the year i ate new york

Masters of the Pop-Up

The city’s most exciting chefs are cooking in someone else’s restaurant.

Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha have turned Ha’s Đặc Biệt into a global project. Photo: Lucia Bell-Epstein
Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha have turned Ha’s Đặc Biệt into a global project. Photo: Lucia Bell-Epstein

As my year of eating New York winds down, I can tell you that some of my favorite meals are ones you’ll never get to try. For the better part of the year, I’ve felt like a stalker following pop-up artists around the city, meals that appear for a night, maybe two, before they evaporate into memory, like the silky pile of squid cooked in harissa butter delivered by TikTok-famous Pierce Abernathy as videographers tailed him around Rhodora or a creamy red kuri-squash cake with dulce de leche served by Mina Park’s 99 on a Saturday night alongside a bottle of orange at the wine bar Daughter. I’ll never forget the Cambodian food made by Chinchakriya Un, who cooks under the pop-up name Kreung, which took place in the garden of Pioneer Works in Red Hook as part of its supper club on a perfectly not-too-hot July day. Un had put together an outdoor setup to grill and expedite the meal that would riff on farmers’-market bounties by way of Cambodia, or as she explained, “the Cambodian food that I’m feeling.” The flavors of high summer are still fresh in my mind: a crudités plate arranged with green and yellow flat beans, cucumber slices, and fried eggs with jammy yolks and a slip of batter — all to scoop up the fermented shrimp and chili paste kapeak; a crispy-rice salad fragrant with coconut curry offset with sour hits of pork and sorrel; the salty-umami tuk trey ping poh, a tomato-fish sauce made with bursting sungolds, slathered over grilled chicken. This was cooking that embraced improvisation and ephemerality: Would we ever be so young again?

I tailed Kreung to another dinner at Sobre Masa, where she made a sticky lemongrass-scented tamarind short rib so tender I could tear it off with one of the in-house tortillas from the host restaurant. Border Town’s tacos guisados made with stretchy, yes-it’s-lard flour tortillas rolled out by Jorge Aguilar have become a part of my Sunday-morning breakfast routine along with coffee from Commune. I tucked into a cozy bowl of congee topped with lechon and pickled bittermelon made by DILA’s LJ Almendras in a continuation of his fall roast series. Pop-ups have emerged as one of the more exuberant features of post-lockdown dining, repurposing restaurants, cafés, bars, sidewalks, and dance clubs. A great pop-up has the fizzy, whirlwind beauty of a shotgun wedding. They are also a way around the traditional route of putting 10,000 hours into a kitchen before finding an investor to take a chance. Whether it’s burgers from Shy’s or an Indonesian bounty by Kakilima, you can build your own following first and let the eaters decide.

“Pop-up culture has allowed these misfits from kitchens that otherwise wouldn’t have these opportunities,” says Mina Park, a.k.a. 99. “Pop-ups are empowering because you really don’t have to answer to anybody. Even though it can get messy, you’re still learning as you go and making delicious food. It’s really creating a new generation of chefs that I hope get the same recognition as these old-school people.”

One of my favorites is Ha’s Đặc Biệt, the pop-up run by fiancé-fiancée duo Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha that first became a takeout sensation when they rented the Vinegar Hill House kitchen on the weekends in January of 2021. Later that summer, they linked up with Kreung for a residency at Outerspace in Bushwick, putting together a Vietnamese-Cambodian menu that Pete Wells declared “the restaurant of the summer” in the New York Times — only to quit the next day in a crucible moment for the industry.

The Outerspace debacle became a learning lesson for the chefs that without the proper guardrails, the freewheeling style of pop-ups can end up reproducing some of the more toxic traits of the restaurant industry: 17-hour days, a chaotic environment, poor communication with management. “It was almost breaking even at the end of the day,” says Ha. Since then, Ha’s Đặc Biệt has employed a lawyer to review and set fair contracts before they go into business. They’ve flourished since and made pop-ups economically sustainable, working at primo spots like Four HorsemenOps, and Yellow Rose, as well as internationally at Bistrot Paul Bert in Paris and Donna’s in Toronto. ”That’s a total luxury that we’ve been able to fine-tune what we want out of our food and how we cook in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to do if we were still working under somebody else’s vision,” says Burns.

From left: Burns, Chinchakriya Un, Mina Park, and Ha cooking in Toronto in July. Photo: Chinchakriya Un

Just this week, Leo, the Williamsburg pizza place, brought the Ha’s–Paul Bert crossover event Stateside. When I stepped inside on a cold Monday night, I saw Burns at the pass and Eric André at the bar. The menus were written in French in chef Thierry Laurent’s characteristic scrawl, which added a measure of indecipherability crucial for feeling like an American in Paris. But what was clear was the food, which felt sharply drawn and alive. This was Ha’s Đặc Biệt working within the French-bistro vernacular and making it theirs: caramelized nước chấm glazed roasted chicken; their signature flaky pâté chaud was perfectly suited in a rich jus with charred cabbage; fluke tartare had a bright heat from fermented chile brought down with a dusting of toasted rice powder. They use spice to bring out the subtler, fruitier notes in a dish, like with the Sarawak peppercorns in a steak au poivre, or a scallop cooked in its shell with a douse of tamarind butter and pinpricks of bird’s-eye chiles. This was French food how I’ve always wanted it: with glugs of fish sauce, heat, and rau ram. The stained white butcher paper clipped to our table was evidence of how well we ate.

As vital as pop-ups have been, it’s inherently a transitional state — a chance to collaborate and throw out an idea to see what sticks. “We’re basically on tour,” says Burns. “And you can’t be on tour your whole life,” adds Ha. Ultimately, they want their own place. They’ve outgrown the usefulness of using someone else’s kitchen and are ready to call one their own, following the path of other pop-ups that have found brick-and-mortar locations like Saigon Social and Back Alley Bread. They’ve already done the work of figuring out the kind of restaurant they’d want to create, in part by doing it in so many iterations over the years.

“We want to wait until it’s the perfect space, until it’s the right deal, until it feels like we can do all the things that we have set out to do,” Burns says. “We have the luxury of not having to rush into things. We’re still running the pop-up, so we’re not pressed.”

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