The Seattle pop-up scene has been vibrant for years, as many restaurants, including the Filipino hot spot Musang in Beacon Hill and more recently Surrell on Capitol Hill, started out as small operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic put many pop-ups on pause, since the spaces where most of them took place were shut down for months. Even though pop-up chefs did not incur quite the same costs as permanent restaurants, that still put many in a precarious position.
“I’m not eligible for the loans or the majority of grants available for small businesses and I haven’t been able to recoup any of the losses of cancelled events of the past couple months,” chef Cam Hanin of the popular Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen told Eater Seattle recently. “In the interim we’ve been utilizing donations to supply food to feed the community.”
Hanin has served food at the Musang-launched Seattle Community Kitchen Collective, and is providing meals in partnership with Urban Fresh Food Collective’s Neighbor to Neighbor program. This charitable approach has been one area where many of the city’s pop-up chefs have found their stride, whether it’s Tarik Abdullah from Midnight Mecca or those serving people in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) space on Capitol Hill.
But there are other signs of activity as well, now that dining rooms and breweries are beginning to reopen at a limited capacity. Brothers and Co. — the Asian-influenced ramen and taco operation by siblings Seth and Zachary Pacleb — has needed to adjust. Though it built a following at area farmers markets, those markets are still not allowed to serve hot food, so the pop-up has sought other venues. It will be at Fair Isle Brewing in Ballard Friday, preparing shio koji marinated fried with sides such as a Hawaiian broken noodle salad, kimchi “queso” and chips, and grilled vegetables.
Ever since Washington’s stay-at-home order was first put in place, Tawainese-focused Babalio’s monthly pop-ups have needed to switch from serving full meals to providing to-go meal kits. The next event is June 28 at the Capitol Hill Chinese restaurant Plenty of Clouds and features Slack Season Noodle, a surf and turf noodle dish that originated in Southern Taiwan. Babalio also plans to serve a green curry seafood stew with produce and ingredients largely donated by chefs, purveyors, and farmers. The pop-up will collect and match the proceeds from this dish to benefit FEEST, an organization of young BIPOC leaders working to advocate and uphold food accessibility and security in lower-income areas. (Disclosure: Babalio chef Tiffany Ran is working on freelance writing assignments for Eater Seattle.)
For the past couple of months at La Medusa in Columbia City, the pop-up Three Sacks Full from chef Michael Tsai and sommelier Matthew Curtis has served up seasonal dishes with local ingredients, such as asparagus, lamb and pork crepinettes, and shiitake mushroom and turnip ragout. It has also donated a portion of proceeds to organizations such as Columbia Legal Services, which works to further racial and economic justice and equity by providing legal expertise for underserved communities.
But the precise line between pop-ups and full-service restaurants may be blurry now, as just about every chef or owner has had to adjust how they serve people during the pandemic.
In the early days of Washington’s stay-at-home order, Queen Anne’s fine-dining destination Canlis tried a burger drive-thru (it has since switched to mainly family meal kit deliveries). The Hawaiian-Thai fusion spot Buddha Bruddah in South Seattle recently introduced a barbecue pop-up in their back lot. And Meesha from chef Preeti Agarwal — serving some of the best Indian food in the city at Pomerol in Fremont — has items available for takeout Friday through Sunday, including moong dal chilla (a lentil crepe), fish curry, and crispy pakoras with cauliflower and asparagus.
Coming full circle, chef Melissa Miranda from Musang indicated last month, even when her restaurant decides to resume dine-in services, it will likely involve more pre-set menus and limited seatings: “a throwback to our pop-up days.”