As a resident of the San Gabriel Valley of California, I am no stranger to the 626 Night Market, named after the area code that SGV residents (like me!) share. The 626 area is home to many immigrants from various regions in East Asia including China, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, and includes the cities of Pasadena, Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rosemead, San Marino, Covina, Glendora, Temple City and more. Throughout the years, the area has grown into a rich ethnic enclave of Asian Americans, sometimes even lightheartedly referred to as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” Fittingly, the 626 Night Market has been dubbed the largest Asia-inspired night market in the U.S. and takes place in Arcadia, CA, along with other regions of the state like Orange County, the Bay Area and even Santa Monica. The night market usually occurs around spring or summertime and occurs on select weekends.
I remember a hallmark of my middle and high school experience was going to the 626 Night Market with my friends in the summer. The variety of food, art and merchandise vendors coupled with the bustling atmosphere was very appealing to me back then, so I recently decided to take a trip down memory lane by visiting the mini 626 market pop-up in Santa Monica near the Third Street Promenade.
Admission to the Santa Monica mini pop-up was free – all you had to do was book it in advance on the 626 Night Market website. I was curious to see how the typical layout of the market would translate to a small parking lot in Santa Monica.
However, my enthusiasm was quickly squashed upon my arrival. The number of vendors was sparse, and there were only two or three non-food or beverage stands. Though the food offered was extremely diverse – ranging from loaded fries, premium sushi handrolls, dim sum, waffles, corn dogs and of course, the classic baby bottle boba – it was also absurdly overpriced. Two steamed BBQ pork buns from one stand were $13, and they were subpar – just regular buns you could buy at the supermarket and steam yourself. The barbeque flavor was barely there, and the meat was very sparse. Moreover, the dough outside of the bun was soggy and not well-constructed – it was probably one of the worst BBQ pork buns I’ve ever had.
If I were to buy enough food at the night market until I felt full, I most likely would have spent over $50. For example, six pieces of takoyaki were priced at $16. If I went to Ami Sushi in Westwood, I’d only have to pay $9 for five pieces; or another sushi restaurant in Santa Monica called Izakaya Sasaya would gladly serve me six pieces of takoyaki at $8.50. This is nearly half the price. Basic boba tea was around $8 to $9 without tax, too.
Apart from the prices, the experience itself was very depersonalized and unlike the night markets I have been to in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and Taiwan. When I was in these various parts of Asia, I found that a key component of what made night markets so special was the community aspect. Street vendors would interact with customers – both tourists and regulars alike – as though they were longtime friends, and this generated an aura of intimacy and warmth. People in the U.S. are often more apprehensive toward engaging with strangers, but in those regions, I felt comfortable speaking to these strangers. Having those comforting, fleeting conversations with a kind grandmother making scallion pancakes or a middle-aged man frying beef skewers were the most notable aspects of the night market experience.
These facets were not present in the mini 626 market in Santa Monica, and now that I think about it, they were not present in the actual 626 Night Market that I grew up going to in the San Gabriel Valley either. Instead, the exorbitantly high prices created an impersonal environment. Rather than wanting to nourish the community with their food, drinks or other products, the vendors seemed like they just wanted to squeeze as much money out of visitors as possible.
Though profit-making is obviously important to small business-owners, the way that interactions between customer and vendors appeared made it seem like making money mattered more over authentic food. This devalued the experience and made me feel like I was just throwing money at stuff that wasn’t worth it, and I left the mini night market feeling empty –– and still hungry.
Also, on the night that I went to the mini market in Santa Monica, it was not busy at all and there were no lines, which was both good and bad. I didn’t have to wait for food, but it also felt like a ghost town. This was a huge contrast to the 626 Market in Arcadia – I recall it being so crowded sometimes that I could barely walk from one vendor to another, and wait times for food would sometimes be 30 minutes. So another important factor that was lacking from the mini night market was the vibrant and energetic atmosphere that is characteristic of Asian night markets.
On their website, the 626 Night Market claims to be “inspired by the open-air nighttime bazaars” that are abundant in Asia. However, my experience at the mini version of the night market in Santa Monica was anything but authentic and instead was overpriced and underwhelming. As someone who grew up in an AAPI ethnic enclave with access to authentic food and as someone who has been to actual night markets in Asia before, I was utterly disappointed by what the “night market” had to offer.
I would not recommend going to the mini pop-up in Santa Monica, – but if you’re curious, the 626 Night Market in Arcadia may be worth a one-time visit just for the energetic experience of it. Just know that there are much better places to spend your money for a more authentic experience.
Photo Credit: Amber Phung