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 U.S. 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, the Midnight Market takes place the second Friday of the month, with a Mother's Day-themed event May 12, 6:30 p.m.-midnight, and two events in June, June 9 and 17.
Some of the markets are primarily Asian-themed, 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 non-profits 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 onsite as well as live music.
The events have a different vibe from laidback 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.
QUEENS, NEW YORK
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. 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 non-meat-eaters. 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.
Night Market Philadelphia began in 2010, and typically attracts 60 to 80 food vendors and 20,000 attendees. The cuisine ranges from empanadas and Jamaican jerk chicken to Khmer satay. "We try to elevate folks' food festival standards and offer more interesting fare than corn dogs and pizza," said Diana Minkus, spokeswoman for The Food Trust, the local organization behind the markets.
The markets take place in different neighborhoods: May 11 in Northeast Philadelphia's Burholme neighborhood; June 29 in West Philly; Aug. 10 in Roxborough in Northwest Philly and Oct. 5 at the Italian Market.
Two night markets take place in Southern California. The 626 Night Market in Arcadia, which started in 2012, has 200 vendors, and the OC Night Market in Costa Mesa has 160.
Spokeswoman Holly Nguyen says the markets were inspired by the night markets of Taiwan and the "core" of both markets are "Chinese and Taiwanese vendors." But they've become more diverse over time, with "pan-Asian vendors" serving Filipino, Vietnamese and Laotian cuisines, and others selling dishes ranging from Mediterranean shawarma to Texas barbecue. About 20 percent of vendors are first-time entrepreneurs.