The wildly popular 626 Night Market is taking a test run in Santa Monica
By Christina Campodonico
Jonny Hwang’s memories of childhood visits to Asian night markets come alive as tastes and smells.
He remembers trying stinky tofu.
“It smells like it sounds,” Hwang says. “You either love it or hate it.”
And chicken cartilage.
“It’s basically the chest cartilage of the chicken, but I remember as a kid going to the night market specifically for that. I still eat it to this day and everybody thinks it’s weird,” he continues.
These flavors may seem strange to a Westernized palate, but the overwhelming popularity of Hwang’s 626 Night Market — think busy nighttime farmers market drawing tens of thousands of people — proves that food is truly an international language.
Hwang hopes to bring a similar celebration of food to the Westside, if only on a smaller scale, with Friday night’s debut of Taste of Night Market at Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar.
“We thought the Westside was an interesting space because there aren’t as many Asian restaurants out here,” says Hwang, who, after spending his first few years out of college exploring the night markets of his native Taiwan, started 626 Night Market in the San Gabriel Valley and later expanded the concept to downtown L.A. and Orange County.
In Asia and now in the States, night markets are bustling evening affairs with thousands of people milling about savoring street food and shopping with friends and family, but Hwang wanted to downsize the experience for Santa Monica without losing any flavor.
“We changed the model to make it more of a high-end experience, where it’s a food-tasting event,” he says.
Instead of paying for dishes à la carte at individual food stands, Taste of Night Market patrons purchase an all-inclusive admission ticket for an evening of food and drink. Instead of 300 vendors, Taste of Night Market offers 50 specially curated food and drink items.
Hwang also expects a more intimate event as well — about 5,000 attendees instead of 60,000 or more.
The weekend event also coincides with the Lunar New Year celebrations welcoming the Year of the Monkey.
While there’s sure to be plenty to entice your taste buds, Hwang recommends some of his favorites. He says to try the Ahi tuna tartare, the Armenian beef dumplings from 10e and the crunchy wasabi Sriracha salmon-belly tacos from SoCal Grill Shack. Also on Hwang’s shortlist are the hand-pulled noodles from China Tasty, which will have cooks on hand for live demonstrations of the noodle-making process.
Other standouts are the Singaporean bread ice cream by Crescendo Ice Cream, a tea-infused ice cream with a splash of liquid nitrogen on top, and the original Ramen Burger. Created by Chef Keizo Shimamoto and named one of the most influential burgers of all time, the Ramen Burger sandwiches a fresh chunk of prime ground beef between two buns made out of ramen noodles.
“The Taste” Season Two runner-up Maria Chung, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Brazil, is also bringing her Brazilian beef croquettes to the event.
In addition to food, Taste of Night Market offers a line-up of arts, crafts and entertainment. Child stars from the TV show “Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown” make a meet and greet appearance at 5 p.m. Friday. Throughout the weekend, Night Market regulars Eddy Lee and Geoff Pascual of Pascual Productions and Kris Kehasukjaren of Minion Me are showcasing artwork and handmade goods, while musicians provide a cool vibe of acoustic musical sets.
Hwang hopes that the Westside will embrace the Night Market as much of the rest of SoCal has.
“I think recently people have been adventurous about trying more authentic foods, and then you have all these great fusions that have popped up in Los Angeles because we have so many diverse cultures and cuisines. I think food has become a bridge between cultures and between people,” says Hwang. “It’s kind of a gateway of getting to know someone.”
Taste of Night Market happens from 6 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Barker Hangar, 3021 Airport Ave., Ste. 203, Santa Monica. Tickets are $65, or $85 for VIP admission one hour early. For more information, visit tasteofnightmarket.com.