Friday, September 14, 2012

626 Night Market: Second Chances: Taste of Asia in Pasadena

626 Night Market: I had a feeling it might be a bad idea when I saw the date for the inaugural event: April 14th.  What self-respecting and accordingly superstitious Asian would endeavour to hold the first of what might be a very significant event on a date containing not one, but two number fours? (The word for "four" in Chinese sounds like the word for "death" - hence two fours equal double death.  Alternatively, Cantonese may read "four one four" as daring death or taking a gamble.) But there was at the time, nothing else I was aware of like it in LA - an event that ambitiously attempted to recreate the experience of outdoor markets filled with delicious street food and vendors peddling their wares in the streets of the 'far east' (aka 'home' for the sizeable population of Asian immigrants in LA).

The concept that held so much promise was an epic fail - it was a miracle no one got seriously hurt. Usually large turnout is a good thing, but when as poorly executed as that first time - with an estimated 30,000 people showing up for an event that felt like it was planned for hundreds - there were some serious risks of anything from a stampede to fire hazards. I'm not going to rehash the grievances here, if interested check out my recap of what went wrong

But organizers saw, between the firestorm of largely angry feedback, the huge demand for an event of this type - and to their credit, pulled themselves up off the ground quickly to give it a second run: in a matter of months they were to fix all the major things that went wrong the first time - and to launch a PR campaign letting everyone know that they heard the feedback and have really addressed every key issue.  For most, it was too late - they'd been burned badly once and weren't going to stick their hands on the stove again.
Though I absolutely hated the way the first event was run, I did want the concept to succeed - especially after finding out that this was a passion project started by a small team of three, a husband, wife and friend, not some faceless corporation that failed to meet basic standards of public safety. And the second time round they had a smart social media strategy, with clear postings of event info to reassure people it was safe to give them another try.  There were maps of the vendors this time, showing thoughtful design to spread food-seekers out, clear directions to the event, including public transportation (the Metro was just a block away!) and where to park.   
Since admission was again free - and given the changes that they've said/shown they've made - the only possible risk in my mind was massive crowds again to test my patience.  And I was ready to give them one more chance - deciding that I would go early to try to avoid reenactment of that insane sea of humanity.

I arrived around 15 minutes before the official start time in late afternoon - while vendors were still getting set up.  It felt like the calm before a possible storm of the century - everything seemd to move in slow motion, with graceful fluidity.  I was able to do a quick round to check out all the stalls of food on offer, and come up with a game plan of which I wanted to hit once vendors were given the ok to start serving.

There were volunteers teeming everywhere you looked - in very visible red t-shirts - presumably to conduct crowd control as needed.  Yes they were high school/college kids, but at least they had plenty of identifiable 'staff' to help as needed vs zero that we could see last time. So far so good.

There were hard to find foods that I really wanted to hit up last time, but didn't get to, so I made a beeline for those booths this second time.  At the top of my list?  Dragon Whiskers candy - a cocoon like candy from ancient Chinese times, made by a shi fu on site live, pulling the silk-like threads made from honey and glutinous rice flour, and wrapping them around stuffings of peanuts, sesame and/or coconut, the traditional way. Loved these and bought two packs of the mixed kind with all three stuffings in one. (Shi fu is sometimes at Hawaii Super Market in San Gabriel - he didn't have a set schedule to share but I guess next time you're in the area it's worth checking to see if he's there:
Hawaii Supermarket 120 E. Valley Blvd.San Gabriel, CA 91776)
During my hunt for Hong Kong street treats, a lady firing up skewers of lamb Xinjiang style with cumin and chili over a coal trench stopped me dead in my tracks.  At three juicy, flavorful and fresh grilled skewers for $5, these were a great deal and definitely added to that street food vibe. I also loved supporting indie cooks like these folks, who take these as opportunities to showcase their stuff in hopes that they will be able to gain a following and eventually pursue their dream to have their own restaurant!  Plus, part of the coolness night markets is that element of in-the-moment-discoveries, checking out foods/things you might not normally have access to.  So, I loved this and many of the other stalls at this second 626 Night Market for those reasons.
Then I found my favorite stall of the event!!!  "Hong Kong Street Snacks" - another independent food producer without a current shop.  They were Mandarin speakers, and I didn't get to ask where they were from, but they had a pretty good grasp of classic Hong Kong street foods! 

