January 23, 2022


Cooking Is My World

The best way to enjoy the Bay Area’s food pop-ups is to embrace chaos

7 min read

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.

Charles Chen in the kitchen where he created Basuku Cheesecakes in his home in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, July 27, 2020. Chen makes Japanese inspired Basque cheesecakes in his home and selling in limited quantities around the Bay Area.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

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.

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