This past weekend, thousands of folks from across the Bay Area braved the Pleasanton heat and headed to the Alameda County Fairgrounds to indulge in Asian-inspired eats at the first ever NorCal Night Market. Brought to the Bay Area from the people behind Southern California’s 626 Night Market and OC Night Market, the Bay Area event made its debut July 27-29, and will return to the same location Sept. 21-23.
I went to the NorCal Night Market on opening day. By 7 p.m., long lines had already formed, some snaking back several yards at the most popular stands and trucks. The grounds were packed and the several dozen vendors had to work quickly to keep up with the hungry crowd.
The event’s non-food attractions (music and fair games) weren’t anything to write home about, and the dust kicked up by the crowds was an issue — the event organizers announced they’d be spraying down the ground on the following days, so this may not have been a problem on the last two days — but it still ended up being an entertaining way to spend a Friday night. And anyway, I came for the food.
There were plastic tables set up on one end of the fairground for dining, but the seats were almost always occupied throughout the evening. I mostly enjoyed my eats standing or sitting in the grass, which ended up being a great opportunity to figure out what I should eat next. As I watched the mostly young crowd stroll by with food and football-sized nursing bottles filled with lemonade (a well-played drink offered by Chu Chu Churros), I got a good sense of what the best and most popular offerings were, so I could choose wisely for what was worth standing in line to try.
Here are the five best dishes I tasted and enjoyed during the NorCal Night Market:
1. Signature poke, Go Fish Poke
I decided to start off with some poke. San Jose’s Go Fish Poke was serving up fresh bowls of raw fish with Japanese-inspired flavors. This quickly growing empire — run by long-time sushi chef Jerome Ito — is about to open its fifth location (its first in the East Bay) in the Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton.
I tried Go Fish’s signature ahi tuna poke ($13) topped with green onions, sesame seeds and dressed with a housemade ponzu sauce. Sliced cucumbers, miso crab and pickled ginger completed the bowl. The generous helping of fish tossed with the delicate, citrusy sauce was the perfect match to nicely vinegared rice. This would be the lightest thing I would eat that night.
2. Ube ice cream sandwiches, Marley’s Treats
Marley’s Treats is a mobile bakery run by Gemma Ballesteros and Neil Tobias that serves Filipino-inspired desserts like buko pandan cupcakes ($3) and ube ice cream sandwiches ($6) out of its blue food truck.
I beelined for the truck and ordered the ice cream sandwich, made with sticky ube-flavored Rice Krispie treats and a light and creamy ube-flavored ice cream. Ube is a purple tuber often used in Filipino cuisine, known for its caramel-like taste. This violet-hued sugar bomb filled my entire hand and as it was melting quickly, I had no choice but to eat it right away. Fortunately, it was delicious, so eating the whole thing at once was an easy delight.
Ballesteros, who started baking after having her daughter, Marley, once had a storefront in North Oakland, but Marley’s Treats currently operates out of its truck and offers catering services at events. Marley’s is slated to open a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Hayward in October.
4. Spam musubi with Hot Cheeto crumbles, Junk Mail Musubi
Bay Area gourmet musubi vendor Junk Mail Musubi offered a short and simple menu, with Spam and chicken katsu (deep fried chicken) the stars of the show. Run by three biotech friends – Michael Domen, Amir Concepcion, and Dalton Verador – who came up with the idea at work one day, musubi has become their weekend hobby.
I tried Junk Mail’s original Spam musubi with added Hot Cheeto crumbles and nori fries ($8). The musubi was salty and sinful in the best way, with a sweet sauce drizzled in the center of the rice block. And yes, the Hot Cheetos crumbles were a very, very good idea.
Apparently, other attendees thought so too because this stand was slammed the whole night.
3. The Notorious O.G., Rice Rice Baby
Marilyn Tran, Evelyn Nguyen and Jenny Ou, are the three-woman team behind San Jose’s Rice Rice Baby. After traveling in Thailand, the trio were inspired to open a food business that brings a new spin to the classic Thai mango and sticky rice dessert. The NorCal Night Market may have been Rice Rice Baby’s debut event, but its sticky rice did not disappoint.
I tried ‘The Notorious OG’ ($7), which was tricked out with fresh mango, purple sticky rice (a white and black sticky rice combo), fried mung bean crisps, black sesame seeds, and a sweet coconut drizzle. The dessert found a way to introduce several textures and flavors into one little bowl — the slightly warm rice eaten with soft, chilled mango was just right with the frequent salty crunches of mung beans and sesame seeds. It was different from the usual dessert you get in a Thai restaurant, but the new flavors were enjoyable and not too overpowering.
5. Lobster Nest with garlic noodles, Lobsterdamus
L.A. and Brooklyn-based pop-up Lobsterdamus quickly drew a big crowd with its bustling, exposed kitchen. Chef and co-owner Johnny Angeles grilled Maine lobsters with laser-like focus and his sidekicks flung noodles into the air with well-earned finesse. The order line was one of the longest at the market. This was definitely not their first rodeo.
“Our food was simply inspired by our typical family parties during the holidays,” said Angeles. Instead of turkey they’d have grilled lobster. Angeles and crew decided to share these families recipes with the public five years ago.
I tried the Lobster Nest ($32) — mesquite grilled lobster on a bed of garlic noodles. The dish required a bit of patience and dexterity to open the shells to get to the sweet meat, but once I cracked inside, the lemony, garlicky, buttery lobster was worth the work.
The next NorCal Night Market takes place 3-11 p.m., September 21-23 at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, 2100 Valley Ave., Pleasanton. Admission is $5, plus $10 for parking. Cash only.