When I first heard that there would be a restaurant called "Night Market" opening up right in Harvard Square offering street snacks like yakitori grilled meats, Taiwanese meat sauce over rice, and other creative dishes, I got really excited. Would there really be a night market right around the corner from my home? Visions of night markets strolls in Taiwan started floating through my head.
Proprieter Ash Chan, son of Gerald Chan (Harvard University donor and owner of a large chunk of buildings in Harvard Square), missed the Asian street-style comfort foods that he found so readily available when he lived in Southern California. He teamed up with Anthony Ngo to create a place that would fill that void.
Night Market opened in late 2014, helmed by Boston chef Jason Tom (Stir, Chez Henri, Island Creek Oyster Bar, East by Northeast). It's not exactly a night market, though it's definitely inspired by the concept. This Night Market is a sit-down restaurant featuring Chef Tom's take on a lot of casual, street vendor type food from all over Asia. There's Taiwanese three cup chicken, Singaporean Kaya toast, Thai green papaya salad, Korean rice cakes, Filipino spring rolls, and Japanese yakitori, just to name a few. On top of all that, there are many of Chef Tom's own creations, some more Asian than others.
Night Market is surprisingly hard to find. The signage is a bit cryptic. You basically follow arrows written in chalk on the side of a brick building on Winthrop Street to find your way to the stairs that lead down into the basement restaurant space.
The decor is colorful, artsy, and funky, with lots of cool graffiti art from a local artist based out of the South Shore.
The menu consists of small plates ranging in price from $1 (for nuts) all the way to $12-$14.50 for some of the larger dishes. Most dishes cost between $6-$10. The server told us that even the largest dishes aren't quite big enough to serve as a main course, so people are encouraged to order 2-3 plates each.
We had a party of five, which meant we would be able to try lots and lots of dishes.
After sitting down, the server immediately brought us a small can full of Sichuan peppercorn caramel popcorn for us to much on while perusing the menu. It's not too spicy, so even the non-spicy eaters at our table had no problems with it.
We started with some simple Numb Nuts ($1), a small cup filled with peanuts roasted in a Sichuan peppercorn, garlic, palm caramel, and Korean chili mixture. The nuts are quite tasty, and we were hungry, so it was easy to quickly eat them up. At $1 for a cup, there's no reason not to get one (or a few if you have a big table).
The Tea Egg ($4) is literally just one egg cooked in a soy sauce and Pu-er tea. Sliced into four pieces, the egg comes with finely minced red cabbage, a bright green sauce, and a small dash of paprika - a nod to the Western-style deviled eggs. These were tasty enough, though they had a stronger soy flavor than tea flavor. I personally prefer a stronger tea flavor in my eggs, and in fact I don't use any soy sauce when I make my version at home. Nevertheless, it's a tasty egg and I enjoyed dipping it in the green sauce.
The Daikon Fries ($8.75) are dusted in rice powder, fried, and then seasoned with salt, garlic, ginger, and white pepper. They are crunchy, flavorful, and just all around addictive. In fact, they were one of the my favorite dishes of the night. You can dip them in a garlic black bean aoili or smoked tomato/ginger ketchup (which is fun), though I enjoyed them just as much on their own.
The side of Brussels Sprouts ($8.50) comes with Chinese sausage, black vinegar, and slivers of fresh ginger. It's not bad, but it's not great either. I found the black vinegar to be a bit overpowering. It's not bad if you're trying to get some veggies in your diet, but it's not one of the better dishes.
The Filipino Spring Rolls ($6) are made with pork and shrimp and come with a green curry cashew pesto dipping sauce. One fun twist: all spring rolls are served on sheets of Japanese manga. I wish I knew more about food from the Philippines so I could tell you whether it was authentic or not, but I honestly have no idea. I enjoyed the cashew-based dipping sauce and found the rolls to be properly fried (nice and crispy!) and pretty tasty.
The server highly recommended the Smoked Chicken Spring Rolls ($7), a special of the day. These spring rolls are larger and much more substantial than the Filipino ones. Filled with smoked chicken, Napa cabbage, carrots, and scallions, they were satisfying and had a nice crunch.
The moment our Singaporean friend took a bite of the Chinese Fish Fry ($8.50), she immediately said, "this is canned fish."
She's right, in a sense.
Salted fried dace with black bean sauce is a well-known canned fish originally from Guangzhou, China. It's a classic dish that has been passed down from generation to generation, and most Asian are very familiar with its flavors. Even Bryan, who grew up in America, said, "I know this dish. My mom used to serve this at home."
At Night Market, that same, familiar can becomes the serving bowl for this adaptation of the dish. But there's a surprise. You're not just eating canned salted fish. Underneath the pile of salted canned dace is a bed of rice, mustard greens, and Thai chili. They tame the saltiness of the cured fish and make the overall dish more interesting and balanced.
