I was really excited to try 626 Night Market. Having heard that it was plagued by issues in it’s first several incarnations – I figured they would’ve been largely mitigated by now. I was wrong.
Though not clean food, by any means (aged Taiwanese microwaves and dirty grills everywhere) I expected as much going into this one. Yet given the rich culture of street food in Asia I was expecting to see lots of creativity and piquant flavors.
Located in the 626, at the Santa Anita racetrack – a truly beautiful part of the city that I rarely visit. We parked just as the sun was beginning to set over the majestic mountain backdrop.
The very first thing I noticed, as we arrived is that there was a strange smell emanating from the location that I could not get a fix on. As we were passing a dumpster, I thought it might be questionable waste materials – yet as the wind was blowing slightly I simply could not figure out the location. I convinced my friend it must be the horse stables being cleaned out. As we made it to the gate for entrance to the market, the smell dissipated.
I just really wasn’t impressed by much of the food that was being offered by the various vendors, as well, the prices weren’t that inexpensive – something I would expect at night market.
We stopped by a bbq squid vendor and cut in front of some harajuku girls not paying close attention. The squid we received we rubbery, chewy, and highly inedible. We actually handed it off to another vendor selling mobile phone covers for exorbitant amounts.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying these massive pineapple drinks. They looked delicious, but I was dissuaded by the price and the line.
The next thing we were able to stand waiting for was a rice ball, covered in what appeared to be Kewpie and soy sauce. Not bad.
By far the best thing we ate at the market was at a Okonomiyaki stand. I actually was more interested in the Takoyaki (octopus balls) that they were producing. This Japanese pancake vendor had a line so obscene that they were just sending out pancakes to sell to people waiting in line. This was $4, again coated in kewpie, bulldog sauce, and delicious shaved bonito – the japanese parmesan. Loaded with previously frozen shrimp and other unidentifiable seafood products, we ate this extremely quickly. Good stuff.
As the night wore on, I was starting to get the tourist trap feeling, watching hapless patrons getting fleeced of their money for the same food they could buy down the street for half the price. Chinese and Japanese cuisine was far over represented here; more Malay, Burmese, Thai, and Singaporean is sorely needed.
A great deal of the products offered were in the typical umami-overkill style that is still popular despite its ubiquitousness in L.A these days. A cuisine that has roots in a culture of libertarian marijuana policy – think Roy Choi and to a lesser extent David Chang. I’m talking heavy, uneven use of pork (belly), miso, mayonnaise, rich cheeses, and duck fat. Cooking that attempts to make up for a lack of finesse with high doses of richness.
As we walked on, again, the smell returned – wafting over the crowd causing everyone to cover their noses. I mean, I can take some serious smells, but this was so terrible it began to ruin my appetite. As the smell kept coming and going all over the massive area of the market, I tweeted that the smell was killing me ( much to the hilarity of my Asian blogger friends) and the “official” 626 twitter feed responded back to me that it was, “the stinky tofu”. Now we had a mystery on our hands.
As the smell got unbearable, we decided to cut our visit short agreeing that no way possible could the smell be stinky tofu; more likely a combination of grassy horse manure and rotting garbage?
I did have a good time though, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the food or the smell, yet I most likely won’t be returning. This could be FAR more successful if they made it smaller, sold less tickets, and increased the quality control on the vendors. It would sell out every session with better results.