Secret Snowballs? Inside the ‘Alternative Universe’ of New Orleans Pop-Ups

In New Orleans, pop-up is a place, a verb—and a lifestyle.

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There’s a tongue-in-cheek saying here: If you can’t make it in New Orleans, don’t leave.

Photo by L. Kasimu Harris

There’s a tongue-in-cheek saying here: If you can’t make it in New Orleans, don’t leave. That may not be entirely valid, especially given the rising costs of living in the city. But there are so many reasons it’s wonderful to reside in this humid, weathered town, not least of which is the attitude toward work. Here, people think about working to live, not the other way around.

Of course, this spirit presents its own challenges—strange business hours, the black hole of Mardi Gras and festival season—but it also offers an antidote to the new American ideal of giving one’s life over to email, Slack, Zoom, and other tools of modern living. Because of this, New Orleans, in all its geographical and philosophical impossibility, is fertile ground for a vibrant economy of underground businesses known as pop-ups, which “pop up” at various locations and are often temporary in nature.

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Dishes from Sengalese/Cajun New Orleans pop-up restaurant Dakar and chef Serigne Mbaye.

Photos by L. Kasimu Harris

New Orleans has always been home to informal food-focused affairs: crawfish boils on neighborhood corners, barbecue and beer vendors at second line parades, Lenten fish fries at churches. The pandemic, however, ushered in a new era. In the early days, with restaurants shuttered and hospitality workers at home with time on their hands, it became more common to see people selling food from front porches or at bars willing to incubate homegrown enterprises.

Now, on any given day, perusing a hyper-local Instagram feed will reveal a universe of non-establishments thriving in the bureaucratic gray areas that lend the city so much of its charm and exasperating complexity. (Permitting can be prohibitively expensive and unclear when it comes to a pop-up, so many informal businesses risk setting up however it makes sense. Thus far, the consequences have been few, despite threats of a city crackdown.) Others are harder to find; others are more accessible—that, too, is part of the charm.

One day, you might find the Filipino pop-up Gatâ serving sinigang soup and chicken inasal at Miel, a brewery in the Irish Channel neighborhood. Another day, you’ll catch Tacos Para La Vida preparing birria pizza and tostadas at Pal’s Lounge in the Bayou St. John. (Both Miel and Pal’s host pop-ups most days of the week.) On Tuesdays at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Bronwen Wyatt of Bayou Saint Cake may be constructing layers of chiffon, homemade preserves, and buttercream frosting. A couple of times each month, Harlem native Serigne Mbaye hosts his wildly popular pop-up Dakar at restaurants around the city because, he says, “My business is wherever I am.”

Perusing a hyper-local Instagram feed will reveal a universe of non-establishments thriving in the bureaucratic gray areas that lend the city so much of its charm and complexity.

Of course, there are pop-ups beyond food. There’s Waysides, a whimsical flower shop based out of a roving truck; Finch Hatton, an antiques dealer; and Lekha, which sells handmade clothing from India. (All three once popped up in the same place; now Finch Hatton and Lekha are looking for more permanent venues.) On Sundays at Bar Marilou, sommelier Uznea Bauer hosts the Tell Me Bar, a natural wine pop-up. Tiny Nest Botanicals, a plant service by Abby Barber, sometimes appears around town selling lush banana leaves and colorful succulents from her 1976 VW camper van. Cubs the Poet—a poet in residence at the Columns hotel—roams the city with his typewriter, setting up at weddings or markets to create à la minute poems.

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Inside the pop-up Lekha, which sells handmade clothing crafted in India

Photo by L. Kasimu Harris

This alternative universe—a world away from Yelp and Tripadvisor and tour buses—is always there, simmering beneath the surface. Some pop-ups have been around for a while (and have even become permanent, licensed establishments); others catch fire, burn bright, and fizzle out. Which is why, when you find them, you must recognize their temporary nature and seize the moment. The tastiest ice pop (or the best yakamein, or the prettiest bouquet) you ever find might come from a pop-up that will reveal itself and, just as quickly, slip back into the city’s swampy ether.

