Pop-ups exist in a liminal space. Over the last three years, their ascent has changed the way that L.A. eats. As an outgrowth of the increasing cost of operating a restaurant, they allow talented chefs and cooks to do it for themselves and bring their creations directly to the consumer. A pop-up can refer to the limited availability of a food vendor — whether that’s monthly or several times a week. But a “pop-up” also refers to the mobility of a concept: some are set up on the side of the street; others are set up at storefronts and breweries. COVID forced many to re-strategize, often leading the operations to be run out of the owners’ homes. Many have transitioned to become brick and mortar institutions, but others will continue to be pop-ups for the foreseeable future.
The past 18 months have been brutal for the food scene in L.A., but despite the adversity new pop-ups have emerged with creative and unique visions. It would be impossible to write a definitive “best of” list; instead, this list focuses on those doing something special or unconventional. The visionaries who found a way to overcome tragedy, represent their culture and serve their communities.
Some picks reflect trends like birria or smash burgers, while others tread new ground. What unites them all is the way in which they embody the beautiful mosaic of food and culture in L.A.
Birria Pa La Cruda/OME
One of the stars of the birria de res game, Birria Pa La Cruda boasts one of L.A.’s most dynamic adobos. What makes it stand out is the extra time that chef Carlos Jaquez puts into creating a proper tatemado — charring tomatoes, chiles, onions for a significant depth of flavor.
Jaquez used to work at several different popular L.A. restaurants like Bestia and Otium, but wanting to begin his own project, he started El Sereno’s Pa La Cruda on his off days. Beef chunks are simmered in adobo low and slow for 12 hours, resulting in a concentrated consomé. It’s intensely rich, the laborious tatemada process imparts an inky red color, best used for dipping tacos dorados glued together with melted cheese.
During the pandemic Jaquez introduced the vegetable forward extension of his business called OME, based on the Nauhau word for balance. Their staple dish is tacos de papa (fried potato tacos) drenched in a delectable almond salsa macha, along with crumbled cheese and zapped with a fermented serrano pepper vinegar. Sourcing fresh produce from farmer’s markets, Jacquez exposes his community of El Sereno to quality vegetables with a Mexican focus. And be sure to look out for specials, like some of the best mushroom tacos in the city that use seared oyster mushrooms.
Birria Pa La Cruda’s hours and locations vary. Check their Instagram for updates.
OME can usually be found Sundays from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. at 5277 Alhambra Ave. in El Sereno. Check their Instagram for updates.
A virtual restaurant and pop-up, Saucy Chick Rotisserie operates almost completely online (all pre-orders and delivery are done through their website). Their specialty is rotisserie chicken done in two styles, jeera and pibil. It allows for Mexican and Indian cuisines to be tethered together through the communal worship of spit-roasted chicken.
It all started at the beginning of the pandemic when Rhea Patel and Marcel Rene Michel were both furloughed from their corporate Disney jobs. Patel’s family hails from the Gujarat state in India and Marcel’s family comes from Jalisco and Colima in Mexico. While the food at Saucy Chick comes from their heritage, the Michel’s don’t adhere to any specific region or style of food from Mexican or Indian cuisines. Rather, their goal is to reframe people’s perception of Indian food as “exotic” or “too spicy.” In fact, it’s very similar to Mexican food in that both cuisines share the same spices and similarly laborious techniques.
At Saucy Chick, the birds are brined for a full day then slowly roasted for an hour. For sides expect whipped frijoles, charred cauliflower, a cucumber salad and jeera rice cooked in ghee and aromatic spices. The sauce game is crucial: a green sauce made of garlic, chiles, cilantro and cheese; a salsa macha and garlic chile paste for some heat; and an Ambli molasses. The latter is possibly the best one, a sticky addictive sauce made from simmered tamarind. Their food feels familiar, but also works to expose the palette to a synthesis of Indian and Mexican flavors.
Pro tip: Save at least one flour tortilla so you can wrap all your leftovers into a potent burrito the next day
Saucy Chick is available Sundays at Smorgasburg LA. Weeknight delivery and pick-up coming soon.
Hamburgers Nice lives by the mantra: “Hamburgers for breakfast.” After starting the Long Beach pop-up on a whim, chef Jairo Bogarin has turned it into one of the most exciting smash burger spots in the county.
His background in curating food vendors at Torrance’s Monkish Brewing inspired the Wilmington-raised Bogarin to start his own operation. His extraordinary Breakfast Burger contains a sausage and beef blend patty, American cheese, grilled onions and tart raspberry jam. The jam pays homage to his childhood days when he put jam in McMuffins, while his Chorizo Burger channels breakfast feasts at his mother’s house.
