Under the warping pull of the pandemic, our food scene has changed. It has changed in a whole lot of bad ways, yet also in a few good. Now, we can start to really assess these changes, as we navigate the weird transition back to living more uncontained lives. One of the absolute best changes: local popups are surging right now.
In recent months and years, an impressive generation of food popups has risen. They prepare a variety of cuisines in a variety of styles, served in places like parking lots and restaurant backrooms, and commercial kitchens. So many have launched lately. So many are taking risks, brimming with soul, and doing things that restaurants just can't.
Though there are others, here are five interesting popups that we highly recommend seeking out.
Though they don't have fancy awards or a restaurant (yet), Alex and Yotaka Martin's wide-ranging Thai food is some of the most rewarding and thoughtful eating in Arizona. Their cooking, marked by care, rigor, and eye-widening flavors, channels Thai cities, villages, and communities from the center of the map and its jungle and seacoast margins. Everything is from supreme scratch. They stuff the sausages, pound the curry paste, make the coconut milk, spending days making dishes you delete from the universe in minutes. Check out our full review, and sign up for their email list for more on takeout and in-person pop-up meals.
Phx Lechon Roasters
Margita and Brian Web, another wife-and-husband team, prepare homestyle Filipino food out of a commercial kitchen in downtown Mesa. Cartoonishly purple pillow-soft rolls of ube pandesal pull apart to molten cores of ube jam and melted cheese. Lumpia crackle, crisp from the fryer and rich with pork from The Meat Shop. The highlight, though, is lechon baboy: crackly-skinned meat hacked from a whole pig turned for hours and hours and hours over a charcoal fire. Note: in the commercial kitchen and when playing away games and cooking elsewhere, the Webbs might serve a fraction of this menu or another.
Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo's taco popup serves far more than tacos, both channeling and bending the traditions of Arroyo's Sinaloa or cooking YOLO mashups that go their own way. They've served up hot chicken tortas and fufu birria, bulgogi tacos, and chapulin tamales. They've tucked perfectly tender beef quesabirria in hand-pressed tortillas dyed black with squid ink. What they cook varies with the weeks. So does where they choose to light their grill, ranging from the east Valley to North Phoenix to downtown.
The Hungry Homie
One at a time. That's how Ryan Moreno blazes his pizzas at high heat. He brings them to life in an oven not much bigger than the boxes they soon enter. This hungry homie has worked at several pizza joints all over the Valley. His dough is puffy, soft, with rollicking fresh-from-the-heat bready lightness. His Vanna White, a sauce-less pie utterly rained with mild garlic cloves, is a stunner. Moreno will chat you up as you wait for your one pie, turning it as he juggles orders and conversation. In our great pizza city, his pies and style deserve to be part of your rotation, even if he only cooks a day or two a week.
In back of Jewel's Bakery & Cafe, you can order tacos and a few other Mexican specialties from TruTacos. Here, chef Justine and Misael Trujillo recreate recipes from Trujillo's family. The al pastor, carne asada, and nopales tacos are traditional but for a touch here, a touch there, a bit of Flamin' Hot Cheetos in the tortilla. Weekend specials rotate into favorites like posole and carne asada fries. Margaritas are juice-forward and tropical, more backyard barbecue than mixology. The best bite? A special taco that combines peppers and cream cheese.
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