If you’ve been following dining culture in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic, you know about the ascent of online-based ventures that are frequently, inadequately labeled as “Instagram pop-ups.” Often, they are created by restaurant chefs who have been furloughed, laid off and or are otherwise unemployed during the crisis, or perhaps caterers whose business evaporated with the March shutdowns. The best of them offer magnificent food for takeout (and sometimes delivery) — the kind of thoughtful, first-person cooking that makes us feel less solitary in the world.
In these pop-ups we see not only the tenacity necessary to face the moment but also the kind of talent on which the future of L.A. dining will be built.
As survivalist responses to an ongoing catastrophe, pop-ups can be ephemeral, but it also felt right to acknowledge their contributions to the community in this year’s “101 restaurants, dishes, people and ideas” project.
Pop-up restaurants and other takeout upstarts have become a tangible part of dining in pandemic-era Los Angeles.
In the print version of the 101, distributed to subscribers on Dec. 13 and available in The Times’ online store, we weave 11 of our favorite pop-ups throughout the guide. Their ever-evolving menus show off L.A.’s wondrous multiplicity. The bonus of following them on social media? Tracing the comments, tags and stories on their profiles may lead you to other remarkable upstarts.
From his front yard in City Terrace, Alan Cruz makes some of the most distinctive and exciting barbecue in Los Angeles. There is 14-hour smoked brisket that disappears before you have memory of eating it, but also dishes cooked from the point of view of a young Chicano barbecue chef shaped by central Texas traditions: citrusy, chile-stained pulled pork modeled on cochinita pibil; cubed pork belly rubbed in al pastor rub and finished with pineapple chunks (Cruz calls it “al pastor burnt ends”); and excellent mac ’n’ cheese made even more soulful with smoky green chile rajas. This is essential L.A. food. Order online, then pick up your barbecue haul on Saturday. (The address is sent to customers after they purchase food online.) — P.I.E. eastlossoulbarbecue.com
Brandon Gray is a veteran in two senses of the word: A former cook in the Navy, he has chalked up chef experience over the last decade in Los Angeles restaurants that include Providence, Trois Mec and Best Girl in the Ace Hotel. He was running Royce Burke’s Secret Lasagna, a takeout restaurant and market in the West Hollywood Gateway complex, when Burke asked him if he could concoct an off-the-cuff pizza to bring to a friend — who turned out to be Evan Kleiman (see Page 37). She raved about the pie on her KCRW-FM (89.9) show “Good Food,” and Gray asked himself, “Am I about to start making pizzas for a living?”
He has heeded the call. He stretches dough to a thinness that yields a crust that’s crackery in places and puffed in others. With a sweet, dense sauce made from Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes and produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, Gray makes creations such as Nothin but a G Thang, with a combination of shrimp, chicken, sausage, pickled okra and roasted peppers that brings to mind gumbo. Pickups are in Mid-City, with a permanent location in the works for 2021. — B.A. brandoni-pepperoni.com
After years on the line at restaurants such as Botanica, the Exchange at the Freehand L.A. and Rustic Canyon, Rashida Holmes is headlining the dishes of her Bajan heritage with her Arts District-based pop-up. Her specialty is flaky roti, filled with her mom’s recipe for chicken curry, a vegan-friendly tumble of seasonal vegetables or, best of all, soft, ropy hunks of goat meat she buys from Jimenez Family Farms. The crust of her savory patties remains improbably delicate even when bulging with green curry shrimp or shredded oxtail meat with peppers. Start a meal with smashed cucumber salad jolted by jerk seasonings or two-bite cod cakes you’ll want to scarf by hand. We should all keep nudging Holmes to make doubles (the palm-size, Trinidadian flatbreads) covered with more goat. — B.A. bridgetownroti.com
For much of the last decade, Danielle Bell and Pablo Osorio have hosted a regular dinner series, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. Their meals mingled the specialties of Osorio’s native Peru with desserts and baking that often hearken to Bell’s Kentucky upbringing. Her biscuits and gravy and his creamy, gently spicy aji de gallina had developed followings at the Hollywood and Altadena farmers markets.
In 2020, they centered their energies on delivery with a mix of set and weekly-changing dishes. A mid-October menu perfectly summarized their synergies: locro de zapallo, a spicy winter squash stew set over quinoa; Parisian gnocchi with an autumnal mix of mushrooms and chicories, served with an aji amarillo butter sauce; end-of-season peach cobbler scented with cardamom and speckled with nigella seeds; and homey lemon pound cake that paired gorgeously with chestnut-rum ice cream. About Bell’s ice cream: It’s so masterful it deserves its own spinoff pop-up. — B.A. de-porres.com/de-porres-delivers
Fat & Flour
As part of the formative Gjelina Group team, at her short-lived Fairfax restaurant Fiona last year and in the approachable wisdom of her fruit-focused cookbook “Dappled,” Nicole Rucker has secured her reputation as the brightest star in the L.A. pie universe. With her current pop-up stand in Grand Central Market, the display of her talent is exceptional. You can flip the calendar by her rotating selection; the brilliance of the ever-changing lineup stems from her commitment to gathering fruit from the region’s finest orchards (and her own creative restlessness). In summer, there was the “stoner party,” a manifesto declared with peaches, nectarines, plums and oatmeal. Her hand pies — curried greens for lunch, pear and cherry or spiced apple for a treat later — may sneakily be the best things she makes. It isn’t all pie: Sometimes she makes peach ice cream sodas or biscuits smeared with the sunniest-tasting jams or brownies sprinkled with the right amount of fleur de sel. — B.A. fatandflourla.com
Golden Rice Co.