There's a yakitori grill where you can order all different types of skewers ranging from $2 to $4. Shishito Peppers (5 peppers for $3) are brushed slightly with soy and vinegar. I love grilled shishito peppers and these were great.
The Xinjuang Meatballs ($4) are lamb meatballs heavily seasoned with cumin, coriander, chilis, and garlic. I liked the strong cumin flavor, and overall I thought it was comforting and tasty. Bryan really wanted to get the Chicken Hearts ($2), which were dense, chewy, and had a faint offal flavor. Bryan really liked it, though I realized I'm not a huge fan of heart in general. Finally, the Chicken Yakitori ($2), which comes with a tare sauce, was generously sized but was a bit dry.
The Fried Chicken Wings ($8.75) are available in two flavors: numb numb chicken (Sichuan spice), or tebasaki, (a sweet garlic glaze). We went with the spicy one, which was still manageable in terms of spice. It reminded me of Korean style fried chicken (sort of like Bon Chon), but a bit saucier and not as crispy. Although perfectly serviceable on its own, most of us agreed that Bon Chon is better.
One of the favorites of the night (from everyone) was the Shaky Shaky Beef ($14.50). Beef tenderloin is marinated in lime, mirin, and soy and served over sliced tomatoes, pea tendrils, and jasmine rice. I was pleasantly surprised at how tender and flavorful the meat was. I liked the touch of citrus and sweetness in the marinade, which balanced out the umami of the beef. All in all, it was an excellent dish and definitely one of the best ones.
The Taiwan Minced Pork Rice ($12) is a street classic in Taiwan. Night Market's version is made with finely minced pork belly that has been stewed in soy sauce, hard spices, and caramel for five hours. This decadent sauce is served over jasmine rice and comes with a fried egg on top. I thought the flavors were very authentic and reminded me of versions I've had at restaurants (though in all honesty I'm not sure if I've ever had one on the streets of Taiwan). It's definitely richer and more decadent than the version I make at home, but it's very good. Bryan really liked the addition of the egg on top, and told me I should always do that when I make this dish at home.
The Korean BBQ Pork Rice Cakes ($12), another special on the menu, consists of Korean barbecued pork, Longhorn peppers, and rice cakes stir fried together. The dish is finished with a fried egg and deep fried shallots on top. I thought this dish was alright, though it didn't evoke the same surprised "wow" reaction that I got from the tenderloin.
I've never seen Kaya Toast, a Singaporean breakfast classic, anywhere in Boston until now. Called Sweet Toast ($8) on the menu, this Singaporean classic consists of toast with kaya, a pandan infused coconut jam, served with a poached egg in Maggi seasoning.
The best way to enjoy this is to dip the toast into the poached egg.
We asked our Singaporean friend, "does this taste authentic?"
She said, "it's not the same, but it's close."
We later learned that Maggi, a dark flavor-enhancing seasoning sauce made from vegetable hydrolyzed protein, is not a typical ingredient used in Singapore's version of Kaya Toast.
I personally loved the rich saltiness that the Maggi sauce added, and everyone at the table (Singaporean included!) really enjoyed this version of the dish. It was both sweet and salty at the same time, and ended up serving as the perfect dessert.
Our group had a lot of fun at Night Market. It wasn't too crowded on a Thursday evening, so we were able to basically walk in at around 7PM and get seated immediately. The service was fine, the atmosphere was casual, and we felt like we could relax and just chill. I like how the menu gives you the option of ordering several different small plates each. It's fun to go with a larger group because you can try so many more things. Our party of five really got to experience a pretty large chunk of the menu.
Don't expect actual night market prices. The portions are not huge and the dishes add up. We ended up spending around $30/person just on food, and we ate everything (and even had room for ice cream afterwards elsewhere in Harvard Square!).
There are some very good dishes and others that don't stand out but aren't too shabby either. My favorites were the Daikon Fries, Taiwan Minced Pork Rice, Shaky Shaky Beef, and Sweet Toast. Most of the other dishes were decent and would easily satisfy an Asian late night craving.
I personally think it's a welcomed addition to Harvard Square, an area that is woefully devoid of solid and creative Asian-fusion (especially Chinese) restaurants. I wouldn't say that the food is necessarily destination-worthy (if you're in Boston you can go to Shojo or Midnight Ramen at Uni Sashimi Bar). However, for those of us who live nearby, it's a welcomed breath of fresh air. Now, finally, if I have a craving for Taiwanese minced pork over rice or Singaporean Kaya toast, I don't really have to travel far to get it. Though it's not quite like having a real Asian night market near my home, it's far closer than anything I've had up to this point.
Night Market Harvard Square
75 Winthrop Street
Cambridge, MA 02138