As the sun sets in Westlake, brightly colored canopies go up and plumes of smoke waft from charcoal grills nearby. Murmurs begin as hungry groups weave through food tents and comb menus to create a plan of attack: one person in charge of the elote, another in line for the yaki mochi, and a third to tackle the boba tea. Snacks accumulate and attendees pause to lick chile powder off the corn as the night’s band plugs their guitars into amps that crackle above the grill fire.
This is a summer evening in Los Angeles, a haven for all-you-can-eat street food. Night markets have long been sites for cultural exchange in ethnic enclaves. Events like 626 Night Market, considered the largest Asian food market in the country, have become a lucrative empire throughout California. But other long-standing markets, such as the Salvadoran street food market in Koreatown and Westlake’s Guatemalan street food market, began as a platform to maintain cultural and culinary traditions within their communities. Challenged by law enforcement in recent years, these vendors struggle to continue operating in the very area they reside.
In recent years, a younger generation of Angelenos, inspired by these immigrant-run street markets, is organizing events to encourage entrepreneurship and community preservation. From the social media-minded group of friends behind MAMA to a family centering their West Adams neighborhood through monthly celebrations, night markets have become integral to not only how people engage with their 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 organizing night markets in 2022 as a means of celebrating LA’s multiethnic cultures. On May 27, the collective held its 21-and-up 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 & Wài Pó, and expanding their offerings to over 50 vendors with newcomers like Cambodian smash burgers from Staxs Burgers and Monterey Park-based Noodle Art, which serves Xi’an hand-pulled noodles.
“[The night market] all started from this one really simple idea: I want a skewer and a beer and to be outside with friends in a setting that reminds us of traveling internationally,” says founder Jared Jue. “It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s almost impossible to find in Los Angeles or just around in general.”
MAMA is beloved for its viral video profiles of local, family-owned restaurants throughout Los Angeles County. Storytelling was always supposed to be one facet of its business. In addition to highlighting small businesses and operating its Drive-By Kitchen program during the pandemic for homebound Angelenos to pick up meals from immigrant-run restaurants, the night market is an extension of its thoughtful curation of Asian heritage. Since the launch of its inaugural night market in May 2022, the team members have been doubling as food scouts, forging relationships with small businesses throughout Southern California and encouraging them to vend at a large-scale event.
The group operates as a for-profit company with a nonprofit arm called Respect Your Elders that provides meals to senior citizens. Entry into the May night market started at $29, while a $99 “VIP” option offered an open bar. While vending restaurants keep all revenue generated from the evening, a portion of the revenue from admission goes toward compensating MAMA’s team members who scout and secure vendors for the event.
“It takes a lot of 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 in community activism, according to Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED). For the volunteer-run group composed of tenants, business owners, and organizers from around Los Angeles County, the preservation of food and culture is only as strong as the neighborhood power that the residents build.
With a ballooning number of new dining and commercial attractions, Chinatown has become an attractive destination for prospective businesses — sometimes without the consideration of its long-standing residents. In 2022, CCED rallied at the center of KCRW’s Summer Nights in Central Plaza, bringing attention to how the event bypassed the input of its residents. Only six of the 30 vendors that 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 tenants who had been meeting regularly about the detrimental changes they were seeing in Chinatown, including rent increases and accelerated property development. “We wanted to offer something else because we were being so critical of Summer Nights, and this was our way of building something rather than protesting or dismantling something,” says Sabrina Chu, a CCED organizer. “This was our way of creating something and seeing where it would land.”
Using money collected through years of community fundraising, CCED was able to cover the front of the cost to throw its event, including rentals, acquiring tents, and admission for vendors. From the group’s perspective, the spring night market was a success. Approximately 30 businesses along North Broadway and inside the Dynasty Center participated by staying open late, generating revenue while getting to know the curious attendees. Tenants also set up a karaoke area along the block alongside other entertainment, such as lion dancers that performed for passersby into the evening.
“Our night market showed that in the absence of [outside] entities, we run great businesses and healthy communities,” says CCED organizer Charlotte Nguyen. “Events like ours really help bust a myth: You can’t bring energy and vitality and culture into a community that already has energy and culture. You can’t beautify a community that’s already beautiful and thriving.”
West Adams, where Jasmine Maldonado and her family have resided for her entire life, has become a hot site for accelerated gentrification. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times 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. The rapid property development since then has become a growing concern for Maldonado’s family and neighbors, many of whom have been in the area for several generations. The year 2020 was especially difficult for her mother, who has been the owner of Mariscos Marias for over 20 years and who saw a steep increase in rent while business slowed due to the pandemic. Since then, the family has been able to stay open with a return to the usual customer base that it has served.
Witnessing the loss of these communal gathering spots, Maldonado began Midcity Mercado for her family, friends, and neighbors with the goal of throwing free-for-all events as equitably as possible. Like CCED, the family-operated event keeps its neighborhood in mind; like MAMA, it models its festivities after those that exist abroad, the ones she remembers witnessing in Mexico. “When I visit, I see the town center is a hub for music. You see families dancing, and you have the vendors set up, and it really feels like a family party,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to replicate for my community.”
On May 20, Midcity Mercado kicked off this year’s Summer Nights market series (with no relation to KCRW’s events), featuring vendors and snack stands by local business owners in West Adams. The event’s food options were all vendors in the neighborhood, such as Pitaya Ice Cream with garrafa-style ice cream, Super Gummy Bros with chamoy-coated fruits and candies, Maria’s Michis with specialty micheladas, and Flavas soft serve ice cream truck.
The monthly Summer Nights, which happen in the parking lot behind Mariscos Marias and Maldonado’s boutique store, serve as a community hub. Alongside live mural paintings, live music, and a bar run by her brothers, she also invites community organizers to come and share neighborhood resources. In the market’s past, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action and Corbett Tenants group attended to teach attendees about housing rights. “This is just like growing the family,” she says. “Our mission is to bring together our community not only to celebrate the culture that’s 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 rewards entrepreneurship, night markets often come to the forefront as an exploration of how newer generations relate to their identities. For a team like MAMA, the goal is to become a steady company while being community advocates. Leading up to their next LA night market on September 30, the team is taking their markets on the road and working on a national routing.
With this excitement for a new wave of night markets also comes wariness about their potential impact. Reflecting on her organizing experience in Chinatown, Nguyen hopes people will find more ways to uplift the communities represented at night markets beyond simply enjoying the delicious food offerings within them.
“As someone who is personally on her journey of reclaiming her identity, I can totally 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 takes more than that.”