One of the best things about being back in Southern California is all the tasty food. When I was on the other side of the country, I would jealously read SoCal foodie blogs and take notes for my brief annual trips home. Of course, now that I’m an overworked resident with scant free time and a meager salary, it’s difficult to indulge as much as I would like. So the dream is still not quite fully realized, but a little delayed gratification only makes the pay-off all the more sweeter, right?
Luckily, after starting off with an arduous schedule and the most difficult rotations in my residency, I finally have a light month and can breathe a little. This weekend I went to the 626 Night Market with much anticipation. Modeled after the famous night markets in Taiwan and other Asian countries, the appropriately named 626 Night Market is held in San Gabriel Valley, which boasts the largest Taiwanese-American population in the USA.
Some of my fondest travel memories involve Taiwan night markets: late nights wandering crowded streets lined with loud neon signs, delicious aromas wafting through the air, snacking on comfort food while shopping for cheap cute gifts to bring home. 626 Night Market seeks to replicate that experience stateside. They fall short because clearly the atmosphere here is quite different and more akin to a county fair. But while there are definitely improvements that can be made, particularly with organization and service, I’m glad this event exists and hope it can become a regular fixture for our community.
This weekend’s 626 Night Market is actually the 3rd attempt by the organizers. The first was April 2012 in the streets of Pasadena and was largely criticized as disastrous and poorly planned, with suffocating crowds and limited parking. The second event seemed marginally better, but finally this weekend’s event was moved to a new location in the middle of the Santa Anita racetrack and spread over two days.
I decided to go in the afternoon at opening hour and successfully beat the crowds. Judging from the online feedback I’ve seen, the majority agree that the new location is a much better choice with substantially more parking spaces and more room to walk around in the market. Parking, however, was a steep $7 ($4 if you arrived in the first hour like I did).
Even with the relatively fewer people in the afternoon compared to nighttime, the long waits for food was disappointing. The event organizers did their part by providing a better location, but the vendors really need to step it up. Judging from the booth signage, most of the vendors have established restaurants, but many didn’t appear to have much experience working in the outdoors with more limited resources. I’ve seen enough episodes of Top Chef to realize it’s an entirely different beast. Especially at the popular booths, the staff struggled to keep up with orders and service was frantic and disorganized. I should not have to wait 20 minutes after placing my order to get some food. I can only imagine it got worse as the real crowds arrived for the night.
Food variety was pretty good and included the usual noodle and rice dishes, stinky tofu, barbequed meats, boba tea drinks, Taiwanese snacks, and other staples. If only the legendary Hot Star fried chicken from Shilin Night Market was here… A handful of popular food trucks also showed up, including the famous Kogi BBQ with their Korean street tacos (which I finally tried for the first time after hearing so much about them; they were sadly underwhelming).
I smirked when I saw the stinky tofu booth was located at the very edge of the market. They had brisk business though, and, to their credit, were speedy in fulfilling orders. Favorite food of the day was BBQ squid! The total wait for that was an unfortunate 30 minutes.
I also came across a favorite candy from my childhood: dragon’s beard! It’s made with very fine strands of hand-pulled sugar that dissolve on your tongue. Sadly, this may be a dying art and it seems to be impossible to find these freshly made around here… until now. I personally haven’t seen this since the mid-1990s. Running into this chef was notable enough that I got his business card. Seems that he only recently started his business in SoCal, you can find more information here about dragon’s beard and his address.
The merchandise booths didn’t have anything particularly interesting. I was amused by somebody selling bootleg K-pop posters and DVDs. $10 for a copied MBC broadcast of a Psy concert? I respect the hustle though… To make this night market more authentic, we just need more people selling boxes of $1 VCDs.
Overall I was underwhelmed by the experience, but perhaps I had my expectations set too high and obviously it’s not fair to compare to the well-established Asia night markets. The good news is that the organizers have been taking feedback to heart and each iteration is an improvement. Hopefully the 626 Night Market becomes a more regular occurrence, as opposed to every three months, which will help staff streamline their operations. Judging by the crowds, clearly the demand is there, and I’m grateful that this event exists to bring out the community and to run into friends. I look forward to next time!