8 Pop-Ups That Prove LA’s Food Scene Is Bouncing Back Stronger Than Ever

New brick-and-mortars, summer tours, and the return of IRL pop ups.

Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

Los Angeles has long served as an eager breeding ground for compelling food pop-ups from rising restaurateurs seeking to establish themselves within a competitive and at times overcrowded industry. Recurring markets like Row DTLA’s Sunday Smorgasburg and Yamashiro’s Thursday Night Market were responsible for bringing concepts like Macheen’s birria breakfast burritos and VTtree’s soulful vegan fare to our attention. Informally, pop-ups and food trucks could be found in nearly every corner of our city at just about any time of day, spoiling us with an abundance of diverse and delicious options that were completely unique to LA.

But the pandemic changed all of that with the halt of in-person events and gatherings. And with most of our attention focused on supporting local restaurants that were facing sudden closures, our city’s pop-up culture was under threat of disappearing completely. That makes it all the more impressive that so many were able to not just survive, but found the inspiration to innovate their offerings over the last 18 months. Here are eight LA pop-ups that arose during the pandemic that deserve your attention:

fish cakes
Photo by Kennedy Clark, courtesy of Bridgetown Roti

The rising chef who launched LA’s new favorite Caribbean pop-up: Bridgetown Roti

For Rashida Holmes of Bridgetown Roti, the shutdowns happened just as she was getting her Caribbean pop-up off the ground. 

“I was working part-time at the Firehouse Hotel in the Arts District, but when that closed in February 2020, I took it as a sign and decided to try launching Bridgetown Roti,” Holmes said. “I was able to do one pop-up at Melody Wine Bar before everything closed down and took me back to square one. After panicking for about a month, I started selling patties out of my home, and that really took off.”

After outgrowing her home kitchen in Boyle Heights, Holmes began operating out of a commissary kitchen in the Arts District, offering rotating weekend menus that brought a new perspective to LA’s Caribbean food scene with an expansive, diasporic take that marries the region’s Indian influence with Afro-Caribbean flavors. The result is vegan- and omnivore-friendly dishes like a channa and sweet potato roti with fried cauliflower, spiced turmeric slaw, and roasted Brussels sprouts; and supple oxtail and pepper patties that practically melt in your mouth.

bridgetownroti
@bridgetownroti

While Caribbean traditionalists might balk at Holmes’ approach, the chef says that it’s helped her tap into close-knit communities that she might not otherwise have access to. She encourages the discourse, saying, “We're not traditional and there's conflict around that sometimes, but I'm okay with that conflict. Food is an evolving conversation, all the time. So, I'm not going to make it like your mama made it and I'm not going to make it like your favorite cart in Christ Church, Barbados. But I am going to make it my way. And I hope that you like it and I hope we can talk about it.”

Since COVID restrictions have eased, Holmes has resumed in-person pop-ups, including Sundays at Smorgasburg

Calabama
Photo courtesy of Calabama

A viral, one-item breakfast menu with a unique delivery system: Calabama

It’s hard to imagine that Cara Haltiwanger’s pandemic pop-up would have achieved the same viral success under “normal conditions.” After working in kitchens for more than two decades, Haltiwanger was in a comfortable routine of catering and popping up at various LA bars and restaurants on the weekends, serving simple yet delicious Southern-influenced comfort food staples. When the pandemic interrupted that flow, she had the innovative idea to offer a one-item menu—a toasted breakfast sandwich with egg, bacon, cheese, and avocado, plus her signature Calabama hot sauce on the side—delivered via a bucket that she lowered from her fifth-floor fire escape balcony. The idea was inspired by her friend George Motz, who, during the pandemic, delivered his smashburgers via a homemade slide from his Brooklyn apartment.

Within weeks of sharing this new offering, Haltiwanger’s Sunday bucket drops were selling out within minutes. Orders opened on Thursdays at noon, allowing customers to select a five-minute slot between 8 am and 11 am for the following Sunday morning when they could pick up their sandwich in East Hollywood. The breakfast sandwich bucket drop not only gave people (albeit brief) Sunday plans at a time when their social calendars were completely empty, but it provided a rare opportunity for connection when all of us were starved for human interaction. 

Calabama
Photo courtesy of Calabama

“It became a tourist destination,” Halitwanger said. “I had people fly and drive in from Vegas, Seattle, Orange County, and Riverside. I had celebrities almost every week. But the coolest part is that it became this community service. People began leaving presents in the bucket, everything from baked bread to notes and gifts from kids. I've even had people send up paintings, weed, alcohol, just about anything you could think of.” 

She made the difficult decision to end her bucket drops in late June after California fully reopened—though she’s willing to do one-off bucket drops for customers who purchase ten or more breakfast sandos. 

