A lot of things changed in 2020, including the definition of “a restaurant.”
This year, the best meals in the city didn’t come from haughty, high-end establishments or [insert name of celebrity chef here]’s latest wood-fired Coastal Mediterranean concept. They came from pop-ups, created in commissary kitchens and on backyard grills, pre-ordered (and paid for) through your phone, and delivered via bucket or takeout container. Born out of sheer necessity, a desire to do things differently, or an unbridled spirit of creativity, pop-ups came into their own in 2020, as did a new class of chefs, who, finally freed from the hierarchy of the professional kitchen, made food their way.
In doing so, they not only defined the year in dining, but challenged the very notion of what a restaurant can be. Which is a good thing - because as this list proves, we like a challenge. Here are our picks for the best pop-ups of 2020.
THE YEAR'S BEST POP-UPS
Prior to the lockdown, Bang Bang Noodles was arguably the most popular street cart in the city. Seriously, weekend wait times for their signature hand-pulled noodles were measured by the hour, which is why I was thrilled when they pivoted to pre-orders in the spring. The Tingling Cumin Noodle Dry (with beef shank) will always be my go-to order here, but they’ve slowly expanded their menu to include other excellent dishes like xiao pan ji (braised chicken with biang biang noodles and vegetables), plus vegan options as well. They operate out of The York’s kitchen in Highland Park, and you can place weekend pre-orders via their website. - Editorial Lead Brant Cox
Operating out of Crafted Kitchen commissary in the Arts District, Bridgetown Roti is run by chef Rashida Holmes, and specializes in Caribbean street food highlighting her Bajan heritage. The food of Barbados has many influences - including Indian, African, Creole, Irish, Portuguese, and British - making it some of the most unique and boldly flavored cuisine in the Western Hemisphere. What I love about Bridgetown Roti is that it doesn’t shy away from that fact whatsoever. Whether it’s a turmeric-laced patty stuffed with callaloo greens and crab meat, curry chicken roti wraps, or their pineapple-habanero house dipping sauce, this is the kind of spicy, savory food that transports you to someplace else. And I don’t know about you, but that’s a trip worth taking in 2020. - BC
I remember getting excited about Burmese, Please! back in March with Editorial Ops Coordinator (and part-time pop-up guru), Anikah Shaokat. We loved that the chef, Jessie Nicely, was a woman, and were obsessed with her fantastic food magazine, Compound Butter. But most importantly, we were so happy to see Burmese food back in the city, especially after recently losing Daw Yee Myanmar. And we weren’t disappointed - the ohn no khao swe, made with coconut curry and supple buckwheat noodles, has become my go-to comfort dish. And the tea leaf salad, which comes with something like 45 different accoutrements, is both a fun exercise in mise en place and one of the best salads I’ve eaten all year. You order via Instagram, and make make sure you’re strategic while doing so: Pick-ups only happen once a month, and orders fill up fast. - Staff Writer Kat Hong
If you scrolled through Instagram this summer, chances are you might’ve seen a red bucket filled with breakfast sandwiches being dropped from a fire escape. That was Calabama, a pop-up run by chef Cara Haltiwanger that was also the best show in quarantine. Seriously, for as awful as this year was, being able to drive to East Hollywood and watch your breakfast being lowered to you via a homemade pulley system is what I call a silver lining. The fact the sandwich (packed with bacon, eggs, cheese, onions, avocado, and cooked on a cast-iron grill) tasted incredible was the cherry on top. Follow her on Instagram for all the latest details. - BC
Takeout food can be a bit of an inelegant art - I can’t begin to tell you how many plates of mediocre pasta I’ve brought home during quarantine - and yet, Caribbean Gourmet manages to create incredible home-cooked meals with the kind of mastery and ease not seen since Cheri Oteri’s time on SNL. (Seriously, she carried Will Ferrell in every single “Spartan Cheerleaders” sketch.) Located at the Crenshaw Farmers’ Market on Saturdays (and at the Atwater Village Market on Sundays), this pop-up serves all sorts of wonderful Caribbean fare, including some of the best jerk chicken in LA, golden Jamaican-style beef patties, and oxtail stew so tender, the meat literally falls off of the bone. So… three cheers for this master class in takeout food? Ready? OK! - KH
