Photo by Mogli Maureal, courtesy of UNDSCVRD
Eating your way through the night markets in Asia 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 all the things. You’ll see families sharing the braised pork belly dish Lu Rou Fan and gooey Oyster Omelettes at Shilin Night Market in Taipei, and late-night bar hoppers diving into a steaming bowl of Won Ton Mein from a stall at Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong.
If that description has you salivating, then you’ll be happy to know that Asia’s long-standing night market cultures and some of its dishes have made their way stateside. The Bay Area, with its sizable Asian American and Pacific Islander population, has become a night market-inspired hub in the past few years, and events have been steadily growing. They feature street stall favorites from Asia like Giant Grilled Squid on a stick, as well as homegrown AAPI food innovations, like countless variations of Spam Musubi.
The origins of Bay Area night markets
Bay Area’s night markets do not operate daily like many of the ones in Asia, and the different safety codes for fire and health make exact night-market replications difficult. However, the limited run of the markets during a few weekends a year does create an enthusiastic crowd excited to eat from what can be upwards of 250 vendors.
626 Night Market founder Jonny Hwang created what he calls a “California-style night market” in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley in 2012, drawing chefs and entertainers from local communities. It was during the Great Recession that he was inspired by how Asian night markets helped entrepreneurs showcase their abilities and develop their products, and wanted to do the same for struggling local businesses. Upon noticing that many attendees from the Bay Area traveled to the Arcadia and Orange County markets, Hwang decided to create 626 events in the Bay Area, beginning in 2018 in Pleasanton.
Foodieland Night Market, many of whose vendors started at 626, came to fruition in 2019, and also has events in both the Bay Area (San Mateo, Berkeley, and Sacramento) and Southern California. While also inspired by night markets in Asia, Foodieland advertises itself as more of a multicultural food and entertainment event.
On a smaller, more community-based level, 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 public relations agent Paloma Concordia matter-of-factly . The larger purpose of UNDSCVRD’s party vibe, though, is to invest in and improve the local Filipino community by supporting small business ventures like food vendors.
Asian night market popularity in the Bay has also come full circle with the presence of actual brick-and-mortar restaurants taking a cue from Asia’s night markets. Kevin Lee opened a restaurant aptly named The Night Market in South San Francisco in 2017, inspired by the dai pai dong street stalls in Hong Kong, and even going so far as to acquire street vendor equipment from Hong Kong.
“It was quite natural to bring the Hong Kong night market style to a space fitting; not for a restaurant, but for the concept of stalls and fold out tables and plastic chairs indoor and outdoor, “Lee said, of choosing the Bay Area as a restaurant location. The Night Market offers classic categories of Hong Kong night market food, like congee and noodles with a choice of toppings, such as mini red sausages and fish balls.
Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks, drawing inspiration from Taiwan’s night markets, is an international, Taiwan-based chain that has locations in six Bay Area cities, including San Francisco and Berkeley. Customers can get popular items such as giant Breaded Chicken Cutlets and Tea Eggs.
Popular vendors and dishes
While generally more expensive than many of the hawker stalls in Asia, the Bay’s night market food still retains the same inspiration, with snacks that can be easily eaten on the go. The night markets provide both exposure for new food entrepreneurs to practice running a food truck or stall, and for established businesses to bring their popular food to a crowd that might usually be too far away. Many vendors now appear at both 626 and Foodieland, as well.
Crowd favorites include Vietnamese American Garlic Noodles — thick and bouncy with an umami punch, sometimes served with lobster. Many vendors sell the noodles, like the Oakland-based Noodle Belly and SoCal’s Cafe 949, and Lobsterdamus.
There are multiple musubi vendors slinging the original SPAM, and new classics like Hot Cheeto-crusted musubi from Junk Mail Musubi, and ones seasoned with pork rinds from Supreme Musubi. The J-shaped soft-serve Hawaiian Honey Cones, which have now expanded its presence to several states, have gained a cult following. Bun Bao always has lines for its cute panda- and pig-shaped steamed buns.
Suga Bros, a sugar cane juice spot based in San Francisco that operates via Instagram, hopped on the Foodieland roster after only six months in operation. Thanks to its night-market presence, though, owners Patrick Nguyen and Harry Trinh say, “Foodieland helped us in learning how to operate on a day-to-day basis. We also can not forget the extra commitment that helped us flourish the past six months after Foodieland. ”
Some of LA’s most popular vendors even make the trek up 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 can not be found at any other Bay Area night markets. ” 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 vendor growth. Filipino American food truck The Sarap Shop got its start at UNDSCVRD, where owners Kristen Brillantes and JP Reyes said, “We positioned ourselves to utilize each UNDSCVRD to test new products and operating modes,” such as launching their popular Halo Halo Milk Tea. Thanks to their growth from UNDSCVRD, The Sarap Shop now has an operation in the Chase Center arena, as well as an incubator to help new food entrepreneurs at UNDSCVRD.
What to expect this year
Since the night markets are not everyday occurrences, plan ahead for the popular events, which can get crowded. UNDSCVRD has one night market planned this year, but organizers hope to once again offer it multiple times per year in the future. Can’t make it to the markets? The Bay’s night market-inspired restaurants will quell your cravings any time of the year.
626 Night Market: Bay Area
Friday, May 27 – Sunday, May 29
Friday, July 29 – Sunday, July 31
Alameda County Fairgrounds, Pleasanton
Cost: $ 5– $ 10 admission; buy tickets online (recommended) or at the door; $ 15 parking available
Foodieland Night Market
Friday, July 1 – Sunday, July 3
Friday, September 23 – Sunday September 25
San Mateo County Event Center, San Mateo
Friday, August 5 – Sunday, August 7
Friday, August 12 – Sunday, August 14
Friday, October 7 – Sunday, October 9
Golden Gate Fields, Berkeley
Friday, August 19 – Sunday August 21
Friday, September 2 – Sunday, September 5
Cal Expo, Sacramento
Cost: $ 5– $ 7 admission online only, free for children under 5; $ 15 parking available
Saturday, October 22
Venue & Time TBD in SOMA Philippines, San Francisco
The Night Market Restaurant
Wednesday – Monday, 11 am – 9 pm
230B South Spruce Avenue, South San Francisco
Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks
Open seven days a week
Multiple Bay Area locations
Tips for enjoying the Bay Area’s night markets
While parking is available for a $ 15 fee at 626 and Foodieland night markets, a rideshare or public transportation might be more convenient for the other markets. The night markets are spacious, so make sure you wear comfortable shoes. Once there, it might also be a good plan of action to have your group split up to nab different food items. You can meet up at a predetermined time to share your top picks and go grab everyone’s favorites.
While many vendors take credit cards, Venmo, Apple Pay, and other digital forms of payment, it’s smart to have cash on hand.
Most importantly — come hungry! You’ve got a lot of eating ahead of you.
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