A giant inflatable lucky cat, the talisman of storefronts all over Asia, waved its paw by the fence. Burnished ducks hung inside a stall, as if in a restaurant window in Chinatown. A crowd had gathered around a woman dripping molten sugar from a spoon onto a marble slab, letting it crystallize into the shapes of butterflies, bearded goats and koi with pursed lips, which children then toted around on sticks like lollipops.
There are other, more celebrated open-air food bazaars in town. But, for me, none is more surprising, thrilling and inspiring than the Queens Night Market. It runs Saturday nights from April to October (with brief breaks during the United States Open and Maker Faire), but in summer it has the most shimmer.
I stood in line beside young mixed-race couples and first-generation sons and daughters bringing their immigrant parents out for the night. I consulted with strangers on what to try next: Ecuadorean bollos de pescado, tamale-like packets of stewed tuna inside a dough of mashed green plantains and peanut paste? Ersatz Twinkies frosted with Filipino ube (purple yam) or strewn with jackfruit and Fruity Pebbles? Balinese sate from the brilliantly named Endless Sunrice?
The market, which began in 2015, is a testament to both the cultural riches of Queens and the vision of its founder, John Wang, a former lawyer born in Texas to parents of Taiwanese descent. His goal is to showcase vendors “from every country represented” in New York City; the vendor application asks how each menu relates to the seller’s heritage. Because the majority of vendors are first-time entrepreneurs, he offers free small-business seminars and recruits corporate sponsors to help lower their fees.
Crucially for marketgoers, he has imposed a $5 price cap per dish (with a $6 exception for a few vendors whose margins are “razor thin”). This encourages smaller portion size and grazing, so I was able to try a dozen booths on…