Forget Justin Bieber or Jersey Shore, 2010 was the year of the “pop-up” restaurant. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Austin, and San Diego are now all home to various establishments which organize gourmet movable feasts that range from painstakingly elaborate to maniacally secretive. Pioneered in 2007 by Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre, whose Ludobites dinners are now so popular they sell out at rates faster than Coachella, the trend has given birth to a host of chef-driven supper clubs that are unbound by long term commitments both in terms of physical location and culinary style, including the current toast of the LA blogosphere, Craig Thornton, who runs the pay-as-you-like, Hendrix-esque sounding Wolvesden Underground Dining Experience. The word of mouth nature of these restaurants is undoubtedly a good thing, allowing diners to rub elbows with the chefs they admire based on a system in which exclusivity favors culinary enthusiasm rather than monetary privilege. However, like the food truck trend preceding it (which has now reached such a bubble of over saturation that Tim Geithner may soon have to step in) the pop-up scene is not entirely original and rather is the natural conclusion of an idea that can trace its roots to much more modest origins here in Los Angeles. Many could cite inspiration in the numerous taco carts that line Fletcher and Larga on various nights, the cart-pushing Oaxacan “Quesadilla Lady” whose small griddle churns out cheesy blue-corn gems in Echo Park, or even the acclaimed Ricky’s Fish Tacos which quickly progressed from a roadside weekend hobby into a beer-battered phenomenon. Still, I can think of no better example of a true “pop-up” than the small pupuseria and taqueria which opens a few nights every week in the front yard of a residential home just off Jefferson Boulevard.
Obscured by a high white wrought-iron fence, the plastic canopies and string of lightbulbs that stretch over a makeshift kitchen might be easy to miss if you weren’t looking. Luckily, the smell of griddled cheese and sizzling oil make for easy identifiers in the night air, drifting at least a city block in all directions. This owner of this particular house, who goes simply by Tony, has transformed his front yard into a miniature restaurant, complete with a collection of picnic tables, fold-out chairs and a small TV that pumps out Sábado Gigante at maximum volume. During the week, Tony splits time working as a chef at a taqueria in South Los Angeles. He operates his personal taqueria mainly on weekend nights, along with some much needed help from his wife. About a year ago, Tony had hoped to open his own taco truck, but due to limited funds he moved the operation to his brother’s house, and then later to his own home, where the lack of required permits and licenses made for a much more cost-effective means of selling homemade food. The kitchen is divided into two parts, one side where Tony assembles tacos made from handmade tortillas and a variety of meats, ranging from carne asada grilled on a small barbecue, to long-simmered batches of lengua, buche or cabeza. The tacos aren’t bad, but that’s not the main draw here. On the other side of the kitchen, where the real action is, Tony’s wife kneads a large bowl full of finely ground corn masa, prepared that morning. She a pinches off a small ball and flattens it with her palm. If you happened to order a pupusa ruevlata, the most popular choice here, the dough is then filled with thin layers of stringy white quesillo cheese, refried beans and a smear of pulverized stewed pork called chicharrón. On an odd day though, Tony’s wife will produce a stash of loroco flower buds, a popular Central American ingredient that tastes like the distant cousin of asparagus and baby broccoli. It happens to pairs superbly with cheese, so if that is available on a particular night, get several.
The pupusas are formed into discs not much thicker than your average flapjack and pressed onto a searing hot table-top grill lacquered with oil. A few sizzlingly loud minutes later they are pulled off, their crisp and browned outer surface enveloping a molten center of creamy cheese. They arrive so scorching hot that the styrofoam plate holding them can barely maintain its form, threatening to collapse into a melted heap if you aren’t careful. Each table is equipped with a pancake syrup dispenser filled with thin, mild tomato sauce and a bowl of curtido, the vinegary-cabbage slaw pulled from the large plastic drums that you can see marinating above the kitchen. These toppings are serviceable enough for the pupusa aficionado, but the real kicker here comes from a generous spoonful of the variety of salsas that line the taco table. Tony prides himself on his salsas: a fiery bright red chile paste that is reminiscent of Indonesian sambal oelek, a vibrantly green tomatillo salsa that is ground with fresh herbs until it resembles mint chutney, and a roughly chopped guacamole paste that provides the one respite from the copious amounts of heat found here.
This homemade food at its best, served with the kind of hospitality and intimacy that you hardly ever find outside of a family meal. Most people here are immediate locals, ranging from neighborhood teens wolfing down a late-night snack before their curfew expires, to leisurely old men nursing a Clamato while transfixed at the glowing TV. Tony tells me to come back soon, and I assure him I will. A massive order of four pupusas, stacked several inches high on the plate, and a glass of horchata cost me only $7, even more remarkable considering they were some of the best I can recall. Better still, is watching the enjoyment that this couple seems to derive from serving their food, smiling and joking as they cook for strangers and friends alike. Perhaps the unifying thread between this world and that of pop-up dining is the simple love of cooking to feed others instead of oneself. Cut out all the middlemen: valet parking, reservations, tuxedoed waiters, crystal wine glasses, and luxury tableware and you’ll arrive at the thing that both chef and diner care most about. More so than any past permutation, underground dining can teach us that food is not merely a personal thing, but instead a way to relate culture, beliefs, and feelings to those who are both known and unknown, all within a medium that can never grow stale.
Since this particular restaurant operates on the “fringes of legality” the physical address has been omitted. This is to avoid a Tacos Leo style situation similar to that of September 2010, or to otherwise endanger the livelihood of this family and their establishment. If you have any questions please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tony’s Front Yard Pupuseria
Mid-City, Los Angeles
$ – Cash Only
Tacos $1.00 Pupusas $1.50