By Chris Erskine | LA Times
I should’ve been born with two tongues and five stomachs. As it is, one ventricle of my heart is devoted entirely to Asian sauces, particularly of the soy variety. Lots of men are built this way, with special ventricles devoted to the liquids they love: beer, milkshakes, Cabernet. Like express lanes to the soul.
So when I came upon the newest craze in gluttony this summer, the Asian night markets, it felt like I had belly-flopped into heaven.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Asian night market concept, join the crowd. They are relatively new in North America. The first one I found, a few weeks ago in Vancouver, Canada, redefined the street food experience. For anyone who likes extreme cuisines, or even traditional ramen or chow mein, the night markets are the place to be.
Prices begin at $1.50 to $2 for chicken wings or sausages. Portions are generous, yet most small plates are about $4. Admission is $2 to $3, depending on when you arrive. Children 12 and younger are free. (Which is a good price for a kid, but beware: They will eat you alive with their stupid dance lessons and video games, and then along comes college. Figure about 200 grand for that alone. So, though the kids are initially free, the costs can pile up quickly.)
But back to the night market. They have arrived in Los Angeles, in the guise of the 626 Night Market, now in its second year.
First held in Pasadena and now in the roomier Santa Anita Park, it features more than 150 vendors under pop-up tents, serving mostly Asian-style street foods modeled after a craze that began in Taiwan.
My buddy Chris called it “the Comic-Con of street food.”
The markets are a cheaper version of the food-truck craze but with more choices and a laid-back, chatty atmosphere. For 20 bucks, you can nibble your way through some of the most delicious, and occasionally outlandish, dishes you’ve never seen. For 20 bucks, I guarantee you’ll walk out very full.
Squid on a stick. Stinky tofu. Peking duck tacos. Pork bellymusubi.
How was the squid, you ask? A little chewy, as squid always is — lean as Laker Girls. My favorite was the Japanese pancakes (okonomiyaki) at the Gottsui booth, two for $8, a mash-up of vegetables and shrimp, fried up on an oily grill.
My other favorite — it was a tie — were the fried chicken wings at Dumpling Corner, a little home business staffed by family members. Lines here were very short. Waits at most booths generally were only a few minutes. But everyone was raving about the Dumpling Corner’s chicken, in a light batter, served sizzling.
By the way, here is my theory on crazy-long lines. People see long lines and think, “Wow, I’d better get in there. Something good must be at the end of this human rainbow.”
But there is a principle of diminishing returns at work here. For a line reaches a certain point — around the 30-minute mark — where nothing at the end of it can warrant that kind of wait. God himself could be signing baseballs, and I wouldn’t wait more than 30 minutes. Peyton Manning could be handing out Buicks.
In this case, the lines for a deep-fried, spiral-cut potato on a stick ran about 40 minutes, the longest lines we found. The allure was understandable. Deep fried potatoes of any kind are lusty to begin with. Then you skewer it on a stick, and the seduction is complete. No American could ever resist something that is both deep-fried and skewered on a stick. We are a strong people, pioneers in spirit and temperament, but we are still only human.
To my tongue and the tongues of others I surveyed, the spiral potatoes were OK but not worth the crazy-long wait.
There you go. Another reader service. If there’s anything I like, it’s servicing readers.
In a summer of fun discoveries, the 626 Night Market might be the very best. Its limited engagement is over too soon in my book. The season ends the weekend of Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Let me suggest that there be a night market — the ultimate tailgate party — here every weekend through at least October.
Vancouver does it, and so should we.
626 Night Market
When: The last one of the season is Aug. 31-Sept. 1
Where: Santa Anita Park race track, Front Paddock Gardens, 285 W. Huntington Drive, Arcadia
Admission: $2 from 4 to 6 p.m., $3 afterward, free for 12 and younger