When James and I visited Taiwan together in 2008, we spent nearly every night visiting night markets around Taipei. Endless rows of tents along narrow streets filled with clothes, knick-knacks and various electronic goods were flanked by food carts and vendors. In the more populated areas, the streets were wide enough to accommodate various street performers–singers, breakdancers, and sometimes martial arts demonstrations. And the brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants were always close by, making the night market a one-stop destination for any of your needs. I was hopelessly addicted to the shopping; James pointed out that I barely wore anything that I had packed and doubled my luggage weight in clothes on our return flight. I have to admit–I don’t own most of the clothes I bought in Taipei anymore. But I still carry the memory of the night market street food with me to this day.
626 Night Market began as an attempt to bring the buzz and energy of the Taipei night markets to Southern California in 2012. A group of volunteers gathered interest from nearby restaurants and shops, and the night market was titled ‘626’ to pay homage to the Pasadena area code. When I initially caught wind of the idea, I was surprised at the lack of interest shown online; I, by contrast, was practically glowing with excitement. I told everyone I knew about the event and counted down the days–anxious to relive the fantastic time I had experienced at the night markets in Taipei.
Apparently, everyone else and their mothers AND their fathers AND their second cousin from San Diego that happened to be visiting for the weekend AND… okay, you get the idea. A group of my friends & I got stuck in traffic a mile away from the night market location; when I saw the throngs of Asian-Americans congesting the streets, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. That feeling became full-blown disappointment when we finally made our way to the night market perimeter and saw the crowds. People were so tightly packed that women had to hold their babies’ strollers above their heads to walk. Food stands were overwhelmed–the wait line averaged 30 minutes and most of them ran out of food in the first hour. When we tried to escape the zoning nightmare, it took another hour for the traffic to disperse. To say that I was disappointed would be a gross understatement–and when I checked the community response online, I saw that I was in the vast majority.
Lucky for me (and the rest of the Southern California community), the organizers didn’t allow the negative press to get them down and instead focused on the staggering amount of traffic they generated. The words ‘night market’ were special to people of all ages and backgrounds; now that interest from the public was obvious, it would be easier to justify the profits to other vendors. The 626 Night Market moved its location from the smaller, restrictive blocks in Old Town Pasadena to the sprawling grounds at Santa Anita Racetrack and never looked back.
As a visitor to both the initial attempt at the night market last year and the most recent event on Sunday, I am truly amazed at how successful the night market has become in so short a time span. This is in no small part due to the extensive Chinese/Taiwanese-American community out here in SoCal–and true to the demographic, the majority of the food offered was Chinese/Taiwanese. The distinct (and delicious?) smell of stinky tofu greeted our nostrils as soon as we parked; my brother recoiled in disgust, but I was awash in nostalgia for Taipei. Scallion pancakes topped with egg, lamb skewers, grilled squid peppered with five-spice, milk tea, egg waffles…
Other Asian street food was represented as well, including Japanese okonomiyaki, Korean pancakes, Indonesian skewers, and Filipino balut. (Gross.) Very popular food trucks also made an appearance–LudoBites, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Kogi and BellyBombz are just a few of the trucks I remember off the top of my head.
The smells in the air were amazing, and despite being full we kept eating–kept being lured into the promise of another tasty bite by the smoke wafting in the air and through the tents. The lines were long at the time we arrived (7:30pm) but petered out after 9pm; probably the only benefit of going on Sunday since the market closed at 11pm. And it was crowded, but not to the point where I felt my movement was restricted. It was evident that everyone there, young and old, were just as excited at the prospect of a night market here in the States–as well as happy at the overabundance of good food in the immediate area.
A few artists and other areas of curio were spattered amongst the food stands, but the market was primarily geared towards eating–which made walking around a little less fun after stuffing myself on food. I would recommend going more than once in order to try a larger amount of the food offered; the entry fee is only $3, which is well worth the well-maintained grounds and variety of cuisine. The main issue that James and I had with the night market was that all of the food stands were representations of restaurants in the area that we have access to at any time–and because of that, I think that the night market might be more fun for people visiting from a different city or area. But that fact would never prevent me from going in the future with friends, because we still had a blast.
The real question, however, is this: how true is this American version of a night market to the original markets I experienced and cherished in Taipei? I don’t think I could fairly compare the two; night markets are a daily fixture of life in Taipei whereas the 626 Night Market is a monthly festival held over the summer in Arcadia. I’m excited to see how 626 Night Market will grow in the coming years, and hoping that it inspires other metro cities around the country to follow suit–maybe one day night markets will no longer be a novelty, but just another aspect of daily life…? (A little far-fetched, but I can dream!)