EAST LA — The lobster fettuccine was delicious, if unexpected. A big carton takeout container of steaming pasta, smothered in lobster cream sauce, topped with crunchy asparagus and red bell peppers, served with a side of garlic bread. The dish was scooped up by the cook at the LAIdeal Burger stand at the 323 Food and Flea night market in East Los Angeles.
On this appropriately crisp October night, just before Halloween, the woman taking the orders was dressed as la Chilindrina (a character from the popular children’s show El chavo de ocho), showcasing the dishes through the netting around the booth for potential customers before packing them up. It worked more than a few times, a few customers gasping in pleasant surprise at the plates.
Since the pandemic, night markets have boomed across the LA area, the 626 Night Market that began in Arcadia specializes in Asian cuisines, and the famous Ave. 26 night market, now on the border of Vernon, offers a huge variety of street foods from LA vendors. But one corner of LA, famous for its food and culture, had been missing from the night market scene until last month when East LA’s 323 Food and Flea popped up.
For some time now, nonprofit founders Maribel Valdez and Vanessa Gutierrez, of In the Making and El Sereno Night Market, respectively, have been wanting to put their experience together to bring a free night market to East LA.
After a planned opening date of early August was postponed, the market finally opened on October 26, on one of the LAUSD parking lots across the street from Hilda Solis Learning Academy. Pounding the pavement for weeks, the team put up posters and placed flyers on car windshields all over town — hard work that paid off with a turnout of more than 700 people.
The night market will continue to open every Thursday at the intersection of Humphreys Ave. and New York St. from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“It’s been very nice to come together and build something beautiful. Our intention is just to continue pouring love into this community,” Gutierrez said.
As you walked in under the pumpkin orange blow-up arch, a white 323 sign blinked to the left. People chattered excitedly as they ran into friends and colleagues, food vendors fired up meats and the smell of asada and burgers wafted over from the grills. A group of high school age students bump into a teacher from school, delighted to see each other outside of the confines of the classroom. Their teacher offered to buy them aguas frescas so they went off to the booth that had a row of clear barrels filled to the brim with milky strawberry, cucumber lime, and horchata with cinnamon sticks floating up in between the ice.
People in East LA have long felt the need for an escape from the mundane, spend the evening out with friends and family — a place people feel comfortable taking their children to after sundown. And, many of the patrons of the 323 Food and Flea echoed that sentiment.
One attendee said on the market’s instagram,“My kids had fun, hopefully the other moms in my neighborhood would join me next time!” Others said they were excited to go back with friends.
There the stands were lined up in two rows, directly to the right, at the entrance, a flea market with a variety of trinkets, crafts, and clothing for sale from local businesses, past that a second row made up of food options pushed up against the southbound side of the 710 Freeway.
The flea market vendors were selling everything from makeup, to handcrafted stationery, homemade candles, and sustainable crafts like incense holders made of empty beer bottles. A fresh scented candle poured into half of a modelo bottle caught my eye, a reminder of my grandpa, perfect for the ofrenda we have for him that stays up in our living room all year long.
Behind that stall were the antojitos (a variety of candies and snacks from Latin America), at one end of the row was a birria stand, at the other chocomiles estilo Jalisco.
As the night wound on, an atmosphere of leisure set in. The night market was completely fenced in and inside kids were running free, relaxed moms were looking at the menus. A group of teens were setting up equipment for their band performance in the northeast corner of the rectangular lot right next to where the inflatable projector screen stood to show the nightmare before christmas. Strangers sat together at communal tables to eat the wide variety of foods, asking each other about the dishes they chose and what brought them here.
A dad said to his kindergarten age daughter, “You’re so lucky,” because her plate was a buffet of all the food the adults had gotten for themselves. She showed off her little dangly earrings exclaiming they were pumpkins.
Valdez and Gutierrez both said that for vendors just starting out the 323 Food and Flea may help them get off the ground. The organizers added that they will help with figuring out what permits they may need, and in applying for licenses and permits required to vend at the 323.