The sides of the packaging fall away, and the golden rice cake rises up statuesque on its cardboard tray. A few handfuls of ruby barberries have been scattered on top and around the sides; optional pulled chicken, sliced eggplant or filleted salmon may surround the perimeter or be draped over the top. This is Farah Parsa’s variation on the traditional Iranian dish tahchin, saturated with the flavor of saffron, cumulus-light from the addition of yogurt and with a dome of tahdig, the crisp layer of rice formed on the bottom of the pot. Parsa cooked for her daughter Sophia Parsa’s private dinner series Mountain Gate, where entrepreneurs such as Kim Malek, founder of Salt & Straw ice cream, spoke. A giant version of the tahchin was a staple centerpiece; in the shutdown, Farah downsized the recipe, and the family began to offer weekly pickups on Sundays out of Bootsy Bellows in West Hollywood. Golden Rice Co. also makes limited Sunday deliveries.
Complete the meal with mast-o-khiar (herbed yogurt with cucumber, so perfect with the rice that I’d suggest a double order), hummus, chopped salad and perhaps baklava or homemade orange blossom ice cream for dessert. Persian restaurants tend to be kebab houses; it’s rare to experience food that tastes like Iranian home cooking out in the world. This is your chance. — B.A. instagram.com/goldenriceco
At first, Khemla was a prepandemic collaboration between two of Josef Centeno’s staff. Phert Em, previously general manager of Bar Amá, originally called her pop-ups “L.A. Cambodian food,” adapting Khmer dishes she learned from her family to her own taste and experience. Mikey David, a former sommelier at Orsa & Winston, devised wine pairings. As Cambodian New Year approached in mid-April, Em decided to put forth a delivery edition of Khemla. She made salaw machu, a sour seafood soup stung with tamarind and pineapple, and sticky chicken wings scented with lemongrass, garlic and ginger, and baked durian-banana-chocolate bread for dessert.
People responded. Em has kept pushing herself to conceive weekly menus — recently lort cha (short rice noodles stir-fried with vegetables), garlicky prawns in coconut cream and fried bananas with salted caramel — in part to expose more Angelenos to Cambodian cuisine, which is underrepresented locally. “It’s scary but also exciting to be able to keep serving people and nurturing,” she said in an interview in July. “I want to be part of the community that’s transforming how we dine.” Also: Just ask, and David will still conjure wines to match. — B.A. instagram.com/khemla_/
Sasha Piligian — a former pastry chef at Sqirl who began her career with Friends & Family’s Roxana Jullapat — calls May Provisions a “micro bakery,” which is precisely how her succinct but varied menu comes across. She brings a fresh moxie to flavor combinations in cakes: bright hibiscus-lime curd and fig-leaf buttercream with a haunting nuttiness lift up Meyer lemon-olive oil cake; sesame caramel and salted chocolate date buttercream intensify a chocolate-rye cake. A weekly-changing pastry box follows her whimsies; look for riffs on nazook, rolled Armenian pastries she might spread with strawberry jam or cover in chocolate malt crumble. Also, she makes excellent pie. — B.A. mayprovisions.minimartapp.com
Moo’s Craft Barbecue
In 2017, Andrew and Michelle Muñoz began smoking meats in the style of central Texas from their East L.A. backyard. Two years later, their barbecue had such a following that they signed on as weekly vendors at Smorgasburg L.A.; their tent dependably saw the longest lines at the Sunday event. They were moving toward opening a permanent location in 2020 before … well, you know. Take it from a native Southerner who’s devoted many pounds and words to barbecue: Moo’s does the Lone Star State proud. Andrew smokes brisket and beef ribs into a state that nearly resembles custard. The thwack of heat from a paving of black pepper on the pork ribs balances their meaty excess. Michelle’s sausages — plump with roasted poblanos and queso Oaxaca or warmed with the same spices she might add to birria — express cultural nuance. They make their combined masterworks available usually once or twice a month; watch their Instagram account. — B.A. instagram.com/mooscraftbarbecue
Jihee Kim worked at restaurants such as San Francisco’s Gary Danko and Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon before partnering with fellow chef Joshua Pressman on a pop-up series called Dandi in 2019. Lately, she’s been on a mission: expanding many people’s notion of banchan, the procession of small dishes that accompanies Korean meals. In her hands, banchan is a seasonal event: Summer squash ignited with garlic-chile oil and charred okra steeped in soy and vinegar yield to fermented cucumber with pear and gingered yams sparked with orange peel. Her dozen or so options typically include meat-based banchan as well: chicken marinated in doenjang (fermented soybean paste), say, or thinly sliced beef soaking up gently spicy gochujang. Each banchan is remarkably light and distinct. Order abundantly if you can — leftovers make for excellent multiple meals — and don’t forget a side of steamed rice. — B.A. perillala.com
Cross Langer’s No. 19 sandwich with the kind of smoked brisket scholarship that Aaron Franklin inspires out of Austin, Texas, and you have an idea of what you’re in for with Ugly Drum’s pit-smoked pastrami Swiss stack. Between slices of Bub & Grandma’s sourdough, Erik Black layers melting bricks of spice-rubbed pastrami (brined and then smoked over oak and pecan woods) with caraway slaw, spiky Russian dressing and slices of Swiss cheese slowly bowing in the heat. It’s the kind of masterpiece you will hurt yourself to finish. Black has been building his fan base via pop-ups around Los Angeles for more than half a decade; he was a staple at Smorgasburg L.A.; these days, he’s taking orders out of Bludso’s Bar & Que on La Brea Avenue. He also sells the pastrami by the pound. When you’re ordering the Swiss stack online and you’re prompted to add a side of “uglies,” Black’s nickname for the pastrami burnt ends, go ahead and check the box. — B.A. uglydrum.com