NEW YORK – Clouds of white smoke rise into the black sky from outdoor grills. The night air is scented with the fragrances of dozens of cuisines from around the world. Vendors in tiny stalls stir noodles, toss crepes and fill dumplings as lines of hungry customers stretch into the dark.
That was the scene at the Queens Night Market as it opened for the season in New York City. It’s one of a number of sprawling nighttime food markets — inspired by the massive night markets of Asia — that have started popping up around the United States. There are also regular night markets in Philadelphia and Southern California, and occasional night markets held elsewhere.
The Atlanta area became the latest destination to host a new night market in late April, attracting 50,000 people and 130 vendors at its first three-day event, with another one scheduled for November.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the Little Mekong Night Market attracted 18,000 people one weekend last summer, and it’s coming back June 10-11. In Jersey City, New Jersey, a Mother’s Day-themed night market is scheduled for May 12, 6:30 p.m.-midnight.
Some of the markets are primarily Asian-themed, while others promote food from around the world. The inexpensive, temporary market stalls also offer first-time entrepreneurs an opportunity to hone recipes and business skills without having to lay out the big bucks required for a brick-and-mortar shop or even a food truck. Some of the events even operate as nonprofits, with proceeds going to charity.
Lines can be long, as small quantities of food are being made to order on the spot. But part of the fun is watching the preparation as vendors stretch and fold crepes, pinch dumplings, sizzle and blend fillings and toss noodles. Other types of merchandise — arts, crafts, toys, along with games — are typically offered on-site as well as live music.
The events have a different vibe from relaxed farmers markets or retail food halls. Instead, they have an after-dark energy and excitement that seems to pick up as the night goes on. Some charge a few dollars’ admission, but food items typically average $5. Go with a friend, and for $25, you can stuff yourself sharing four or five dishes — a perfect budget outing.
John Wang spent his childhood summers in Taiwan, his parents’ native land. “Every single night, I wanted to go to the night market there,” he recalled.
Those memories inspired him to start the Queens Night Market, www.queensnightmarket.com. The market kicked off its third season April 22 with 50 food vendors. Some 8,000 people turned out to sample everything from tamales stuffed with fried crickets to Indonesian coconut cakes.
The market is held on the grounds of the New York Hall of Science, a museum whose history makes it a fitting site for the international market: It was part of the 1964 World’s Fair.
Wang is committed to keeping the market affordable for both visitors and vendors. The location is a working-class area with a diverse immigrant population, most menu items are $5 and food vendors can take part for $135.
“The last thing I want to have is a tourist trap but not get the locals,” he said. “I want this to be the most accessible thing in New York City.”
The Atlanta International Night Market, held April 21-23 at Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, featured vendors selling food from around the world along with a “vegan village” for people who don’t eat meat.
Founder David Lee, who was born in Vietnam and owns a chain of restaurants called Saigon Cafe, sees the market as a “platform” for Atlanta’s diversity.
“When you have the food, culture, music, you bring everyone together,” he said. He hopes to hold the market four times a year, with the next one scheduled for Nov. 3-5. For details see atlnightmarket.org.