Pancit noodles, lumpia eggrolls and the pork and tamarind-based sinigang soup are not exactly household words in New Orleans. But when chef Cristina Quackenbush debuted her new Filipino restaurant Milkfish in mid-April, she found an appreciative crowd ready to dine on dishes like these starting right on opening night.
That’s because Quackenbush had spent the previous two years running Milkfish as a pop-up in various forms and locations.
Along the way, the chef built both an audience for her contemporary take on the traditional flavors of her native Philippines and some valuable name recognition to leverage when she and partner Dean Lambert were finally able to open Milkfish on their own terms.
“It started as an experiment,” said Quackenbush, who credits chef Adolfo Garcia, her former boss, with encouraging her. “Now I firmly believe it’s the way to go. If you’re not already a name chef and you want people to come, you have to do something different.”
Once a part of the pop-up trend, Milkfish is the latest example of a newer ripple running across the New Orleans dining scene: pop-ups going permanent. Sometimes this happens by design, while in other cases the concepts seem to acquire their own momentum.
For instance, Mike Friedman and Greg Augarten started Pizza Delicious in 2010 as a once-a-week operation, based mainly on their longing for the style of pizza they grew up with in the Northeast. It’s since grown into a Bywater restaurant with 35 people on the payroll, a trajectory Friedman recounts with lingering disbelief.
“It was a joke at first that this could be a restaurant, but we didn’t want to disappoint people so we had to find a way to make it work for us and for them and that meant making it fulltime,” he said. “It was something we started taking very seriously once we got a following.”
The Riverbend restaurant Dante’s Kitchen has proven a hotbed for pop-ups. Longtime manager Neil McClure started a pop-up precursor of his McClure’s Barbecue in 2011, leading to his fulltime Magazine Street restaurant in 2013. Noodle & Pie also sprang from a Dante’s Kitchen-based pop-up, as chefs from the restaurant initially ran this unlikely combination of Japanese ramen soup and traditional sweet pies from the Uptown breakfast spot Coulis in 2011. Last year, they developed Noodle & Pie into a stand-alone venture. The response has been strong enough to expand with lunch service, which begins this week.
Sarsaparilla is the latest pop-up to test the waters from Dante’s Kitchen, serving small plates and cocktails into the wee hours on Tuesdays here (see tomorrow’s Beaucoup for more on this venture).
The pop-up model has proven a versatile one for chefs. A string of roving barbecue gigs kept pit master Rob Bechtold connected with regular customers between closing his first restaurant after a short run in 2012 and opening his NOLA Smokehouse fulltime in March. And chef Ryan Hughes has been running his weekly pop-up Purloo as a forerunner to the restaurant he intends to open inside the new Southern Food & Beverage Museum, now under construction in Central City.
A pop-up’s stepping-stone potential toward the restaurant business is appealing to some. For instance, Upper Nine Doughnut Company got its start last year on Saturday mornings inside the Uptown pub and po-boy joint Tracey’s Bar & Restaurant.
“We didn’t want to make a big financial outlay before we even knew what we didn’t know,” said Douglas Clasen, one of four partners behind it.
They expanded in February, and now also set up shop three days a week inside the Marigny’s Sound Café coffee shop, serving elaborate doughnut creations in flavors like chocolate salted caramel and Szechuan pepper lemon. Clasen said the goal is to find a location to open a fulltime Upper Nine Doughnut Company.
As the pop-ups keep coming, so are new opportunities for them. At Milkfish, Quackenbush intends to host visiting chefs on Wednesdays, when her restaurant is closed.
“Sous chefs ask me all the time now for advice on how we did the pop-up thing,” Quackenbush said. “We want to help pay back a bit because people helped us and that’s what got us here.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @ianmcnultynola.