Courtesy of Gregory Dicum:
Lung Shan is an unremarkable Chinese restaurant in the Mission District. But on Thursday and Saturday nights it’s rocked by an invasion of diners and chefs with much more than sweet and sour pork on their minds.
Each week, a different guest chef is pressed into service to feed the horde in the kitschily downscale dining room at Lung Shan.
On those nights, Lung Shan becomes Mission Street Food, one of a number of pop-up restaurants that have opened in the Bay Area over the last couple of years in spaces not normally used for fine dining.
On a recent Thursday, Tommy Halvorson, the chef that night, ignored Lung Shan’s huge woks as he worked pans crammed onto its small stove. Behind him, Anthony Myint assembled sea urchin into sashimi with young coconut and candied pecans ($8).
Mr. Myint is the impresario behind Mission Street Food (2234 Mission Street near 18th Street, missionstreetfood.com). Each week he presses a different guest chef into service to feed the horde in the kitschily downscale dining room.
“The food here is creative and interesting,” said Nick Lanham, a graduate student dining at a big table of friends. “They go a little bit further. They can try out crazy stuff here.”
That night, Mr. Myint featured small plates of chicken-fried beef jerky ($7), and Mr. Halvorson made gnocchi with Himalayan truffles ($8).
By taking advantage of underused kitchens, pop-ups allow young chefs, many with experience in San Francisco’s most highly regarded restaurants, to experiment without the risk of bankruptcy. And unlike underground supper clubs, they’re completely legal.
“We just started with our own money,” said Mark Bright, a sommelier who, along with the chef Joshua Skenes, runs Saison, a Friday through Sunday restaurant that operates out of a commercial kitchen behind Stable Café on Folsom Street (2124 Folsom Street near 17th Street, (415) 828-7990, saisonsf.com, reservations required). They started within two weeks of finding the space last July.
“Even in this economic climate people are really out there trying to make things happen,” said Mr. Halvorson, who also runs a pop-up called EAT on Monday at 111 Minna, a SOMA art gallery (111 Minna Street at Second Street, (415) 375-2321, eatat111minna.blogspot.com). “Instead of crying because the bank won’t give me $2 million to open a restaurant,” he said, “this is a way I can do it.”
The most venerable of the lot might be Radio Africa & Kitchen, operated Thursday and Friday nights at Coffee Bar, a stylish cafe in the Mission (1890 Bryant Street at the corner of Florida and Mariposa Streets, (415) 420-2486, radioafricakitchen.com). Eskender Aseged has been cooking what he calls “Red Sea meets Mediterranean” for small gatherings since he came to the United States from his native Ethiopia more than two decades ago. When Coffee Bar opened three years ago, the owner invited Mr. Aseged to open Radio Africa & Kitchen there. (Coffee Bar also hosts another, more sporadic pop-up called Jet Set Chef — thejetsetchef.com.)
Mr. Aseged hopes one day to open his own restaurant, but he is in no hurry. A recent menu featured Tanzanian-style octopus ($18) and roasted leg of lamb with berbere sauce ($18).
A more casual pop-up is Pal’s Takeaway, a counter inside a corner store that offers a few carefully considered sandwiches each day for lunch. Though it is invisible from the street, Pal’s consistently draws crowds for things like five-spice roasted chicken sandwiches ($8) and homemade pickled vegetables ($4). (Inside Tony’s Market, 2751 24th Street at Hampshire Street, (415) 203-4911, palstakeaway.com)
Flexibility keeps these chefs loyal to the pop-up concept. Mr.Myint says his primary motivation is to use food to raise money for various causes. Thus far, Mission Street Food has had more than 60 guest chefs and, in 2009, contributed $22,000 to charities.
Last year Mr. Myint, whose brawny hands are covered in the burns and scars of his six years as a cook, also started Mission Burger, which serves juicy, sloppy burgers from the grill at Duc Loi, a Vietnamese supermarket ($8, which includes a dollar for charity, 2200 Mission Street at 18th Street, (415) 551-1772). Now he works seven days a week.
At Saison, Mr. Skenes wanted to be able to riff on each week’s best available ingredients, which means spending Mondays and Tuesdays calling farmers and suppliers and combing markets, then creating a seven- to eight-course prix fixe menu ($80, plus $50 for wine). Recent menu items include poularde in almond milk and flights of fish with hojiblanca olive oil. He also serves a $180 10- to 12-course meal (plus $60 for wine) for two or four people each night at the chef’s table, nestled in the center of the action between the stoves and the walk-in freezer.
For his part, Mr. Myint is exploring a permanent restaurant, but he is seeking money in a manner true to the scrappy pop-up ethos: at the start of the month he announced on his blog that he’s looking for 100 people to invest $500 each. “There has been kind of a lot of response,” he said.