The real stars of New Orleans’ world-renowned culinary scene are buzzing just under the surface.
To eat at these spots, you don’t need a reservation and you can’t book a table online – that is, if they even have tables. If you want a plate, you’ll need to check Instagram to confirm that the restaurant is even at the same address as last week. You might want to check the menu too, as it’s likely that’s changed well.
The D.I.Y. food scene has long been weaved into New Orleans’ culture, but the number of pop-ups seems to have exploded since the pandemic. As brick and mortar restaurants shuttered their doors and slashed their staff in 2020, many chefs were hungry to keep feeding people. P.P.E. grants, along with endless free time, meant that some of the city’s greatest culinary minds finally had the chance to do things their own way.
The rules, especially at first, seemed non-existent.
No kitchen? Grab a few bunsen burners and a flat-top and get to work.
No marketing team? Post a picture of your menu on social media, and tell your friends to tell a friend.
No permit? Just fly under the radar, for now, and deal with the paperwork later. Anyone who’s ever watched a car breeze through a red light on St. Charles Ave. knows that the city’s understaffed police department seems to have other priorities.
While many pop-ups do things by the book, others have managed to create entire empires while bypassing the expensive and time-consuming bureaucracy of registering under an LLC. Sure, it’s risky – but where else in the country could you get away with it at all?
Some of these restaurants operate solely from street corners, off plastic tables and under tarps, while others have taken up residencies in vacant bar kitchens.
The growing guerrilla food scene seems to perfectly encapsulate New Orleans’ laissez faire attitude towards…well, everything. It doesn’t matter your background, upbringing or bank account: prove you’ve got the chops, and the city will embrace you.
“I think this is one of the few cities in the world where you can just show up at a neighborhood bar, and sit down with all the locals and chat about everyone’s upbringing,” says Andrew Lu, chef and owner at Get Your Mom & Dim Sum pop-up restaurant. Lu’s restaurant operates out of the kitchen at The Holy Ground, an Irish pub in Mid-City.
Pop-ups and bars have a symbiotic relationship: patrons want something to eat besides peanuts, and pop-ups need a place to cook. Only this isn’t your standard late-night drunken bar food. Full blown fine-dining quality is being whipped up in these temporary kitchens, before getting served in a paper take-out box and handed off through a kitchen window.
“The spectrum of what you can get is actually pretty amazing,” says Owen Ryan, chef and owner at Catawampus. “You’ve got anything from an $8 sandwich to Michelin star oysters.”
Ryan says it was difficult at first for him to find the steps toward legal operation, when the health department themselves had zero answers to the question of pop-up restaurants.
“They’d be like ‘oh we don’t actually know,’” he says. “It wasn’t fair. Like, you’ve got to form a path towards being a legit business before you can shut down a business for not having it.”
In Nov. 2021, the City Council announced they would be cracking down on illegal pop-up vendors in the coming year, in order to recuperate lost sales tax revenue.
Former City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen announced the increased enforcement at a hearing. “There’s a perception that you can get away with anything in Orleans Parish,” she said. “You can set up shop and not have to pay the City of New Orleans anything.”
Vendors fought back. Their lack of permits, they argued, wasn’t because they hoped to scam the city – it was because officials made it impossible to do things the right way.
“In the experience of many pop-up operators, the rules have been arbitrary, the process convoluted, officials unresponsive, and the processes time-consuming and expensive,” wrote Topher Patch, owner of Meyer’s Lemonade pop-up, in a letter to The Advocate.
Jimmy Robb, owner of the award-winning hot dog cart Glizzies by Poppa, says he had to personally visit the health department five times before they even responded to his requests for a permit.
“They didn’t wanna answer my calls, so I just kept showing up,” the New Orleans native said. “And I had everything correct.”
Eventually, in Oct. 2022, the city council approved new rules to make the permitting process for pop-ups cheaper and easier. But that didn’t mean all vendors were in the clear.
In July, several public agencies conducted a sweep of the St. Claude Avenue corridor, an area known for its bustling night-life and street food. The fire department issued two summons, four citations, a warning, and a business closure for grilling food in the rear of a business, according to The Gambit.
The city’s Office of Nighttime Economy director Howie Kaplan announced the sweep in an extraordinarily unpopular instagram post:
Public backlash was immediate.
“How bold. I love culture killing. Might as well raise property taxes an insane amount also!” wrote user @beeevf.
“These food vendors are keeping it alive and safe and feeding people out late,” wrote user @henrylipkis. “Why are you all sweeping away the grass roots and bragging about it?”
Locals’ swift condemnation of the raid might exemplify why the pop-up food scene in New Orleans continues to thrive.
Residents of this city are creative, resourceful and used to getting things done on their own – and that extends to the way they eat.