Located inside a garage in Historic Filipinotown, Chainsaw started as an underground dinner party series in 2019 run by the former pastry chef at Here’s Looking At You (RIP) and a sous chef at Providence, but transitioned into a contactless pop-up during quarantine. When I ordered here for the first time, I got their $30 weekend-only “Chainsaw Lunchbox,” which came with a few salads, a dessert, and a pulled pork sandwich that should be on everyone’s LA sandwich priority list. The second time I went, however, I came for their pie, and let me tell you, I’m still not over it. And neither are the friends who had some at the park gathering I brought it to. Trust me, I’m still getting texts about it. - BC
2020 was the year that LA got to know Detroit-style pizza, and on behalf of the city, I want to say: Thank you, Detroit. My favorite pie is at Dough Daddy, the DTLA pop-up that sells out within minutes of posting their weekly pick-up slots on Instagram. The light, springy crust is loaded with a heavy layer of creamy, salty Wisconsin brick cheese (which gets supremely crispy on all sides), and dabbed with thick rows of sweet, fresh tomato sauce. Your order here is the Real Deal with pepperoni, which curl up into thick, crispy, greasy little swimming pools of salty wonder. Though ordering can be tough (you’ll need to turn on Instagram post notifications to grab a slot), pick-up from their secret Downtown apartment kitchen is a breeze. - Staff Writer Brett Keating
Smashburgers have become so immensely popular in LA over the last few years that it’s almost impossible to know which spots are actually worth checking out. I’ll make this very clear: Go to Easy Street. The tiny pop-up in an empty East Hollywood parking lot is cooking up one of the best versions I’ve ever eaten. Greasy, but-not-too-greasy, crispy, but never burnt, Easy Street is exactly what a smashburger should be. Definitely add some chopped grilled onions on top for $1, and keep in mind the patties are thin, so a double should be your minimum order. Open Thursday-Sunday, 5-10pm. - BC
Pictures of baby pit bulls, color-coded day planners, Harvey Kinkle from Sabrina the Teenage Witch… I like pretty things. So naturally, I gravitated towards Kinkan. From dazzling boxes of uni to chirashi bowls so immaculate, they look like Sugarfish on Adderall, this Silver Lake pop-up is eternally in pursuit of perfection. Every dish here seems more beautiful than the last - sleek slices of unagi are cushioned by tamago and ikura, and sashimi boxes come studded with bluefin tuna, sea bream, and Hokkaido scallops - and, as an added bonus, each tastes incredible, too, proof that Kinkan is more than just a pretty face. - KH
Read all about Kuya Lord in The Meals That Got Us Through 2020.
Metztli is a pop-up that serves tremendously innovative, high-end tacos - the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else in LA. They put fine-dining twists on more traditional dishes, like a chicharrón taco topped with chile árbol and grasshopper salsa macha, or the barbacoa quesadilla, filled with adobo short ribs and shishitos toreados. But this isn’t just innovation for the sake of it, these are damn great tacos, and some incredible combinations of flavors. When you eat here, there’s also a good chance you’ll have a life-affirming conversation with the super-friendly owner/chefs, married couple Vanessa and Alejandro Silva, who met while working at Jean-Georges, the high-end Beverly Hills restaurant, making this a meal that satisfies both your stomach and your soul. - BK
Much like Al Pacino performances, BBQ isn’t exactly subtle. But every once in a while, there’s a Godfather II -level of nuance amongst all the smoke and salt, and that’s what I found at Neighborhood. This pop-up, started by Erik Piedrahita - a former chef at the now-closed Bon Temps - brings a bunch of incredible, chef-y touches to traditional BBQ, like smoked tomato BBQ sauce on a massive beef rib, or mac & cheese with Velveeta and truffles. You order ahead through Tock for weekend pick-up in Griffith Park, so bring a friend, a blanket, and some napkins for a remarkable picnic (y’know, back when picnics were allowed). - BK
