Public gathering spaces, like former churches turned into free food halls, are fascinating. Or at least, they are to Anand Upender and Netta Wang. The two are food enthusiasts who’ve lived in San Francisco co-ops for a number of years, all the while building a strong love for nontraditional meet-ups. Upender started a coffee pop-up out of his garage called York Street (eponymously, as he lives on said street) in October 2021. Then in August 2022, he and Wang teamed up for a new pop-up dinner series called Just Some Folks. “I felt a creative ceiling in coffee,” Upender says. “Netta and I can explore community gathering via food and our identities with this experimental playground.”
Upender says York Street Coffee was always meant to be open to the public, accessible, and affordable. Just Some Folks is different; it’s a pop-up series but works also as a private event outfit through which the two prepare meals and pour masala chai either as vendors at larger events or as hosts at their own events, often held in partnership with venues around San Francisco. The meals are still intended to be affordable, and the duo usually offers a sliding payment scale (as was the case at York Street, too). Their mission is to host meals that foster connection and communication, to get people to see themselves in the food and make a few friends. They aim to make the meals feel intimate — like that time your friends cooked a nostalgic, heartfelt meal for you in your apartment kitchen.
At an event in the Mission District on September 9, the duo presented an “Indian Summer” rice bowl, a shout-out to Upender’s childhood and identity as an Indian American. Four-day marinated okra, along with three-day marinated eggs, sat atop pillowy rice and fried onions. And though they’re hesitant to carry the vegetarian flag and food-waste flags — because the food’s not always vegetarian or upcycled — both mindsets are integral to their menu creation. Another event featured a “Desi Diner” theme, putting an Indian American spin on Americana fare. The menu included onion rings inspired by Indian bhajias, dipped in a malted milk and cardamom milkshake; a hash brown dish made with Upender’s mom’s recipe for egg curry; and a mango pie with rose whipped cream for dessert. The meal happened on the anniversary of Upender’s grandfather’s passing as an honor to his late family member. Another example is a meal in which the duo asked guests to share a bit about their work, aspirations, and dreams, all of which were incorporated into the meal. “Humble, yet intentional,” Upender says. “We’re not about boutique and expensive products. There’s a matter of factness to the food.”
Upender is on what he’s called a “culinary gap year” after working at Besharam, Nari, La Cocina, and the Bay Area-based nonprofit Farming Hope. He cut his teeth in user design at Stanford, but decided to opt out of working at big tech companies, choosing to work instead for food nonprofits. Wang also studied at Stanford and holds a day job at communication software company Discord, but she says enjoys the creativity in cooking and hosting. Maybe it’s obvious, but the two are just as interested in relationships that come out of the meals as the food itself. If strangers haven’t exchanged phone numbers by the end of one of their events, then it’s not a win in their book. Once, a group of strangers became fast friends at Just Some Folks dinner and formed a podcast book club the following week. Another time, two educators found themselves seated next to each other and decided to run a workshop together three weeks later. “We’re finding a way to figure out where we want to be in the food scene and in SF as people, in community,” Wang says.
The series is not necessarily following the pop-up to restaurant path, though Massimo Bottura’s Refettorio is an inspiration, they say. They’ve only run some six-odd events, so anything is possible. They call corporate events their “plan c” option. But, whatever becomes of Just Some Folks, it’ll stay rooted in those small moments between friends. “It’s our way of expressing our gratitude to the people around us,” Wang says. “It’s important to us that the food is representative of the people we’re crafting it for.”