Night markets, originating in Asia as illegal “ghost markets” that bustled through the evening and vanished before daybreak, have begun taking major North American cities by storm.
Rows of glowing vendor booths light up the night, music fills the air, art is sold to passersby and, most importantly, xiaochi, or small eats and street food, are served up as fast bites throughout the fleeting bazaar.
For Michael Fleming, Executive Director of St. Clair Superior Development Corporation, it was a recent trip to Hong Kong that sparked the idea to bring the event to Cleveland. On the last Friday of every month, beginning June 26, Night Market Cleveland (nightmarketcle.com) will pop up from 5 – 11 p.m. The first takes over the Rockwell Ave. block at East 21st St.
“Food is something that’s always been very important to these; you get little tastes of things you just hadn’t seen before,” says Fleming over tea at Emperor’s Palace, where the night market will take place directly outside the glittering red and gold restored historic building. “It’s an entry point for people to experience another culture.”
Emperor’s dim sum will be served as quick takeaways, along with snacky fare from other nearby restaurants, such as pad Thai, pineapple buns, lo mein and bubble tea.
But don’t be surprised if the food comes to you first. A fleet of carts outfitted with birch-topped counters and wheels from Ohio City Bike Co-Op was constructed to rove the crowd. Expect longstanding neighborhood favorite Koko Bakery to zip by offering some of their most popular pastries.
By working one-on-one with local restaurants like Emperor’s and Koko, Asian-American community liaison Joyce Tan Huang is recreating her own experiences of visiting Taiwanese night markets and adding a Cleveland flair.
“I remember street food as a huge part of night markets,” says Huang. “It’s common for people to eat dinner then go out for more food and fill themselves with these snacks. In Cleveland, people will get the chance to experience that food and atmosphere and energy all in one place.”
It’s won’t be just AsiaTown-dwelling eateries partaking. Organizers invited outside fare not typically known for having an Asian influence, such as Pope’s Kitchen and Tremont’s Fahrenheit, with the caveat that they put an ethnic twist on the offerings. Downtown’s Vintage Tea and Coffee, which imports all teas from Japan, China or Taiwan, will also be on hand.
“A lot of restaurants in Cleveland take inspiration from Asia, and cultures everywhere, and incorporate that into their dishes. This is just another way they get to highlight that in a different way for people,” says food coordinator Josh Maxwell. “They’re all excited to partake in a culture that is new to them and see how they can work their products into this community.”
The night market is using this opportunity to show all the ways St. Clair Superior and AsiaTown are growing. SnowBros Shavery, a specialty upstart that makes snow cones in a traditional Asian style with cream, milk and fruit, will debut their cold treats drenched in fusion-inspired flavor. The newcomers hope to open a storefront in AsiaTown in the coming year.
As a reminder that the area’s culinary draw also includes authentic, fresh ingredients, organizers are coordinating with local urban farm Happy Fresh to create take-home boxes. They’ve scouted restaurants for their most coveted dishes and put together recipe cards and all the produce in one box so attendees can recreate a tiny bit of AsiaTown in their own homes. This month, the boxes will be stuffed with everything needed to build Japanese ginger salad and bok choy stir-fry.
“Even if they’re only here for one night, they’ll get a taste of everything going on in these neighborhoods,” says Maxwell. “It’s really representative of where they’re standing. And we want them to experience that and keep coming back.”