How does one begin to describe Nünchi? Is it a Korean pop-up? LA’s most stylish dessert destination? The ultimate ’80s vaporwave dreamscape? How about all of the above? At Nünchi, the brainchild of former fashion designer Lexie Park, the lines between art and food aren’t just blurred - they cease to exist. Mesmerizing pomegranate cheesecakes glitter via Instagram. Kimbap stuffed with purple rice sit symmetrically in a circle, as if plucked out of a Wes Anderson film. And in her latest collaboration - with Eagle Park brick-and-mortar Chifa - Park has devised her most brilliant, mimetic creation yet: A cob-shaped dessert made with light purple almond jelly, chicha morada syrup, and real bits of corn. - KH
There’s no meal more comforting for me than chicken parmesan. So in a year as sh*tty as this one, I was very happy to discover Parm Boyz’s residency at The Corner Door in Culver City. The chicken parm is pounded thin and extremely crispy, but is still moist, and the eggplant parm nails that happy medium between too-dry and too-mushy. Both versions take me back to some of my favorite meals from my childhood, eating tremendous Italian-American food in Boston’s North End, and I suspect this isn’t a coincidence, since the chef is from Lynn, MA, just north of Boston. They also put their own spin on other classics - like garlic bread stuffed with burrata, mascarpone, and cream cheese, and a Caesar salad with brown butter croutons - that set the mood just as well as the red checkered tablecloths. - BK
Read all about Perilla in The Meals That Got Us Through 2020.
Beautiful plating, dishes served with a side of social justice, and pies so indulgent you’ll feel like you’re eating the rich? It’s a pretty tall (and oddly specific) order, but somehow, Rose + Rye was able to fill it. My favorite dessert pop-up of the year did everything from holding cake auctions in honor of Breonna Taylor to educating their followers on democratizing food systems, and somehow, they still found time to create something called a “Banana Nutella pie” - a heavenly, decadent confection filled with, like, a pound of chocolate pudding, Nutella cream, and real golden flakes. And to answer your question, yes, it tastes as delicious and hedonistic as it sounds. - KH
There might not be a pop-up with a more LA origin story than Shappy Pretzel Co. Started by actor Adam Shapiro (Sense8, Never Have I Ever), this Philly pretzel pop-up began in the same way so many of our baking habits did this year - by messing around in a kitchen during lockdown. But while we were screaming at our sourdough starters, Shapiro (a Philly native) was perfecting his pretzel recipe for friends and family (a list that just so happened to include Ryan Seacrest and Bradley Cooper). Update: He nailed it. Dense, chewy, but with a slightly crisp exterior to provide a pop in each bite, these aren’t just the best Philly pretzels in LA - they’re the best pretzels, period. Place your orders now, because there’s bound to be a wait. - BC
After two years of lugging his grill to block parties and cooking in his grandmother’s front yard, Victor Villa was this close to opening a brick-and-mortar taqueria in 2020. Ultimately, he decided against it (good call), and instead did what so many others did this year - he pivoted... to his grandmother’s backyard. Turns out, that was an even better call. Working with a small team of friends and family - his sister helps fill orders, his grandmother and father make fresh salsas and pico de gallo, and his mom prepares chorizo - he’s turned his namesake spot into a true LA taco destination. The literal house special are his stupendous seven-layer chorizo and potato tacos, served on Dodger Blue corn tortillas (a tribute to the World Series champs) with a base of crispy, griddled-on cheese. They’re spicy, smoky, and satisfying, especially when topped with Villa’s chunky tomato salsa, and ordering is a breeze: Just DM them on Instagram to arrange curbside pick-up. Villa’s success wasn’t just a bright spot in a year sorely lacking in them, it’s proof that sometimes, Plan B should be the plan all along. - LA Editor James Montgomery
The Indonesian pop-up is run out of Iki Ramen in Koreatown and sells a $22 seafood bento box that’s unlike anything I ate all year in LA. Grilled snapper and shrimp, spicy sauteed squid, urab sayur (Balinese mixed vegetables), acar (pickled vegetables), and two different kinds of sambal - I brought this to several picnics over the summer and it was a true mic-drop meal. And no, I didn’t allow any friends to negotiate a snack swap. All pre-orders are done through their Instagram and pick-ups are Sunday only. - BC