June 26, 2022



Why food pop-ups are thriving in Houston’s restaurant scene

5 min read

If you’ve been to a bar, coffee shop or weekend market anywhere in Houston recently, you’ve probably noticed a trend: Chefs serving restaurant-quality food where no traditional restaurant is to be found.

Welcome to Houston’s thriving pop-up movement. Folks from all walks of life and culinary backgrounds can open their own concept, so long as they have considerable grit and can cook crave-worthy bites.

The pop-up scene reflects a wide variety of cuisines: wood-fired pizzas, quesabirria, lumpia, bagels, handmade pasta … the list goes on. You can grab smoked brisket from Knives in Water, or scratch-made cochinita pibil from Cochinita & Co. Boo’s Burgers is flipping some of the best smashburgers in town. Can’t decide between Vietnamese or barbecue? Khói Barbecue is serving up Viet-Texan ‘cue in Montrose. Even Evelyn Garcia, the only local contestant in “Top Chef: Houston,” hosts frequent pop-ups through her venture, By Kin. The trend is so widespread that CultureMap Houston’s Tastemaker Awards debuted a new category for pop-ups last year.

It’s a thrilling time to eat and drink in this town, but how did we get here?

One Houston pop-up success story is Ghost Hand Pasta, which began selling its horror movie-themed, fresh house-made pastas last year and recently found its permanent home at East End wine bar How to Survive on Land and Sea.

The partnership makes sense. Just as Ghost Hand is not your typical pasta purveyor, How to Survive is not your typical wine bar. If you pop in for a glass of small-production pét-nat, you might hear “Warp Riders” by the Sword followed by “Lola Versus Powerman” by the Kinks.

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Ghost Hand Pasta is now full-time in the kitchen at How to Survive on Land and Sea, a wine bar in the East End.

Ghost Hand Pasta is now full-time in the kitchen at How to Survive on Land and Sea, a wine bar in the East End.

Ghost Hand Pasta

Ghost Hand’s journey to brick and mortar was anything but simple. It was initially meant to be a dinner-and-a-movie supper club in partner chef Corey Dozier’s backyard. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they had to find unique solutions to stay afloat, and like for many chefs and restaurateurs in the city, pop-ups became chief among them. After the first pandemic year of uncertainty and tumult, Dozier and his partners Scott Ache and Mikah Danaé decided to take the plunge. (Dozier has since left the business.)

Ghost Hand Pasta started serving the public in April 2021 at places like Johnny’s Gold Brick, Neil’s Bahr and Rabbit’s Got the Gun. Shortly afterwards, they did a tasting for How to Survive and immediately hit it off with the team. They cooked in the wine bar’s kitchen every Tuesday after that. The pop-up went so well that the folks at How to Survive decided to keep their spooky plates on full time. “It was really one of those things [where] everything was in the right kind of momentum,” Ache said.

The pandemic can’t take all of the credit for the trend. Rather, it’s better described as a catalyst for an already growing movement. Pop-ups are an appealing outlet for chefs, who are a highly creative bunch.

“Some of them want to take a break from an operation with plenty of moving parts and simply cook food that they love cooking,” said Josh Deleon, who sells his highly sought-after Underground Creamery ice cream pints via Instagram. “[They can] showcase their talents their own way and get paid what they deserve directly from the consumer.”

Low start-up costs and fewer, if any, investors to please remove major roadblocks and provide a mainline for culinary creativity. Running a pop-up is not without its challenges, however. Ache remarked that there are as many pitfalls as there are benefits. Unpredictable weather and moving from one venue to the next makes it impossible to plan or implement a standard operating procedure.

“Me and chef Corey talk about it kind of like surfing,” he said. “You kind of just ride the wave and then once that one’s done, you just find another wave, right?”

Ghost Hand Pasta's Razor Blade Free Candy is filled with butternut squash then tossed in brown sage butter, roasted pecans and gorgonzola.

Ghost Hand Pasta’s Razor Blade Free Candy is filled with butternut squash then tossed in brown sage butter, roasted pecans and gorgonzola.

Ghost Hand Pasta

When a pop-up gets super popular, the smaller scale of operations can cause it to sell out. Deleon argues that this is a feature, not a glitch. The ephemerality of the experience can certainly make the food feel more special and drive demand, but Deleon says the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the business is not just a marketing ploy. Many small pop-ups share commercial kitchens with others, limiting their space and time to work in them.
“Pop-ups have to set themselves apart by selling products that you can’t really get anywhere else,” said Deleon. Teams will often work into the night crafting complex ingredients and elements. “Most of the time, the products will speak for themselves as a lot of detail and love are poured into them,” he added.
Deleon built Underground Creamery through his creative flavor combinations, and by releasing clues on Instagram as to when a new ice cream drop would happen. Pints sold out in mere minutes. After a short break, he recently announced a partnership with Pudgy’s Fine Cookies, where he will share kitchen space in their storefront. The pop-up model allowed him to expand in time, just like Ghost Hand Pasta going from Tuesdays only to full-time kitchen.
It’s human nature: The harder something is to get, the more we want it. Food-obsessed Houstonians know the long waits, limited availability, and research it takes to grab a bite at one of the city’s many pop-ups are well worth the effort. They’re also extra supportive when successful pop-ups level up to brick and mortar or permanent fixture.
Houston’s pop-up scene reflects both the city’s diversity and its spirit. In every establishment where there are likely to be hungry folks but no kitchen, a pop-up restaurant is sure to appear. And we lucky Houstonians will happily line up to get a taste.

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