Don’t get it twisted: Hamburgers Nice makes fantastic burgers outside of breakfast — like a Lunch Burger that adds grilled jalapeños, mustard and ketchup for that nostalgic realness. Expect throwback burgers from your childhood like a Western Burger with bacon, onion rings, and barbecue sauce, an homage to the Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr. And it wouldn’t be right if Bogarin didn’t honor the classic SoCal charbroiled burger, the type that you’d get at Tam’s or Rick’s Drive In. Except here he calls it the Salad Burger, by virtue of it having lettuce, tomato and onions — taking care of your vegetable quotient for the day.
Hamburgers Nice usually pops up every Tuesday at Commodity in East Long Beach, but times and locations can vary. Check their Instagram for updates.
With possibly the coolest name in the pop-up game, Walking Spanish offers an unexpected and unconventional take on modern Salvadoran and Central American food. Chef Rene Coreas mixes in L.A. favorites like birria or galbi jjim into his pupusas, but his most popular dish is The Savior, a reimagined pan con pollo (a Salvadoran sandwich with seasoned chicken, cucumbers, watercress mayo, mustard and lettuce.)
The sandwich starts with a fried chicken cutlet, a smear of relajo, which he calls the mole of Salvadoran food, a bed of radishes and cucumber for a crunch, and a slaw made with curtido and a mustard vinaigrette. The attention to detail is astounding: making the relajo is a very involved process of toasting chiles, nuts and spices, then he makes it into a sauce instead of a braising liquid. Coreas is always looking to merge his Salvadoran culture with L.A. rockero sensibilities and his classical chef training. See the vinaigrette that he uses in The Savior, a simple French technique he learned while working at chef Ludo Lefeve’s Petit Trois. Oh, and the pop-up’s name? It’s a reference to the Tom Waits song “Walking Spanish,” about an inmate walking down death row who has his final meal. “The concept behind the pop-up is food so good, you can die happy,” says Coreas.
Walking Spanish’s hours and locations vary. Check their Instagram for updates.
Out of a Mid-City home, Brandoni Peperoni serves some of the finest and crunchiest pizza in all of L.A. Its founder, Brandon Gray, started his career as a cook in the United States Navy, but soon left to work in big L.A. restaurants like Providence, the Ace Hotel’s Best Girl and Trois Mec. He started his pop-up during the pandemic at a kitchen space in WeHo, but eventually took the operation to his home in Mid-City, right outside of Little Ethiopia.
The Baldwin Hills-raised Gray makes immaculate pizzas that combine his fine dining experience with his love and devotion to his hometown. Sourcing all of his ingredients from local farmer’s markets, each pizza is carefully crafted and often named after iconic West Coast hip-hop songs: the “Way 2 Fonky” features an assortment of mushrooms with baby king trumpets, Shimeji and Maitake and confit onions; while the “Regulate” has roasted fennel, burrata cheese, sausage and calabrian chili. The Clippers Special consists of a pepperoni pie with quite possibly the best buffalo wings in L.A. — plump lollipopped drums that are deeply crisped and tossed in a spicy buffalo sauce. They’re accompanied by housemade ranch brightened with lemon zest.
The Pineapple pizza is convincing enough to end the silly pineapple-on-pizza debate, topped with calabrese sausage, pickled chiles and grilled pineapple. Don’t skip on the tiramisu, which is buttery, chocolatey and decadent.
Pro tip: Order the ‘za par cooked and finish it at home for that persistent crunch.
Bungkus Bagus is a pop-up run out of a Glendale home that sells Balinese-style rice called bungkus. Started by two sisters, Celene and Tara Carraras, the pair grew up in the 818 but spent a lot of time eating bungkus in Bali. Since it’s hard to find a proper bungkus in L.A., the pandemic motivated the Carraras sisters to decide to make the dish themselves and sell it out of their childhood home in Glendale.
Each bungkus is wrapped with banana leaf and newspaper and formed into a small pyramid. The inside contains coconut rice, sayur urab (long bean and bean sprout salad), coconut curry chicken, a hardboiled egg with chili paste, tempe orek (fried soybean cake), bali-style salted peanuts and it’s garnished with pork floss. Traditionally, bungkus are eaten with your hands but Celene suggests using the Emping chips “nacho style,” scooping all aspects of the bungkus for a glorious bite. Emping chips are made from melinjo nuts and are characteristic for their slightly bitter taste, but add a wonderful crunch when eaten with bungkus.
One of the most impressive parts of this pop-up is the sambal goreng, much different from the chili paste version. Theirs is a dry mixture made fresh by frying Thai chiles, garlic and shallots — one slice of shallot is enough to overwhelm the senses, so use carefully. Each order comes with a small jar that you can use on pizza or rice bowls. For dessert, try the jajan pasar (market snack or munchies) sampler that features a gooey rainbow cake and small squares of sweet rice in a caramelized syrup made of plam sugar, coconut milk and fresh pandan leaves.
Availability varies. Check the Instagram for updates.