Photos and Story by Alina Mehdi
A spiral potato stick. A juice served in a glowing lightbulb. Every summer, images of these kinds of eye-catching street vendor style snacks fill up my social media feed. The source: San Gabriel’s 626 Night Market. This year, I decided to succumb to the hype and stop by the Arcadia fair with some friends.
We began our walk from the JCPenney parking lot towards the market’s entrance just as the sky was beginning to darken. Passing the market’s chaotic parking lot, we had evaded a potentially bad parking situation and a $5 fee. The mass of people led us to the entrance where there was a reasonable $5 entry price.
As we entered the fair, we were met with a strong odor, which conjured the images of sweaty bodies vying for a spot in line at one of the vendors. We kept walking, noses pinched. Soon enough we had passed the smell that we weren’t accustomed to, which we suspected was horse manure, considering that the market was held at the Santa Anita Race Track. The smell turned out to be fermenting tofu, a familiar snack to many of the local residents of the San Gabriel Valley.
Our surroundings were initially a lot to digest; the number of people and booths was somewhat overwhelming.
As was apparent to us, hundreds of vendors apply to be a part of one of the biggest food events of the year. The night market rolls in every summer, this year being its 6th festival. Besides food, various booths sell hats, jewelry or offer arts and crafts like henna. The market even hosts performances by local musicians and dancers, on a small scale of course.
Next came the decision of the night: where to eat. A selection we thought would be easy given the delicious options present proved to be immensely difficult. The numerous choices were overwhelming and navigating the overcrowded market trying to get a glimpse of them all was not an easy feat.
While the food had slight diversity, vendors were predominantly of the Asian cuisine. This is due to the market’s history. Taiwanese born and Southern California raised Jonny Hwang is the mastermind behind the night market. Inspired by the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, he sought to bring the festival to Southern California. After a few initial drawbacks, Hwang eventually established the 626 Night Market as an annual event on the Santa Anita Racetrack.
Unable to come to a unanimous decision, our group split up; myself and a friend chose to go to Shake Ramen and the other half decided on Rakken, which served a modern take on classics. Shake Ramen was a traditional but portable ramen booth. The customer is able to construct a ramen cup, from the broth to the toppings. The line was relatively long, which served as confirmation that the noodles must be good. As the line progressed, my hunger, along with my excitement, built up, and I had already picked out all my ingredients. After about 30 minutes of waiting, we were close to the order window when the man behind the booth popped his head out and yelled out what never even crossed my mind as a possibility: “We’re sold out!”
My friends over at Rakken had ordered “Drunken Sailor Tots”. The tater tots were covered in cheesy ramen topped with an array of crab meat, lobster, bacon, and mustard aioli. This elevated comfort food really hit the spot, but it wasn’t my order so I couldn’t indulge too much. It was now about 9:30 pm and I was starving. At this point, the prospect of waiting in another 50-minute line was an unappealing thought. Morale was low as we exited the grounds, disappointed with how the night had turned out. The loaded tots and some mediocre boba were a silver lining but not enough to satisfy us. I was still starving and my friends weren’t completely full so I suggested we stop by The Cheesecake Factory, the closest open option, to appease our stomachs.
The efficient management of the market and its unusual, mouth-watering foods all point to an enjoyable experience. However, the surplus of people and long waits overshadowed that for me. As a local, I wouldn’t recommend the chaotic market unless you are incredibly patient. If you do go, make sure to eat beforehand as you will most likely be waiting significant periods of time for your food. Markets like these are a good idea if you happen to have friends visiting. Take them along and show them what Los Angeles is about: an overflow of people and traffic, long lines, and really good food.
The 626 Night Market will be here for another three weekends this summer, July 21-23, August 11-13, and September 1-3.