By Galen Patterson
This year’s opening night of the 626 Night Market appeared to be a great success. A massive crowd was streaming into the Santa Anita parking lot shortly after opening, and by 8 p.m., the parking lot was nearly full.
Below the glow of the beacon-like Dave and Buster’s sign on the eastern side of the Santa Anita Mall, I meet a man who identifies himself as “Joe The Beast,” and his wife Noemi.
Joe is a serious foodie, the kind of guy who satisfies late-night cravings outside of his home. Noemi tells me they have been known to drive all over southern California to seek out the best culinary delights.
The 626 night market is ideal for foodies. The choices come from around the world and in many cases are invented by the very purveyors that serve them. Selections range from the traditional to the extreme and cover everything in between.
Once inside the gate and well-prepared for the evening’s festivities, we dive straight into the center of the market, where we are immediately drawn to Takoyaki, a food stand that makes tacos with crab, pork belly or steak, except the shell is made of crispy, fried cheese. “The cheese, the grease, the crispy pork belly, it’s extra fire,” Joe says.
Upon first taste, Joe audibly confirms that his first choice was worth the wait, and the smile on his face confirms it. Heather Chiara, the manager of this particular Takoyaki says that the stand originally sold teriyaki, but adjusted to their current products recently. “People really like it,” says Chiara.
After initial contact with food, Joe’s plan goes into effect. He begins methodically moving through the crowds and lines that have gathered around the perimeter. His goal is to see and evaluate all options before making another decision. “Whatever you get has to be worth it,” he said.
Music from the main stage pounds in the distance and the peculiar smell of fermented tofu wafts through the air as Joe and Noemi stop for a drink with real chunks of fruit in it, served in a plastic pouch by smiling people in lab coats.
Once refreshed, Joe resumes examining his options. He moves on pork belly tacos made by some enthusiastic and music-frenzied employees at one of two RKKN booths.
Before moving on, Joe and Noemi stop to share a spiral-cut potato, deep fried to perfection and dusted with seasoning. Then we stroll across the Arcadia Wash, to the courtyard of the park, drink beer and watch the lights and crowd of the main stage. Before long, we are back at the food and Joe seeks out an old favorite of his: ensaymada.
Ensaymada is a Filipino pastry and brioche-like delicacy of the Pacific Islands. To satisfy this craving, Joe heads to Ensaymada Project, where the variety of flavors is most impressive.
By midnight, Joe is seeking out his final choice. We move past the numerous stands in the now thinning crowd and see things that had managed to go unnoticed the first time around, like duck melts from the Phantom food truck. Joe’s entire group stops and stares in awe of Chick N’ Skin, which serves handheld pockets of breaded, deep fried chicken skin.
With the final hour dwindling and people migrating through the exit, Joe makes his final decision for the night and selects BBQ Skewers from a small booth along the back wall. Shortly after we begin the slow, gluttonous crossing of the parking lot, back to the far reaches near Huntington Dr., I part ways with Joe and Noemi.
After getting to know Joe and his zeal for life and food, I pull into my driveway and think that maybe, just maybe, they stopped to get something on the drive home.