Haltiwanger’s since returned to in-person pop-ups, including an upcoming collaboration with Yeastie Boys Bagels on Saturday, August 7, a brunch pop-up at Glendale Tap on Saturday, August 14, and a Friendly Market at the Friend Bar in Silver Lake on the last Sunday of every month. Follow her on Instagram to stay up to date on events. She also bottles and sells her Calabama hot sauce, a spicy, preservative-free flavor-bomb that you can try via her website, Crossroads Kitchen, Tripp Burgers, or Carla’s Cafe.

Rhea and Marcel | Photo courtesy of Saucy Chick

The furloughed couple that bet big on their dreams: Saucy Chick Rotisserie

When Saucy Chick Rotisserie chefs, co-owners, and husband-and-wife Rhea Patel Michel and Marcel Rene Michel were furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic, they took a chance and invested in a long-held dream of starting a virtual kitchen that blended their Mexican and Indian backgrounds with dishes like a Jeera rotisserie chicken with caramelized onions, cumin, fresh garlic and ginger; and sides that include Mom’s Beans, a secret recipe from Marcel’s mother that involves whipped pinto beans, chorizo, and cheese. All chicken dishes use Mary’s Free Range rotisserie chicken and all of their sauces—including standouts like an herbaceous green garlic “GG” sauce—are crafted from scratch. 

“We had zero kitchen experience and are not trained chefs, by any means,” Rhea insisted. “And so we began by asking friends and family, saying, ‘Hey, we'd love to deliver you dinner for donations.’ And then soon, it started spreading and friends were telling other friends and we started getting bigger and bigger.”

As word spread, Saucy Chick was faced with a tough decision. Both Marcel and Rhea were reinstated at their jobs and it was becoming more and more difficult to balance a growing ghost kitchen with two full-time careers, plus the raising of their young son. They’d started the business almost on a whim, figuring that it would offer them a chance to explore their passions for food while providing some much-needed income during an unstable period, but hadn’t thought much beyond that.

Photo courtesy of Saucy Chick

“We didn't want to give up on the dream,” Rhea said, “We found it super rewarding to be flexing our brains in a different way. And to be honest, at a time where we were all physically distant, it was super rewarding to still be able to connect with people in some fashion.”

Eventually, Saucy Chick’s success enabled Marcel to leave his job and dedicate more time to the pop-up. Since California fully reopened in mid-June, Saucy Chick has begun doing in-person pop-ups, including one at Employee’s Only Summer Social Club—an outdoor series with rotating chefs—and most recently, Sundays at Smorgasburg. They just added new summer dishes to their menu, including Bomb Saucy Jeera Chaat-Chos, an Indian-forward take on nachos with Jeera chicken, para crisps, mayocoba, crema, GG sauce, house-pickled onions, mint, spiced and roasted peanuts, and coconut; plus a torta with pibil chicken featuring Mom’s beans, queso fresco, GG sauce, and housemade lime-pickled onions, all squeezed between two slices of Long Beach bakery Gusto Bread’s bolillo bread.

Photo courtesy of Ggiata

An Italian deli pop-up turned neighborhood brick-and-mortar: Ggiata

Similar to Saucy Chick, Ggiata co-founders/owners Max Bahramipour, Noah Holton-Raphael, and Jack Biebel entered the food and beverage industry with little hands-on experience. The three New Jersey natives were recent LA transplants and, upon noticing the lack of high-end Italian-style delicatessens, decided to launch their own. They quickly put together a short menu, got a month-to-month lease on a cloud kitchen, and began testing out a delivery-only concept.

While LA has no shortage of standout sandwich shops, Ggiata offered something different, appealing to East Coast transplants who grew up with a similar deli culture. As their popularity grew, they brought on head chef/co-owner Olivia Bin, an LA native who helped them elevate their menu of classics with fresh California ingredients. When they got the opportunity to move into a brick-and-mortar in the up-and-coming Melrose Hill neighborhood, they set out to create a deli that reflected the nostalgia of their sweetest childhood memories and could act as a community anchor. 

“Coming into a majority Latino neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying, it was super important for us to show the community that we were there to be a fixture and an anchor tenant that is serving the community, but also serving to drive more traffic to the community,” said Holton-Raphael. “One of the ways we do that is by offering a local discount for everyone in the neighborhood.”

Photo courtesy of Ggiata

Ggiata has made good on that promise, recently joining a neighborhood block party and collaborating with iconic LA brand Fred Segal for a pop-up at their Malibu location. In the future, the brand hopes to expand with more locations on the Westside, and possibly, once the pandemic is in the rearview, to launch a deli-by-day-speakeasy-by-night concept that would act as their foray into nightlife.

Photo by Hannah Mills for Sungold Studio

A culinary artist pairs whimsy with community engagement: Sandita’s

In the Before Times, Sandy Ho was known for hosting Sandita’s Dinner Series in her Venice backyard, exploring home cooking with an open door policy that welcomed loved ones, friends, and strangers around a long, communal table where Ho would share family recipes from her Vietnamese-Australian upbringing, alongside fresh California produce. When the shutdowns forced her to put her dinner series on pause, she returned to her ethos that universal love and care are the cornerstones of good food, and began making more intentional items—hand-rolled dumplings and fortune cookies.

