They're popping mad

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am


The queue from the Central branch of Shake 'Em Buns snakes around the block. For the eager food lovers waiting in line, this is a happening; those near the end of the queue kick themselves for arriving late and hope they will get to order before the shop closes. Most passers-by are utterly confused. 'What's this all about? Is there a celebrity? A sale?' Better than that. There are tacos.

Weeks of online rumours were confirmed last Tuesday when, at 6pm, yakitori hot spot Yardbird opened its first pop-up: Hecho, an homage to Mexican cuisine, serving ceviche, tacos, tequila and beer. They were gone as quickly as they had started, sold out in hours, leaving some hungry and downcast.

Hong Kong loves its food trends and in pop-up restaurants Hongkongers have found something that combines two of the city's most popular pastimes: eating good nosh and standing in line.

Pop-up restaurants are temporary, often unlicensed, specialised food vendors. They can spring up anywhere, often at very short notice, and once open may only last a few hours. The very nature of the pop-up, a limited supply of one or two speciality items, means that they often run out or reach capacity early. So, keep your cyber-ears open. Being among the first to know can mean the difference between a good meal and the frustration and disappointment of going home hungry.

There are a few ways for the cyber-savvy to learn about pop-ups. Followers of their favourite restaurants and chefs on Twitter are often among the first to know, and rumours of the latest pop-ups abound on food and lifestyle blogs.

Its close association with social media and the web suggests the pop-up restaurant is a fairly recent phenomenon. But this is not the case. Although its exact origin is a matter of conjecture, many foodies suggest it all started in Cuba, with the paladar.

A paladar is a private restaurant, often family owned, where meals are prepared at the chef's home and served in the family kitchen or dining room. For tourists, the paladar offers an alternative to Cuba's expensive and unauthentic state-owned restaurants.

Over time certain paladars gained a large following, and it is believed that tourists, taken with the idea of the underground restaurant, brought their enthusiasm home with them - and modern guerilla dining was born.

In the new millennium, although pop-up restaurants became widespread in the US, appealing mostly to young and relatively unknown chefs, it was only when the concept crossed the pond to Britain that the trend exploded. They rapidly gained the devotion of foodies the world over who were hungry for something new. Underground restaurants, also known as supper clubs, became a sensation.

Not only did the small and often highly conceptualised dining events offer a hip and fun alternative to the sometimes stuffy fine dining scene, they also gave new chefs, without the means or opportunity to open their own restaurants, a chance to showcase their talent and have their culinary creations tasted by the dining public.

With the exception of Hong Kong's private kitchens, the city was a relatively latecomer to the 'off the grid' restaurant scene. But, as in all things trendy and dining, once they got started Hongkongers took to the new concept with vigour.

Pizza Express opened a pop-up branch at the IFC Mall in January last year. It remained open for an extraordinary - by pop-up standards - six months. It is commonly cited as the first of its kind in Hong Kong and, while that is technically correct, some experimentation with other food-based pop-ups had been going on before Pizza Express took the stage. Parisian macaron purveyor Laduree's venture at Joyce in December 2010 was another enormous success.

Since then, pop-ups have taken the city by storm. Sausage specialist Brat opened one in The Landmark last June. Aside from offering its signature sausages, Brat also sold delicacies such as Brooklyn Brine pickles. One of Hong Kong's favourite pop-ups was Singapore Takeout. This ambitious project brought together Les Amis chef Armin Leitgeb and Cepage's Sebastien Lepinoy and let them loose in a converted shipping container at Cyberport last November. Open only for two days, Singapore Takeout was gone before many Hong Kong food lovers even knew it had arrived.

This guerilla style of dining can take several forms. Agnes b. hosted a French gourmet pop-up that closed on February 1. In a twist on the concept, last month The Landmark Mandarin Oriental hosted the first pop-up chef in Hong Kong, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto prepared meals over three days in January.

Some pop-ups are seasonal: nostalgic shoppers are eagerly awaiting the return of Classified's Christmas market pop-up at The Landmark.

One of Hong Kong's most successful recent examples was the great In-N-Out Burger invasion in January. The American cult-favourite chain rented The Glasshouse Restaurant for a mere four hours, leaving a crowd of homesick but well-fed Californian transplants in its wake.