As the sun sets over Westlake, brightly colored canopies rise and plumes of smoke billow from nearby charcoal grills. The buzz starts as hungry groups scour the food tents and review menus to come up with a plan of attack: one person in charge of the corn, another in line for the yaki mochi, and a third to tackle the boba tea. The snacks pile up and attendees pause to lick the chili powder off the corn as the night’s band plugs their guitars into amps crackling over the grill fire.
This is a summer night in Los Angeles, an all-you-can-eat street food haven. Night markets have long been places of cultural exchange in ethnic enclaves. Events like 626 Night Market, considered the largest Asian food market in the country, have grown into a lucrative empire throughout California. But other longstanding markets, such as the Salvadoran street food market in Koreatown and the Guatemalan street food market in Westlake, began as a platform to maintain cultural and culinary traditions within their communities. Challenged by law enforcement in recent years, these vendors are fighting to continue operating in the area in which they reside.
In recent years, a younger generation of Angelenos, inspired by these immigrant-run street markets, are hosting events to encourage entrepreneurship and community preservation. From the social media-minded group of friends behind MAMA to a family focused on their West Adams neighborhood through monthly celebrations, night markets have become an integral part of not only how people interact with surrounding communities, but also how they connect with their cultural identities.
MAMA, a team of approximately 12 Asian-American producers dedicated to exploring the immigrant experience through food, began hosting night markets in 2022 as a way to celebrate Los Angeles’ multi-ethnic cultures. On May 27, the collective held its 21+ night market in the parking lot of 1057 South San Pedro Street in downtown. The group is excited about many firsts, including hosting the Los Angeles premiere of a short film called Nǎi Nai and Wài Póand expanding its offerings to more than 50 vendors with newcomers such as Cambodian burgers from Staxs Burgers and Monterey Park-based Noodle Art, which serves hand-pulled noodles from Xi’an.
“[The night market] It all started with this really simple idea: I want a snack and a beer and be outside with friends in an environment that reminds us of traveling internationally,” says founder Jared Jue. “Sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s almost impossible to find in Los Angeles or the surrounding area in general.”
MAMA is appreciated for its viral video profiles of local, family-owned restaurants throughout Los Angeles County. Storytelling was always assumed to be a facet of his business. In addition to highlighting small businesses and operating its Drive-By Kitchen program during the pandemic for homebound Angelenos to pick up meals at immigrant-run restaurants, the night market is an extension of its careful curation of Asian heritage. Since launching their inaugural night market in May 2022, team members have doubled down as food scouts, building relationships with small businesses throughout Southern California and encouraging them to sell at a large-scale event.
The group operates as a for-profit business with a nonprofit arm called Respect Your Elders that provides meals for seniors. Admission to the May Night Market started at $29, while a $99 “VIP” option offered an open bar. While the vending restaurants keep all of the revenue generated for the evening, a portion of the ticket proceeds goes towards compensating MAMA team members who find and secure vendors for the event.
“It takes a long time,” Jue says of the scouting process. “It’s unlike anything else to convince legacy restaurants to change what they’ve been doing and try something new.”
The future of night markets must also be based on community activism, according to the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED). For the volunteer-led group made up of renters, business owners and organizers from across Los Angeles County, preserving food and culture is only as strong as the power of the neighborhood residents build.
With an increasing number of new shopping and dining attractions, Chinatown has become an attractive destination for potential businesses, sometimes without consideration for its long-time residents. In 2022, CCED met at the center of KCRW’s Summer Nights in Central Plaza, calling attention to how the event overlooked the input of its residents. Only six of the 30 vendors who participated in Summer Nights resided in Chinatown; one of them had to ask to even be considered.
CCED’s inaugural Night Market in March 2023 was the collective effort of small business owners and renters who had come together regularly to discuss the disruptive changes they were seeing in Chinatown, including rent increases and accelerated property development. “We wanted to offer something more because we were being very critical of Summer Nights, and this was our way of building something rather than protesting or dismantling something,” says CCED organizer Sabrina Chu. “This was our way of creating something and seeing where it would land.”
With money raised from years of community fundraising, CCED was able to cover the front end of the cost to hold their event, including rentals, tent acquisition, and vendor admission. From the group’s perspective, the spring night market was a success. Approximately 30 businesses along North Broadway and within the Dynasty Center participated by staying open late, generating revenue while meeting curious attendees. The tenants also set up a karaoke area along the block along with other entertainment, such as lion dancers who performed for passersby into the night.
“Our night market demonstrated that in the absence of [outside] entities, we run great businesses and healthy communities,” says Charlotte Nguyen, organizer of CCED. “Events like ours really help break a myth: you can’t bring energy, vitality and culture to a community that already has energy and culture. You can’t beautify a community that is already beautiful and prosperous.”
West Adams, where Jasmine Maldonado and her family have lived her entire life, has become a hot spot for accelerating gentrification. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times The Mapping LA project recorded that Latinos made up 56.2 percent of the neighborhood’s population in its 1.48 square miles, making it one of the highest population densities in the city. Rapid real estate development since then has become a growing concern for the Maldonado family and residents, many of whom have been in the area for generations. The year 2020 was especially difficult for her mother, who has owned Mariscos Marias for more than 20 years and saw a sharp increase in rent as business slowed due to the pandemic. Since then the family has been able to stay open with a return to the regular customer base they have served.
Witnessing the loss of these communal gathering places, Maldonado started Midcity Mercado for his family, friends and neighbors with the goal of hosting free-for-all events in the most equitable way possible. Like CCED, the family-run event takes your neighborhood into account; Like MAMA, he models his festivities after those abroad, the ones he remembers witnessing in Mexico. “When I visit, I see that the city center is a music center. You see families dancing, and you have the vendors set up, and it really feels like a family party,” she says. “That is what I wanted to replicate for my community.”
On May 20, Midcity Mercado kicked off this year’s series of Summer Nights markets (unrelated to KCRW events), featuring vendors and snack booths from local West Adams business owners. The event’s dining options included all the neighborhood vendors, including Pitaya Ice Cream with carafe-style ice cream, Super Gummy Bros with fruit and chamoy-coated sweets, Maria’s Michis with specialty micheladas, and the Flavas soft serve ice cream truck.
The monthly summer nights, held in the parking lot behind the Mariscos Marias y Maldonado boutique store, serve as a community hub. In addition to live wall painting, live music, and a bar run by his brothers, he also invites community organizers to come and share neighborhood resources. In the market past, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action and the Corbett Tenants group attended to educate attendees about housing rights. “This is like growing a family,” she says. “Our mission is to bring our community together to not only celebrate the culture that has been here for years, but also to invite our new neighbors to experience our culture, appreciate it, and be a part of the community.”
In a city that prizes entrepreneurship, night markets often feature prominently as an exploration of how new generations relate to their identities. For a team like MAMA, the goal is to become a stable company while also being advocates for the community. Ahead of their upcoming Los Angeles night market on September 30, the team is taking their markets on the road and working on a national route.
With this enthusiasm for a new wave of night markets also comes caution about their potential impact. Reflecting on his organizing experience in Chinatown, Nguyen hopes people will find more ways to energize the communities represented at night markets beyond simply enjoying the delicious food offerings inside them.
“As someone who is personally on her journey of reclaiming her identity, I can perfectly see how food and fun events like these can be a gateway to discovering or rediscovering your identity,” she says. “Food is a wonderful gateway, but healing and liberation require more than that.”