There’s an excitement in the air that can only come from people hungrily waiting for food, searching rows of stalls for the next morsels on which to dine. The music is loud, just barely drowning out the sound of my stomach rumbling. It is hardly 5pm, and already the place is crowded, although the line to get in grows substantially with each passing hour.
626 Night Market is the closest thing to an authentic Asian night market this side of the Pacific. The concept of the night market is simple: a gathering of food vendors, largely causal street offerings, taking place at night for hungry consumers. This one is a bit different. Tickets are required, although the $5 early bird rate is minimal and provides for security, cleaning, lighting, and more. This one is also in the parking lot of Arcadia’s Santa Anita racetrack, rather than on a street. And finally, 626 Night Market (so named because 626 is the area code of Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, known for some of the top Asian offerings in the region) is a mix of traditional Asian fare and California flare.
The Los Angeles metro area is home to more than 2 million Asians and Americans of Asian descent. It is one of the largest populations outside of Asia itself – only New York has a population to rival LA – and is as diverse as the continent itself. Many of those cultures are represented here. As I make my way down the long first row of food vendors in search of the lucky treat that will become my first snack, I spy Filipino dessert buns, Japanese sushi, Taiwanese dumplings, Korean BBQ, and all manner of Chinese offerings. Other rows have Laotian food, Singapore-style noodles, and more. It is overwhelming to try to narrow down choices.
I decide to begin with something I would otherwise never eat: a whole fried squid. King Squid serves up this delicacy – and indeed, squid is offered at probably a dozen or more stalls in total, though not like this – whole, crispy just out of the fryer, and magnificent in its enormity. After a photo opp, I set to breaking it down into bite sized pieces using scissors offered for that purpose. Then, sitting on a bench, many of which are spread among the grounds in addition to high-top tables, I begin to feast. It is crispy, chewy, hot, delicious. I save some for later, since this one squid would easily make three or so meals, and I want to try other fare.
626 Night Market is distinctly Asian, but also unmistakably Californian. While probably 60% of the offerings are from the other side of the Pacific, the area is also full of traditional Mexican food, festival-esque Americana (think spiraled potatoes on a stick, deep fried everything, and churros of all shape and size – and yes, I realize that churros are Spanish/Mexican and not Americana, but in this form they are), and the wonderful California invention of fusion cuisine. Pho tacos, bulgogi burritos, pizza bao… these and more tempt me, and tempt others judging by some of the lines. I take a few photos of the booths, and set a reminder to look them up later to see if they have a brick-and-mortar storefront in the area.
Dumplings are everywhere here, from traditional of several different countries to fried chicken dumplings filled with pepper jack. I opt for the traditional, and an order of shrimp hargow (also spelled har gow as two words). These rice dumplings are delicately steamed, and though the bottoms stick to the paper trays they are served on, they vanish into my stomach in a matter of moments. I resist the urge to rejoin the line for another order… barely.
Needing a small break from food, I wander through the crafts market, a fairly new addition to 626 Night Market according to a few people I spoke to who had been here prior to Covid. While a few of the booths sell Asian items, most are just local vendors. For others taking a break from chowing down, the carnival games offer an attractive respite, and by the time I leave, a fair number of attendees are carrying large plush characters as symbols of their triumphs.
Japanese food tickles my fancy next, and onigiri presents a reasonably light option for my rapidly filling stomach. Onigiri is basically a huge rice ball filled with fish, wrapped in seaweed. I decide on the salmon, ponzu, and miso hand-held treat, and it follows its friends into the depths of my tummy. At this point, I am full beyond any reasonable doubt – twelve jurors would easily sign off – but I have yet to experience the crown jewel of the market: Bang Bang Noodles.
The line for Bang Bang Noodles’ booth is easily the longest in the market, and I wait about 45 minutes between waiting to order and pacing while my food is being prepared. But oh is it worthwhile! These noodles are hand-made in front of us, a show in itself. The chef hand stretches dough on a wooden board, then – BANG – slaps it down hard. Another slap – BANG – follows, and then the now fully stretched noodles are hand torn into long strips and placed into boiling water to cook. The Szechuan noodles come home with me, as I am way too stuffed to eat, and make a spectacular meal the following day as my senses revisit my experience the night before. Bang Bang Noodles is currently building out a permanent space in Culver City, and you can bet I’ll be there when it opens. The tingle from the Szechuan peppercorns is worth the trek!
With sunset being so late in summer, it is still light when I leave, passing a throng of eager hungry people still waiting to enter. So yeah, I miss the “night” portion of 626 Night Market. But I have no regrets. I ate like a champion.
626 Night Market is only open a few weekends a year here in Arcadia, although they also offer mini versions on selected other weekends in other parts of the LA area. It is a chance to experience Asian culture in one of its most awesome forms right here in California, and with a local twist. Having discovered it, I will be back in years to come. After all, there is so much more to eat!
Like it? Pin it!