As Ho explained, “Every week’s menu was inspired by CSA boxes that I would get from local farmers. In the CSA box, as incredible as they are, you don't always get a large array of things. Sometimes you get six bunches of beets, ten bunches of kale, and one zucchini. One time, I had all of this beet juice leftover, and I just thought, ‘I'm going to make these dumplings pink because everyone loves pink. And let's just see where that goes.’ That really ignited a drive in me to do more. So I made juices out of kale, spinach, turmeric, whatever I could find, and I applied them to dyeing the dumpling skins.”

Photo courtesy of Sandy Ho

Demand for Ho’s rainbow dumplings and fortune cookies was high, leading to a wholesale opportunity with Wine and Eggs provisions shop. Soon after, Ho began doing monthly collaborations with local winemakers like Vinovore and Helen’s Wines where they paired a special dumpling release with a bottle of wine, plus a hand-dyed napkin to complete the picnic vibes. 

In an effort to remain community oriented, Ho has committed to donating a portion of each month’s sales to organizations that support food sovereignty, sustainability, education, and community outreach. At the end of July, Sandita’s will be making a donation to Alma Backyard Farms, a Compton-based urban farming collective that provides educational agriculture programs and supports families and formerly incarcerated people in disenfranchised communities.

In addition to finding her packaged dumplings at Wine and Eggs, you can also catch Sandita’s popping up at Melody Wine Bar in August.

Thicc Burgers
Photo courtesy of Thicc Burgers

A food blogger and private chef that opted to remain mobile: Thicc Burgers

While brick-and-mortars have long symbolized success for hopeful restaurateurs, a new crop of chefs are relishing the location-based freedom that pop-ups and ghost kitchens can provide. Take former food blogger Jay Wolfe, for example. Before the onset of the pandemic, they were working as a private chef and had a dedicated social audience following their global foodie adventures. After the shutdown happened and Wolfe lost their private chef gigs, they got an opportunity to work in a ghost kitchen and their Thicc Burgers pop-up was born. 

“I doubt I would’ve been able to start Thicc Burgers at all had it not been for the pandemic,” Wolfe said. “Before that I was a private chef working 70 hours a week and I didn't have time to create or conceive anything new. As bad as the pandemic has been, it's been the biggest blessing to me because it gave me the courage to do something for myself.”

Thicc Burgers started out by offering limited menus available on the weekends that frequently sold out. Wolfe had plenty of travel connections leftover from their days as a nomadic food blogger, so when travel began to resume they had a ready fanbase in cities across America. This summer they’re embarking on a national burger tour that kicked off in Houston on July 17, and will stop in Dallas, Texas; Norfolk, Virginia; and Brooklyn, New York, before the summer ends.

Broken Spanish

The pop-up return of a celebrated dining institution: Broken Spanish x NeueHouse

Perhaps the most inspiring part of LA’s pandemic pop-up culture has been the camaraderie and support displayed between fellow restaurateurs and local businesses. When Ray Garcia’s celebrated Broken Spanish restaurant was permanently closed, the acclaimed chef was invited to do a spring residency at NeueHouse Hollywood that has since been extended through the end of July. The pop-up features some of the restaurant’s favorite Alta California dishes like duck meatballs with fresh cactus, bacon, and chipotle sauce, plus some new additions like a campechana with octopus, shrimp, bay scallops, sea bream, green clamato, avocado, and daikon radish. The Thursday through Sunday evening pop-up has helped create buzz as Garcia prepares for the launch of ¡VIVA!, his latest modern Mexican restaurant at the brand new Resorts World Las Vegas.

Photo by Carter Hiyama, courtesy of Bar Le Cote

A summer pop-up tour teases a new Central Coast dining destination: Bar Le Cote

LA’s pop-up culture has come back with such enthusiasm that even out-of-town restaurants are capitalizing on the trend. Bar Le Cote, a seafood tavern from chef/partner Brad Matthews and owners Greg and Daisy Ryan (of trendy spot, Bell’s in Los Alamos), that’s slated to arrive in Los Olivos, California, this summer, has been teasing their opening with a series of Tuesday evening pop-ups in collaboration with some of LA’s most exciting restaurants, including Rustic Canyon, Anajak Thai, and All Day Baby. Now that Angelenos are familiar with the forthcoming concept, Bar le Cote will be concluding their summer tour with a pop-up at French-inspired Gigi’s on Tuesday, July 27. 

Though we’ve made great strides in moving past the pandemic, we’re not quite in the clear yet. Thankfully, the unwavering fortitude displayed by these burgeoning business owners has us confident that—regardless of what the future holds—our city’s thriving pop-up scene will keep surmounting challenges to remain as relevant and dynamic as ever.

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Danielle Dorsey is the Los Angeles Editor at Thrillist.