They’re popping up all over the city: Chefs striking out on their own, spending their days off cooking in small cramped spaces, kitchens that aren’t their own.
For some, it’s a quick way to make some cash. For others, it’s a chance to exercise some culinary creativity, or maybe just get some good practice with a particular style or technique they’re trying to perfect.
And for diners, it’s a great way to taste some chef-prepared food at incredible prices.
Last weekend, I ventured on a two-part pop-up dining spree that started at Blacksmith and ended at Anvil. Blacksmith by day is a coffee house, but it closes on Sundays, which has allowed it to host pop-up dinners once a month, dubbed "Blacksmith by Night." Anvil is a cocktail bar which offers a small food menu, but they have been allowing Patrick Feges, a line cook at Anvil’s sister restaurant Underbelly, to offer barbecue to its customers on Sunday evenings.
The Blacksmith pop-ups are already notoriously popular. In the past, they’ve played host to the Pho Binh trailer for a pho pop-up, Mala Sichuan for a Chinese food pop-up, and Grant Gordon of Tony’s for an Italian food pop-up (which sold out in approximately 45 minutes).
Last Sunday, the pop-up featured chefs Michael Gaspard and Justin Basye, both currently at Pappas Bros. The pop-up officially started at 5 p.m., but by the time we arrived at 4:45 p.m. there was already a line outside the door. The first people in line told me they’d arrived at approximately 4 p.m. My friend and I were just outside the door, and therefore outside of the protective cocoon offered by the air conditioning. The first 10 minutes or so weren’t bad, but as the clock creeped past 5:20 p.m. with no sign of movement from the line, I was already prepared to go for Plan B.
Thank goodness for chef Chris Leung of the soon-to-be-open Cloud 10 Creamery in the Rice Village. His ice cream was being used in a coffee affogato-type dessert drink, and he’d brought a little extra, which he generously offered for free to people standing in line. The sweet cold creaminess took our minds off the muggy heat as we tasted delicious, unique flavors like nutella with marshmallow.
It was close to 6 p.m. by the time we ordered and found our seats. Blacksmith was packed, with most people coming in groups and ordering every single item on the menu. My girlfriend and I restrained ourselves, but still managed to order a lot: two orders of foie gras (because I wanted one to myself), a salad, an order of ribs, and an order of sweetbreads came out to just a little over $40.
For a pop-up (read: unfamiliar working conditions, cramped space, makeshift kitchen), the food was fantastic. The foie gras and onions came with mushrooms and figs, were generously portioned (for just $10), and full of flavor, and cooked perfectly, so that the insides were molten hot. The salad was a huge hit, and very well composed, with shaved fennel, green apple, arugula, a light citrus dressing, and chunks of shaved fresh coconut meat. The sweetbreads and okra had a wonderful flavor, but were unfortunately overly salted, and the beef ribs were humongous and tasty, but kind of chewy and tough to eat. It was a good effort.
Moving on to the second pop-up of the night, we headed to Anvil to experience barbecue by Patrick Feges. Feges, a line cook at Underbelly, has been hosting barbecue pop-ups regularly on his days off, which get announced via his Twitter account, @patrick84_03.
Not only was his barbecue incredibly priced at just $4 for a quarter pound of brisket, and $2 for sides like cole slaw or barbecue beans, it was also really delicious, like the kind worth waiting in line for delicious. You could tell that he'd put a lot of love into making it, that it wasn't just a money-making thing, but a craft that he'd strived to perfect. The meat was smoky and break-apart tender, good on its own, but better when drizzled generously with one of his sauces, a traditional barbecue sauce, and an apricot barbecue sauce. His pork ribs were caramelized, fall-off-the-bone perfection, a reason why they were the first to sell out. We liked it so much, we ordered extra to take home.
As we ran to our car in the rain, barbecue to-go in hand, my girlfriend and I laughed gleefully. It wasn’t your typical dinner date with a friend. It was an adventure. A fun-filled pop-up foodie adventure definitely worth repeating.
For information about Blacksmith, visit www.facebook.com/blacksmithhouston.
To find about about Patrick Feges barbecue, follow him on Twitter @patrick84_03.