Their Curry Fishballs (no, not gonads, but fish meat shaped into spheres) served on skewers out of a communal pot - took me back to my carefree grade school self, back when people had no issues with eating food from hawkers selling them from carts literally on illegal street corners - and health, hygiene, food safety were secondary to food that tasted the more delicious, the more it flew in the face of possible serious illness.  They sold from carts so that they could quickly roll away when they see a cop.  I used to love 'poking fish balls' from these carts on my way home from school.  It'd been so long since I'd had these - the ones at 626 Night Market tasted authentic, though legal, and definitely brought back happy memories.    
At the same stall they also served "Pig Rice Noodle Rolls".  These are rice noodle segments in a hoisin and chili sauce.  I wasn't impressed with the flavors or textures of these so much.
Another favorite Hong Kong street snack is the Gai Daan Jai - Hong Kong Egg Waffle: basically a special batter put in a hexagonal waffle mold with egg shaped compartments vs the more familiar squares in American ones.  In Hong Kong, these are usually served from illegal carts by street hawkers - and every child of the 80s grew up with these - another afterschool snack fav - and love them to death.  The ones at 626 Night Market were a little soggier than I liked and could have been a little more sweet, but delicious in the context of you can't really easily find these around LA proper! Apparently you can get them at Tasty Garden in the SGV - so that's been added to my To Do list.

There were also some interesting drinks served at the market: Momocha had a great iced tea with longan (a tropical fruit much like lychee), goji berries.

Though I was hyper focused on food, I think everyone who was there that afternoon stopped to admire this ginormous, gorgeous dog that was walking its owner round the event ;).  It's the biggest dog I'd ever seen with an Asian!

Of course, no Asian night market would be complete without stinky tofu.  I know it's blasphemy, but I'm not a fan - so skipped this stall.  It was amusing seeing non-Asians who enter within a 2-mile radius of this booth get instantly hit with a "WTF?!?" look on their face.
I was also getting full, and sad not to have room to try some of the booths like Mama Musubi (love spam musubi!) - though I figure spam musubi is relatively easy to make at home, even for someone who doesn't really cook all that much (i.e. at all, these days).

Other things I didn't get to try: red bean cakes, fresh grilled on-site.

To cool off in the crazy Pasadena heat, I had to try an iced treat that I'd never heard of before: Tofu Fa in iced ginger syrup with peanuts and dates.  It was like a cross between shaved ice, Chinese dessert soup and the traditional Chinese dessert of silken tofu in simple syrup - with toppings of peanuts and dates for crunch / bursts of sweetness.  Loved.

Though I was cautious in attending during the earlier portion of the event (in the afternoon), so that it wasn't technically a 'night' market experience, I definitely had a great time and left satisfied. The event has a lot of potential - you can never of course fully capture something as in their home country, but this is a great option for a 'staycation' activity at a fraction of the cost.  Could you get a lot of these foods in the SGV?  Yes, but this is like Asian focused food fest / street fair - where you get to sample many things in one place.  And it was a collection of good food at an event that didn't charge me admission - what more can an Asian ask for?

The turnout didn't reach the levels of insanity of the first event - but Round 2 was largely considered a success.  And organizers are already back with Round 3 - venturing soon further east to Arcadia, and expanding to two days: October 20 & 21st (as reported by LAWeekly).  Venue is Santa Anita Park.  Save the date(s), and if you were turned off by that first event - judging by the comeback in July: give the event a second chance!


626 Night Market  

July 28, 2012
Pasadena City Hall, Pasadena, CA


Next event:
October 20 (3pm-12am) & October 21 (3pm-10pm)
Santa Anita Park infield
285 W. Huntington Dr., Arcadia, CA 91007
(Enter through Gate 5 or 6 off Colorado Place)


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