Bustling with food stalls, flashing neon lights and groups of excited visitors, the 626 Night Market is a spectacle often touted as a must-see in Southern California. As Californian residents and food enthusiasts, we visited the market, compelled by its reputation as a vibrant hub of Asian American culture. Yet, as we exited the market, a nagging question lingered in our minds: Is the famed night market overrated?
The 626 Night Market is a lively celebration of Asian American culture and cuisine. Established in 2012 by Jonny Hwang, it was inspired by the vibrant night markets in Asia, particularly those in Taiwan where Hwang spent part of his childhood. Named after the San Gabriel Valley’s area code, the 626 Night Market started as a grassroots effort to replicate the bustling night markets of Hwang’s youth.
The 626 Night Market is a regular spectacle known for its ostentatious display of food stalls, vibrant color and ever-present throngs of visitors. A bustling maze of vendors offers a plethora of dishes, representing cuisines from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries. Notable for its Instagram-worthy food presentations, the market invites patrons to indulge in a sensory feast. Items on sale range from uniquely prepared seafood to creative dessert concoctions, bubble tea and more.
On attending, we found the experience to be more about the spectacle than the food itself. The food stalls, as many as they are, seem to be primarily focused on delivering ‘Instagrammable’ treats rather than authentic flavors. As visually appealing as the food is, the taste doesn’t always match the hype. It’s easy to get lured by the photogenic appeal of rainbow-colored drinks or heaping plates of fusion food, but the culinary substance is often lacking.
Moreover, the price of this spectacle can be disconcerting. A typical food or drink item can cost between $15 and $20, and with the added burden of entrance fees, a visit to the 626 Night Market can burn a considerable hole in your pocket. At times, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that you’re paying more for the visual appeal and experience than the actual quality of the food.
The enjoyment factor at 626 Night Market, we noticed, also hinges heavily on the size of your party. The market is a frenzy of activity that’s best tackled in a large group where the cost and variety of food can be shared. An individual or small group might find it overwhelming to navigate the crowded aisles and overpriced food stalls.
That said, it’s undeniable that the 626 Night Market has its appeal. The atmosphere is electric, brimming with energy and color, while the opportunity to experience and taste different cultural foods is a plus.
Beyond food, the 626 Night Market also features retail vendors selling unique merchandise, live music and art exhibitions, making it a comprehensive cultural experience. However, these merits don’t entirely erase the market’s issues.
Art Walk & Performances
Overall, the 626 Night Market is a place of loud music, lively decor and expensive, though visually appealing, food. It’s an experience tailored for the social media age — a spectacle where appearance trumps taste. It’s a place that promises more than it delivers, a fact potential visitors should bear in mind when planning their visit.
Planning your visit
For those still keen on experiencing the 626 Night Market, we have a few suggestions. First, to avoid the notorious California traffic and the crowds that surge later in the evening, arrive early, and remember to pack your sunscreen. We made the mistake of forgetting ours, and the summer sun can be relentless.
Alternatively, consider going much later at night. Not only do you avoid the daytime heat, but you also get to see the market in all its neon-lit glory. The ambiance is undeniably energetic and dynamic, transforming the area into a vibrant night carnival. This is where the market shines, coming alive with music, laughter and the chatter of excited crowds.
For Bruins located in California during the summer, the 626 Night Market experience can be made possible by attending one of the following locations:
626 Arcadia: Sept. 1-3, Sept. 8-10
626 Orange County: Aug. 25-27
626 Bay Area: July 28-30
626 Mini Milpitas: Aug. 5-6, Aug. 19-20, Sept. 9-10
626 Mini San Diego: Aug. 12-13
626 Mini Santa Monica: July 15-16, July 29-30, Aug. 12-13, Aug. 26-27
Tickets can be purchased in person with cash only, but we recommend buying them online ahead of time. Online tickets can be purchased here.