Last year, Tony and I had the opportunity to pop up our wine shop, Patron Saint, in a Lower Garden District restaurant space that had gone dormant during the pandemic. Within a few months of the business’s closure, I—along with chef Ana Castro, restaurant owner Michael Stoltzfus, and the creators of Lucy Boone Ice Cream—had set up Here Today, a collective storefront. I bought a couple of utility shelves from Walmart, crammed them with more than 800 bottles, and waited to see who would come.

Every weekend for three months, that corner was slammed. People had heard something was happening on this otherwise sleepy block. Inevitably, as afternoon slipped into evening, the corner would become a spontaneous street party. People would sit on the curb, pouring glasses of Slovenian pét-nat (naturally sparkling wine), making friends, eating fried chicken sandwiches and sweet potatoes with mole encacahuatado, and reveling in the alchemy only a pop-up can produce.

Since then, that space on the corner has become Lengua Madre, Ana Castro’s modern ode to the Mexican food of her childhood, and Tony and I are building a permanent wine shop just blocks away. For us, the pop-up was a trial by fire, which is often how new institutions are forged here. To get started, you don’t necessarily need a fleshed-out business plan, a team of investors, and a budget for lighting and millwork. You just need a little time and space, and (usually) people will come.

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It’s becoming more and more common to see bars and restaurants willing to foster budding pop-up businesses in New Orleans.

Photo by L. Kasimu Harris

Part of what makes pop-ups so viable is the city’s unusually deep affinity for scrappiness. Despite the laid-back vibe, to thrive here, you likely have some hustle threaded into your DNA. It helped attract Ozzie Mendoza Diaz, the chef-owner of Fowlmouth, a modern Puerto Rican pop-up. In 2016, while traveling as a coffee and café consultant, Mendoza Diaz—who was born in Puerto Rico—stopped in New Orleans. In the city’s rhythms, weather, and mood, he recognized a familiar Caribbean vibration and felt drawn to stay.

He soon found his calling. Observing the brisk business of unregulated vendors around Bourbon and Frenchmen Streets, he realized he could take the soul food he’d been cooking for years and turn it into a business—without jumping through hoops. “I thought, I can hang,” he says. “I [knew] I could hack it.”

For the first year and a half he made chicken and rice, eventually adding empanadas and chicken skewers. For a while, he hosted up to 25 or 30 people at a time in his house in the Seventh Ward, serving yakitori through the lens of cocina criolla and highlighting Gulf ingredients. Now, he pops up at Lengua Madre once or twice a month.

This fluidity has been critical to Mendoza Diaz’s success. “What’s made Fowlmouth so interesting, what’s allowed us to survive, is that we’ve always been super adaptable,” he says. Adaptability is helpful when living in a city where the economy depends largely upon tourism and weather. Throw in a global pandemic, and it’s the key to survival. It’s become cliché to label New Orleans resilient, but there is an implicit guarantee that when things are broken, rebuilding—in whatever manner—is simply how we will get by.

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Chance in Hell SnoBalls offers unusual flavors like chocolate matzo toffee and dill pickle.

Photo by L. Kasimu Harris

On another sunny Saturday, Tony and I pulled up to the corner of France and Burgundy in the Bywater, where a line of 20 or so people snaked around the block. Some fanned themselves as the strains of Bobby Charles’s “Small Town Talk” floated from a front porch belonging to Kitten and Lou, the duo behind Chance in Hell SnoBalls. Every so often, the “ching” of a Venmo payment would register over the music. A customer would pass by, mesmerizing the queue with a tower of shaved ice doused in such homemade syrups as chocolate matzo toffee, dill pickle, or nectar, the city’s intoxicating almond-and-vanilla specialty.

Things were moving slowly, and everyone was shiny with sweat, but nobody complained. The reward was too great. Besides, Chance in Hell had been closed the weekend prior, and it wouldn’t open the next weekend. Kitten and Lou had lives to lead—things to do, other projects to tend to. Such is the nature of the pop-up. You cannot predict its hours, its location, its menu. You cannot make special requests or reservations or call ahead. You can only embrace the moment.

Leslie Pariseau is a New Orleans-based writer and editor. She’s written for publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and GQ. She’s also the co-founder of and executive producer for creative production studio, Animals & Co.
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