School is out and summer is here, which for food festival flockers means only one very exciting thing: Southern California's night market season is upon us. Let the consumption of stinky tofu, grilled giant squid and Fruity Pebble-flecked churros begin!
Night markets have long been a year-round standard in cities across China and Southeast Asia, where shoppers can avoid the brutality of the day's heat (or wander off a buzz after the bars close) while browsing through a bustling bazaar of art, clothes and, of course, food.
While the most famous night markets can be found in cities like Tapei, Hong Kong and Bangkok, the concept is now a staple all over the world, from British Columbia to Morocco to Lima, Peru.
In 2011, a Taiwanese-American named Jonny Hwang launched the 626 Night Market, which today draws more than 55,000 people to each of its monthly summer showcases at Santa Anita Park. It's the original and largest Asian-themed night market in the United States.
Last month, the 626 Night Market began its third year of events in Orange County (it returns June 17 to 19) with a three-day food extravaganza at the OC Fair & Event Center that broke previous attendance records and debuted new Instagram-worthy foods like fried nori tacos, rainbow grilled cheese sandwiches, fruity boba slush drinks served in oversized light bulbs and more.
Because in addition to being a place where nostalgic dishes like balut, yakitori skewers, bibimbap bowls, oversized chicken cutlets and more can be had by Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino and Japanese immigrants, the OC Night Market has taken on a new role as the home of fusion food trends that reflect the new, distinctly Asian American culture permeating the region.
For a newcomer, the experience is utterly overwhelming, especially if you make the mistake of showing up around dinnertime, when the line to pay the $5 entry fee is longer than the ones at even the most popular booths inside. Once through the gates, though, take some time to browse the hundred or so artists, jewelers, fashion designers and more who set up in the pavilion at the front. Consider it the calm before the storm.
Once through the merchandise section (some people literally sprint through this part), you'll emerge into a parking lot-sized food court with over 100 booths and dozens of food trucks waiting to feed you and your posse. (Did we mention you should definitely bring a posse? Bring a very hungry posse.)
Then, you just need to plan your attack. An amuse bouche might include a ubiquitous potato tornado (a deep fried swirl-cut potato on a stick), a few $2 meat skewers (lamb, chicken and beef are popular) or a fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin, which you cut open yourself before slurping the briny uni within.
For an appetizer, take advantage of the grilled sea creatures that abound, like monster squid and lobster. Booths hawking charcoal-grilled live Maine lobsters (like Cafe 949) tend to sell out early, but all night long there are lobster balls, lobster fries, lobster corn dogs, lobster nuggets and more to satiate cravings for that soft, buttery flesh.
Whole grilled squids tend to last later into the evening and come either splayed out on a stick (like at Calvin's BBQ) or cut into strips and served as a pile of seasoned chewy meat in a paper bowl (head to the booth labeled only "grilled squid" — the green "crack" sauce is a dipper's paradise).
Heartier main course options are vast. Do you want to go traditional with a plate of barbecued cold noodles from the booth with no English writing on its sign? Or would you rather try something more contemporary, like the Filipino-inspired adobo grilled cheese from Belly & Snout? You can have it all (including pho tacos from Rakken Tacos' two booths, sushi burritos from the Samurai Burrito truck and grilled pork sliders topped with pickled vegetables from O.C.-based newcomer Phuud), providing the inevitable food coma doesn't set in first.
Just make sure to save some room for dessert (this is where the posse comes in). Even the gnarliest sweet tooth will be satisfied with anything from a Hong Kong waffle cone filled with ice cream from Main Squeeze to a custard-filled South Korean sponge cake at Delimanju to a rocky road "dirt cup," which is handed to you looking like a miniature potted plant, from Ice Cream Garden L.A.
Want to waddle to your car more frequently than during the monthly bacchanal that is OC Night Market? Starting June 17, the smaller, mostly Vietnamese Little Saigon Night Market will pop up every weekend at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster. There, you'll find steaming bowls of pho, fresh oysters, fried grasshoppers and the simply named "grilled squid" stall, which draws some of the longest lines for its jalepeño-kissed green crack sauce.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.
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