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A tall stack of sliced squash garnished with mint leaves and red onion on a ceramic plate against a red backdrop. Alex Lauritzen/The Mushroom

A Psychedelic New Vegan Pop-Up Serves 3-Foot Squash Towers

Tickets to Alex Lauritzen’s debut pop-up sold out fast — but there are more meat-free menus to come

When your first pop-up sells out with an overflowing waitlist, you know you’re doing something right. And yet Alex Lauritzen, the team leader of a curious new culinary project named the Mushroom is “horrified” in preparation for the inaugural event — a dinner pop-up planned to take place on October 23 at Yo Tambien Cantina.

The Mushroom is fully vegan and looks like a lot of fun — think artistic ceramic bowls, a 3-foot-tall squash tower, and illustrated menus. It embodies the kind of unabashed DIY spirit that’s been hovering over the Bay Area since the beginning of pandemic, resulting in semi-underground dining series like Hi Felicia and the block-party craze that preceded the opening of Bar Part Time.

Lauritzen, 31, was born in Utah and has a design background. He first entered the hospitality industry at 23, when his then-boss — a showroom manager in New York City — told him to “go enjoy [his] youth.” Since then, he’s worked front of the house in NYC, Los Angeles, and most recently in San Francisco; at Cotogna and Verjus in the past, and currently at 7 Hills. Lauritzen, vegetarian since he was 11, had been hosting elaborate dinner parties at home throughout the pandemic. Sated and impressed, his guests eventually told him he must launch a pop-up. The look-and-feel of the Mushroom came together soon after. “I’ve always been inspired by the ‘60s psychedelia of San Francisco and loved hippy food,” he says. “The Mushroom almost sounds like a club, and the name plays into my interest in the health movements of the past, and also into the vegan vibe.”

A bowl filled with a salad of romaine lettuce, tomato, fig, and watermelon gherkin on a yellow background. Alex Lauritzen

Once Lauritzen announced the pop-up, just a week ago, all 14 tickets promptly flew off the virtual shelf. “I had something like 30 people wanting 40 tickets, and I didn’t know any of them,” he says, surprised by the energetic response. With no website, the reservations were made through Instagram DMs and email. The price tag — which covers five courses, three wine pairings, and one cocktail — is $130, not an amount to scare off curious diners who are ready for excitement again. And Lauritzen is determined to deliver on the hype. “There’s a lot of performance to the food,” he says, mentioning that the impressive squash tower will be filled with sweet potatoes and adorned in tahini, jalapeño, plum, pickled onion, mint, and dried lime powder.

There’s also purple cauliflower with Roma tomato, tomatillo, jalapeño, and “lots of flowers,” and the main crowd-pleaser: a coconut milk and mushroom pie, as well as other dishes that bring crunch, spice, and visual effects to the table. The potato salad incorporates Jimmy Nardello peppers and ground cherries; the green salad features zaatar and figs. The Instagram account for the pop-up is already teasing clientele with artful shots, which Lauritzen took himself against a paper-covered bay window. “I’d say the best way to describe my food is simple and comforting vegan food that is sourced and prepared close to the earth,’’ he says. When planning the menu, Lauritzen adds, “ I literally throw on some music and go wild. It’s my favorite part of the process.” While this is his first serious cooking gig, Lauritzen says his hospitality experience has prepared him for this moment: “You learn how to work with a team and stay calm, and how to be open to critique, how to facilitate an event and keep things moving.”

For the pop-up, Lauritzen, who collects ceramics, commissioned eight custom pieces from Mexico-based ceramicist Jorge Reynoso. In the future, he’s planning on collaborating with local artists as well and stresses that the Mushroom is a team effort. Shiva Osteen, the co-founder of Mountain Misery Wine, is a co-chef; Frank Valdez, a friend, created the aprons and napkins for the occasion, and tattoo artist Devin Fussy helped with the logo and the menus.

The next pop-up, scheduled for November 20, will most likely take place at the new brick-and-mortar location of Day Moon Bread in the Sunset. Currently undergoing construction in preparation for the opening, the spot, Lauritzen says, has been “offered to friends of the founders to do whatever they like.” This location, as well as Yo Tambien Cantina, materialized through friendships and connections Lauritzen has maintained within the local food scene, and through a collaborative atmosphere that brings up-and-coming food entrepreneurs in the Bay Area together, lately more than ever. “There’s such an energy in the city right now,” Lauritzen says. “People are starving for this - for so long the food in SF has been focused on fine dining, I think people want spaces to reflect them.”

To learn about the Mushroom’s next dates, follow @themushroomsf on Instagram.

A roughly textured ceramic bowl filled with a potato salad made with hunks of peppers and ground cherries on a peach background. Alex Lauritzen
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