Last Friday night, dozens of red tents appeared along Rockwell Avenue in front of Cleveland’s grand dame of local Asian restaurants, The Emperor’s Palace. The savory, salty scent of fried rice wafts through the air. I stop and watch a young woman playing an erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument with a soulful, melodic sound, and drop a dollar in her tip jar.
I overheard someone say, “I didn’t know we had an Asiatown.”
That’s music to Brendan Trewella’s ears. “We’re lucky enough to have an Asian district, but many people don’t actually know that, or they’ve never ventured here.” One Friday night a month through September, Rockwell Avenue between 21st and 23rd will turn into NightMarket Cleveland, a “pop up” marketplace which is a tradition that can actually be traced back centuries to several Asian cultures.
NightMarket Cleveland was created in partnership with two community development organizations, Campus District and St. Clair-Superior, with an intent to share the specialness of the neighborhood, and the Asian community in particular. A relatively new event for the city, Brendan along with co-organizer Josh Maxwell, pulls it all off with a small staff and a handful of volunteers.
I watched a man from Han Chinese Kabob and Grill cooking up skewers of octopus. I was able to speak to him only through a young interpreter. Koko Bakery, another Asiatown fixture, brought a selection of tarts, pies and sweet rolls that were the envy of those passing by. I purchased a doughy pineapple pastry to quell my hunger.
NightMarket Cleveland offers an abundant selection of Asian foods prepared by local favorites like Siam Café, Pho Thang, and Emperor’s Palace. Food Trucks were also well represented – I spied Wok N Roll, Umami Bites and Shortibi. There was a considerable line at SnowBros Shavery, a team of young entrepreneurs who are introducing the distinctive taste and texture of of Tawainese shaved snow (a frozen, creamy treat) to Cleveland. Restaurants and vendors not known to be distinctly Asian offered solid alternatives or crafted something unique and Asian-inspired for the event.
It is worth noting that in between all of the food grazing you can do, there is an eclectic selection of retail vendors like Ape Made, Vintage Tea and Coffee, and Blue Lake Botanicals. Music, including live bands and deejays, plays from a main stage. When night falls, the alley is aglow in colorful lights, performance art and other attractions – a reason to hang out and enjoy the spectacle.
Nicole McGee of Upcycle Parts Shop loves the pop up NightMarket concept because aren’t many night time outdoor shopping events for vendors like herself. She adds “This is a low key place to party!” She’s right about that. There is a casual, easy vibe here which plays into the “pop up” milieu and that feels welcoming to people of all cultures and ages, families, and even canine pals.
As I left the event I was presented with an option to purchase a take home “food Kit” for $20 that had all the makings of an Asian-inspired recipe for two. This one featured a delicious noodle dish by Siam Cafe. In my case, I had eaten my way through the festival, so I passed on this. I commend the organizers for thinking of another touchpoint for people to learn and appreciate the Asian cultures that are the cornerstone of this street festival.
The next NightMarket Cleveland events will take place August 28 and September 25. For more details visit their website, or follow them on Facebook, where you’ll find a great selection of photos. Parking is fairly easy as well, with lots of options nearby including paid lots and street parking.
*Our cover photo is courtesy of Breanna Kulkin, photographer for NightMarket Cleveland.