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Taiwanese-style night market takes over Pasadena

A business owner makes pancakes at the 626 Night Market on April 15th, 2012.
A business owner makes pancakes at the 626 Night Market on April 15th, 2012.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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So it seemed like nearly every Taiwanese person I knew was talking about the 626 Night Market. My friends, my cousins. It was blowing up on Facebook and Twitter. Even my mom had read about it online, and she's in Taiwan.

Despite all this build-up to the 626 Night Market — 626 as in the area code for the San Gabriel Valley — I wasn't expecting what I saw as I turned the corner onto Oakland Street in downtown Pasadena.

Thousands of people squeezed into a city block packed with 80 vendors selling food, jewelry, cell phone cases, clothes and other wares. Making your way through the throngs of people was like slogging through a swamp.

Pasadena police said they counted about 6,000 people at peak times -- three times more the number of people anticipated for the entire evening. The department added eight more officers to manage the crowds and traffic on top of the four officers already assigned to the market. Overhead, a police helicopter kept a watchful eye over the gridlock.

Many people complained about waits for food that stretched to an hour. Some vendors even ran out of food.

Organizer Jonny Hwang said he hopes that event-goers and the city of Pasadena will give his event another chance in a bigger venue. His goal is to put on a night market every couple months by the start of this summer.

"We need to work with the city more closely on controlling the traffic and parking situation and the crowds," he said. "I think the turnout shows that people are really interested it and we just got to figure out a way to make it a bigger and better event for everyone.”

The city's economic development director Eric Duyshart wrote Monday in an e-mail that "City Hall was excited to see such a great response to the 626 Night Market event."

He added the city would be meeting with organizers to address "challenges that were encountered and build on the successes."

Night markets aren't unique to Taiwan, an island of 23 million people, but perhaps no other Asian country has woven night markets so much into the fabric of daily life.

Every night, throughout the country, hundreds of vendors clog streets upon streets, closed to traffic.

"In Taiwan, it's really special because it's all the way from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.,” said Tina Tang, who grew up in Taiwan. “And it's somewhere we would go. You know, people in America go clubbing nighttime. That's called nightlife. But for us, night market is our nightlife.”

The biggest attraction at night markets is xiao chr, or snacks. There are pig ears stir-fried with rice, hot dogs made with Chinese sausage and octopus meatballs, but one dish reigns as THE night market staple that everyone at the Pasadena event was looking for: Stinky tofu.

Also known as tso tofu, it's fermented, then fried and since I was a teen growing up in Taiwan, the smell has scared me away from ever trying it. But stinky tofu is like comfort food for a lot of overseas Taiwanese, and getting to eat it in an open-air market triggered a lot of happy memories.

"The point of it is that it reminds us of Taiwan,” said Maggie Chen, a college student from Walnut. “It's very nostalgic in that sense.”

I learned to travel along the perimeter of the crowds, and that's when I ran up against the unmistakable odor of stinky tofu sold at a restaurant stall. I decided to do it. I bought a dinner for $5 and unwrapped my chopsticks, picked up a piece of tofu, and dipped it into garlic sauce.

Crispy on the outside, it had the consistency of ricotta cheese on the inside. Not what I expected.

But before I could pat myself on the back, Tina Tang who was sitting by me piped up. She's an experienced stinky tofu eater and told me my dish wasn't stinky enough.

“I like it when it's more stink,” said Tang. “When you chew it, it actually tastes better."

(Ashley Bailey contributed to this story)