Over the past few years, the Bay Area has developed quite a reputation. According to influencers and media outlets, we’ve become a “dystopian hellscape,” a city that’s spiraling in an uncontrollable “doom loop” with a food scene that “just isn’t conducive to innovation right now.” Even the prestigious James Beard Awards subtly signaled this sentiment last year, as San Francisco, a city that’s earned the third-most James Beard Awards in the country to date, emerged with zero in 2023. Underneath it all, some restaurateurs fear that taking creative culinary risks is too costly and that the once-diverse Bay Area food scene is becoming more homogenous as a result.
But a small cadre of chefs is offering a counternarrative to this prevailing picture. Setting up shop outside of bars and cafes or inside wine shops and restaurants, these cross-cultural pop-ups are injecting fresh energy into the city’s food scene — serving as a medium through which these chefs can carry on the tradition of innovation that’s come to define the Bay.
Take Sincere Justice, owner of Tacos Sincero, an East Bay Chino Latino pop-up with a dedicated regional following. The rotating menu bursts with unexpected flavor mashups through inventive sandwiches, guiso-filled burritos, congee, and tostadas that reflect his personal history as a well-traveled Chinese Vietnamese chef who grew up in Latino-dominant Baldwin Park in Los Angeles. “My food is very autobiographical,” Justice says. “It reflects different parts of my life: my travel [throughout South America and Asia] and by LA, my activism, me becoming a teacher, being into martial arts — they’ve all really contributed to the idea of what is Tacos Sincero.”
On some days, his singular voice takes the form of a crispy corn tortilla smothered in labneh, topped with fermented Desi Girl tomatoes, and shaved egg yolk. On others, he shares part of his story through his take on tinga tostadas made with shredded chicken braised in a rich two-hour tomato-morita sauce and finished with cabbage, chile oil, and scallions. “Everything has a reference point but you have to put your own twist on it,” Justice says. “It’s kind of like music. You’re playing similar rhythms but changing the melody.”
These chefs aren’t setting out with the intent of being innovative, or even creative for that matter. They have no pretense that they’re inventing a new technique or reinventing a cuisine. To them, these dishes are simply a natural extension of themselves.
“We’re cooking food that is inspired by multigenerational stories, diasporic cooking, and my own personal influences,” says Spencer Horovitz, chef and owner of Eater Award-winning pop-up Hadeem, which blends Jewish food traditions with California ingredients. “Picking up everything I’ve experienced as a chef and as a human being and dropping it into San Francisco has really allowed me to look deeper inside of my own personal background and find a way [to tell my story].”
Horovitz says the Bay Area itself has become core to the origin and success of pop-ups like Hadeem. Had he stayed in Los Angeles, where he grew up in a highly concentrated Jewish community, he says he might not have started Hadeem. “I don’t think I would have embraced the concept of looking inward unless I was outside the community that I felt most comfortable in,” Horovitz says. Being able to produce a personal rendition of a dish without navigating whether it’s “traditionally Jewish” opened up new possibilities like char siu babkas, chile crisp- and sweet herb-laced dolmas, and cold-smoked yellowtail crudo with za’atar, labneh, and citrus. “We’re looking to find ways to fill a need for people that exists outside of just starch, carbohydrate, protein, fats, sugar, salt,” Horovitz says. “My primary goal is to cook the food that brings people together.”
It’s a goal that serves as the through line for other Bay Area pop-ups. “At the end of the day, it’s all about creating community and sharing cultures with each other,” says Richard Lee, owner of cult-favorite Asian American pop-up, Kaya Bakery. With a Chinese mother who grew up in Mauritius and a Taiwanese father who moved to Quebec, Lee channeled his unique background and teamed up with his partner, Stephanie Chin, to build a mini-empire of 5,000+ person mailing (read: mostly waiting) list of fans who hungrily await the pop-up’s monthly drop.
What seems to resonate isn’t just the imaginative roster of Asian American pastries like mango sticky rice croissants, creme brulee hotteok buns, and apple makgeolli croissants. It’s also the duo’s rule-defying philosophy — an embrace of the chaos that comes with experimentation that feels so inherent to the Bay Area’s DNA. “We grew up in a very Americanized setting and that kind of leads to some of the influences that we have with Kaya,” Lee says. “We have our Chinese values but there’s a lot of traditions we don’t have — or we have American traditions. We just do what we want, what we feel like. In some ways, it’s very liberating and in some ways, it’s about trying to find your identity to fit in somewhere.”
Despite their vastly different styles of cooking and the venues where they pop up, Justice, Horovitz, and Lee are each finding that their personal, cross-cultural stories are striking a chord — indicating that the specificity of these narratives is actually what makes them more relatable. “I think what I really tried to do is provide people an entryway to my own experience with my own culture that doesn’t make them feel like they’re an outsider looking in,” Horovitz says. “[These] narratives are kind of universal. It may not be that your grandmother was Greek, but are there dishes that people would make seasonally? Or what’s the dish that your grandmother would make every holiday, and if she didn’t, you would be so sad? By engaging with people on that level, I feel like it gives them an opportunity to remove that veil of identity and gives them an opportunity to reflect.”
Across cultures, backgrounds, and upbringings, one thing is clear: Bay Area diners are hungry for the food scene to continue to move forward — to hear narratives told in unexpected and creative new ways. “I think that’s the beautiful thing about pop-ups,” Justice says. “People are trying to push the envelope.”