Everything you need to know about the Bay’s Night Markets
Photo by Mogli Maureal, courtesy of UNDSCVRD
Navigating through Asia’s night markets is a must for any traveler and food lover. Each stall usually specializes in a specific dish, so it’s easy to hop from stall to stall in an attempt to eat it all. You’ll see families sharing Lu Rou Fan braised pork belly dish and gooey oyster omelettes at Taipei’s Shilin Night Market, and late-night bartenders dipping into a steaming bowl of Won Ton Mein from a market stall Temple Street nightlife in Hong Kong.
If that description makes your mouth water, then you’ll be glad to know that long-standing Asian night market cultures and some of its dishes have made their way to the United States. The Bay Area, with its large Asian American and Pacific Islander population, has become a night market-inspired hub in recent years, and the events have continued to grow. They feature Asian street food favorites like the giant grilled squid on a stick, as well as local AAPI food innovations, like countless variations of Spam Musubi.
The Origins of Bay Area Night Markets
Bay Area night markets don’t operate daily like many in Asia, and varying fire and health safety codes make exact replicas of night markets difficult. However, the markets’ limited run for a few weekends a year creates enthusiastic crowds eager to eat among what can be more than 250 vendors.
626 Night Market founder Jonny Hwang established what he calls a “California-style night market” in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley in 2012, attracting chefs and artists from communities local. It was during the Great Recession that he was inspired by how Asian night markets helped entrepreneurs show off their abilities and grow their products, and wanted to do the same for struggling local businesses. After noticing that many Bay Area attendees traveled to the Arcadia and Orange County markets, Hwang decided to create 626 events in the Bay Area, starting in 2018 in Pleasanton.
Foodieland Night Market, many of which started at 626 vendors, came to fruition in 2019 and also hosts events in the Bay Area (San Mateo, Berkeley, and Sacramento) and Southern California. Although it is also inspired by the night markets of Asia, Foodieland presents itself more as a multicultural gastronomic and entertainment event.
On a smaller, more community-based level, the UNDSCVRD Night Market started in San Francisco’s SOMA Pilipinas cultural district in 2017, modeled after Asian night markets and created because “Filipinos like to party,” says Paloma Concordia , Public Relations Officer. . However, the larger goal of the UNDSCVRD Party Mood is to invest in and improve the local Filipino community by supporting small businesses like food vendors.
The popularity of the Asian night market in the bay has also come full circle with the presence of genuine traditional restaurants inspired by Asian night markets. Kevin Lee opened an aptly named The Night Market restaurant in south San Francisco in 2017, inspired by dai pai dong street stalls in Hong Kong, and even going so far as to acquire equipment from Hong Kong street vendors.
“It was only natural to bring the style of the Hong Kong night market to a space arrangement; not for a restaurant, but for the concept of booths and folding tables and plastic chairs inside and outside,” Lee said, choosing the Bay Area as the restaurant location. The night market offers classic categories of Hong Kong night market food, such as congee and noodles with a choice of toppings, such as mini red sausages and fish balls.
Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks, inspired by Taiwan’s night markets, is a Taiwan-based international chain with branches in six Bay Area cities, including San Francisco and Berkeley. Customers can get popular items like giant breaded chicken cutlets and tea eggs.
Popular vendors and dishes
Although generally more expensive than most hawker stalls in Asia, the food at the Bay Night Market still retains the same inspiration, with snacks that can be easily eaten on the go. Night markets allow both new food entrepreneurs to practice running a food truck or stand, and established businesses to bring their popular food to a crowd that can usually be too far away. Many vendors now appear in both 626 and Foodieland.
Crowd favorites include the thick, bouncy Vietnamese American garlic noodles with an umami punch, sometimes served with lobster. Many vendors sell the noodles, such as Oakland-based Noodle Belly and SoCal’s Cafe 949 and Lobsterdamus.
There are several musubi vendors launching the original SPAM, and new classics like Hot Cheeto Crusted Musubi from Junk Mail Musubi, and those seasoned with pork rinds from Supreme Musubi. The J-shaped Hawaiian honey cones, which have now expanded their presence to several states, have gained a cult following. Bun Bao always has lines for her cute panda and pig shaped steamed buns.
Suga Bros, a San Francisco-based candy cane juice spot that operates via Instagram, jumped onto Foodieland’s list after just six months in operation. Thanks to its presence in the night market, however, owners Patrick Nguyen and Harry Trinh say, “Foodieland has helped us learn how to operate on a daily basis. We also can’t forget the extra commitment that has helped us thrive over the past six months after Foodieland.
Some of LA’s most popular vendors even make the trip to the bay for 626 night markets. Hwang said, “Attendees love our LA vendors. These include originals such as All Dat Dim Sum, Chick N Skin, and Shake Ramen that cannot be found at any other Bay Area night market. Other SoCal imports include Egghausted’s tamagoyaki and Lucky Ball BBQ’s giant grilled squid on a stick.
UNDSCVRD offers a more intentional program for supplier growth. Filipino American food truck The Sarap Shop debuted at UNDSCVRD, where owners Kristen Brillantes and JP Reyes said, “We have positioned ourselves to use each UNDSCVRD to test new products and ways of operating,” such as the launch of their popular Halo Halo milk tea. Thanks to their growth from the UNDSCVRD, The Sarap Shop now has an operation in the Chase Center arena, as well as an incubator to help new food entrepreneurs at the UNDSCVRD.
What to expect this year
Since night markets are not daily events, plan ahead for popular events, which can be crowded. UNDSCVRD has planned a night market this year, but organizers hope to offer it again several times a year in the future. Can’t get to the markets? Bay Night Market-inspired restaurants will appease your cravings any time of the year.
626 Night Market: Bay Area
From Friday 27 May to Sunday 29 May
From Friday 29 July to Sunday 31 July
Alameda County Fairgrounds, Pleasanton
Cost: admission $5 to $10; buy tickets online (recommended) or at the door; $15 parking available
Foodieland Night Market
From Friday 1 July to Sunday 3 July
From Friday September 23 to Sunday September 25
San Mateo County Event Center, San Mateo
From Friday August 5th to Sunday August 7th
From Friday August 12 to Sunday August 14
From Friday 7 October to Sunday 9 October
Golden Gate Fields, Berkeley
From Friday August 19 to Sunday August 21
From Friday September 2 to Sunday September 5
Cal Expo, Sacramento
Cost: Admission $5-$7 online only, free for children under 5; $15 parking available
Saturday October 22
Location and time to be determined at SOMA Pilipinas, San Francisco
The night market restaurant
Wednesday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
230B South Spruce Avenue, South San Francisco
Street snacks Shihlin Taiwan
Open seven days a week
Multiple Bay Area Locations
Tips for Enjoying Bay Area Night Markets
While parking is available for a $15 fee at the 626 and Foodieland Night Markets, a carpool or public transit might be more convenient for other markets. The night markets are spacious, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes. Once there, it might also be a good idea to split your group up to buy different foods. You can meet at a pre-determined time to share your top picks and pick up everyone’s favorites.
While many vendors accept credit cards, Venmo, Apple Pay, and other digital payment methods, it’s a good idea to have cash on hand.
Most importantly, come hungry! You have plenty to eat ahead of you.
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