiscent of food events in San Francisco and Brooklyn, and matched the vibe of the food served. He also raised a glass to the wonderfully designed carts and mentioned that Woodlot’s was one of his favourites. (Woodlot really liked the cart, too—Ramelson said that they were interested in buying it from [R]ED[U]X.)
As for the culinary component, it’s a challenge to figure out where to begin. There were some familiar names and heavyweight contenders, like the Stockyards’ barbeque fare and Yours Truly’s dazzling Xi’an-spiced pork burger, but the real gems were the smaller vendors. Many were displaying their food for the first time—such as Jack and Lil, who served South African street food—or had only recently acquired commercial space, like Paulette’s, which debuts its donuts this week over at Queen Street East and Logan Avenue.
Lauren Gutter is the head, heart, and soul of Jack and Lil’s, one of Toronto’s only South African food ventures. Her son Daniel works for The Stop and encouraged her to sign up for a vendor’s spot. When ACE Bakery offered to sponsor some food, Gutter was inspired to mix up some bunny chow, a tradition South African vegetarian curry on a slider bun—ACE Bakery gave her 600 of those. She also put together fudge, coconut marshmallows, and the aforemention passionfruit marshmallows (although Gutter preferred to use the South African word for passionfruit, granadilla).
Another detail worth mentioning: many of the options were vegetarian, often difficult to find at gourmet events such as this. Hawker Bar’s son-in-law eggs were a great surprise for vegetarians, as Southeast Asian dishes tend to use a shrimp-based paste called sambal. The Beet Organic’s quinoa tacos were also delightful, and The Stop served up its own vegetarian pad thai.
By the time 11 p.m. rolled in, the smouldering heat was long gone, as was the food, beer, and spring season. As people sway their way into summer, the food scene has never looked hotter.