When you go to as many pop-ups as I do, you quickly come to realize that enjoying them means throwing yourself through endless hoops, all in the name of finally getting to buy a thing. You swim into the riptide of minute-long ordering windows and contact chefs via Google forms and direct messages. Then you hope you’re waiting in the right line in some random place, dropping everything in order to pick something up when someone else tells you to. You embrace chaos.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve persuaded friends and family to come with me somewhere nondescript to pick something up, only for us to get lost and argue because none of us knows where exactly we’re supposed to be going. Is it that school parking lot? That apartment building? That cafe that looks like it’s been under construction for ten years? On rare occasions, I have to assure my compatriot that, no, this isn’t some setup where we’re going to get murdered — but I don’t really know that myself. Maybe we’re walking into a trap, and my tombstone will read, “I was told there would be focaccia.”
“Pop-ups” are a broad category of ad hoc restaurant, including tasting menus hosted by rogue chefs, as well as tamale and taco vendors who set up folding tables outside of car dealerships. In the early 2000s, the term was mostly used to refer to the trend of high-end fashion houses like Commes des Garçons opening “guerrilla stores” in places like Berlin and Los Angeles in order to generate hype. But now, the popular understanding of the pop-up has flipped to one where up-and-coming cooks without the means or opportunity to open restaurants are able to scratch together a living on the grey market. One can see why this would be an especially resonant concept in the pricey Bay Area, even before the mass layoffs we’ve seen during the pandemic era.
2020 saw a steep increase in “DM food,” a term that I first heard uttered by L.A. Taco editor Javier Cabral. All over Instagram and Facebook, pop-up vendors hawk tiered cakes, garlic noodles, quesabirria tacos, barbecue plates and more available via direct message and texting by phone. When Charles Chen started Basuku, his Basque cheesecake business, he conducted all of his sales via Instagram direct messages; so did Moni Frailing, the co-founder of Bread Spread Pickle. Responding to all the missives quickly became a full-time job in itself.
For me, getting the details straight on how to order what and when adds another layer of complication to the task of getting food — I often find myself practically begging to be allowed to just buy whatever pastry box is on offer, and then I wonder how I’m going to explain processes like this to my readers. Some readers have shown me the complicated calendar events and alarms that they set each week to remind themselves of when they can try ordering the cheesecakes, pizzas and desserts that have limited ordering windows. Picking up food takes on the air of a precious chance occurence, like whale watching.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for just wanting to stick with brick-and-mortar restaurants for their reliability. For the most part, a restaurant will always keep its promises; you don’t have to keep checking its Instagram to make sure you have this week’s pickup address right.
But even with the risks, you can’t fully grasp the Bay Area food scene without reckoning with its vibrant pop-up culture. Some pop-up chefs are even planning to remain mobile for the long-term, done with the stress of a brick-and-mortar.
As the list above shows, some of the most exciting and novel experiments in food are happening at pop-ups, which hold a similar thrill as other forms of ephemeral creativity — like underground concerts, performance art and, the most normie variant, flash mobs. People like me endure the busy phone lines, ridiculously long queues and slapped-together ordering forms because we’re looking for the specific excitement of experiencing something froth-like and fragile. Unconsciously, and perhaps foolishly, we who call June’s Pizza 20-plus times or more for a chance to buy a pie embrace Aeschylus’ ancient observations on suffering, explored in his Oresteia: that “there is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.”
Amidst a culture that privileges convenience and a “customer is always right” mentality, maybe the stark inconvenience of pop-ups means something more, too. Pop-up culture has the potential to rewire dominant ways of thinking about diners’ relationships to the people who make their food, away from the traditional and uneven servant-master dynamic, a more equitable reworking that workers in normal restaurants and cafes could benefit from as well. Not everything has to be easy or even comfortable. Sometimes that’s the fun part.
On the podcast
The Extra Spicy podcast is coming back on February 1! I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things, but before that, we have a few events coming up that you might be interested in checking out.
On January 26 (that’s tomorrow!) I’ll be doing a Q&A session via my Instagram stories. It’s always fun to see what random things people want to know about, but it’s even more fun to search for weird images to post with my answers.
On the morning of February 5, Justin Phillips and I will be doing an Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit. Now will be the chance to corner us and demand we tell you what we really think about each other.
Oh yeah, and you can listen to the season two trailer and subscribe to the podcast today.
What I’m eating
The ice cream by Bad Walter’s Bootleg Ice Cream is phenomenal. Go get it! As an added bonus for those who have trouble with dairy, the ice cream has no lactose, though it’s made with milk. What started as a pandemic project by Oaklander Sydney Arkin has developed into an imaginative concept that could give more established spots like Humphry Slocombe a run for their money. Arkin’s smooth and rich “campfire” is a nod to those starry nights when you’d come away with the smell of caramelized sugar and smoke stuck in your hair. Charred marshmallow, with actual bitter notes from blackened sugar, are swirled with a dense whiskey fudge, and Rice Krispies add crunchy pops to each bite. Flavors change every week and are $10 per pint, available to order via Google Form.
I’ve become a fan of the lunchtime offerings at Potrero Hill shop Alimentari Aurora, which recently opened next to Ruby Wine. Owner Dario Barbone, formerly a medical researcher at UCSF, used to pop up at the wine shop; now, his devotion to food is offical. Every day, the shop sells two $15-ish panini made with the preserves, cheese and charcuterie they keep in stock, with one meaty and one vegetarian option. The most recent one I had was a real banger: clumps of tender roasted cauliflower, a flavorful vadouvan curry mayonnaise, bright piquillo peppers and smoked Cheddar.
• I’m stoked about Yilan Foods, a new Taiwanese pop-up that makes a banging bowl of beef noodle soup. Janelle Bitker recently spoke to one of the founders about the lack of great Taiwanese restaurants in San Francisco and what he hopes to bring to the food scene. Vegetarian lu rou fan is in the cards, and I can’t be more excited about that.
• In case you missed it, I reviewed Pollara Pizzeria in Berkeley. The pizzeria is centered around pizza al taglio, a popular street food version of pizza that’s on the lighter and crisper end.
• For Wine Enthusiast, John deBary rips into the “Save restaurants” rhetoric that has become a common refrain in the pandemic era, pushing back against the sentiment that buying gift cards and ordering takeout are civic duties. “We could have given restaurants tax breaks or rent relief. We could have paid restaurants to pay their workers to stay home. We could have socialized healthcare. There are so many things we, as the richest nation on earth, could have done besides telling people it’s their fault if their favorite taco shop goes under.”
• I guess frogs are in right now? For Vice, Bettina Makalintal investigates the origins of the now-ubiquitous frog cake. Look at how cute they are! One aspect of this that I wish Makalintal could have gone into is the burgeoning popularity of frogs among queer and nonbinary people — what’s up with that? Why do my friends love frogs so much? Tell me, Bettina!
Bite Curious is a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, delivered to inboxes on Monday mornings. Follow along on Twitter: @Hooleil