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Pop-Ups Are Back: Will They Continue to Predict Houston's Culinary Future?

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Restaurants such as The Pass & Provisions, Oxheart and Goro & Gun are already so firmly affixed in Houston's culinary firmament that it's sometimes difficult to believe the restaurants which are bringing so much attention to our city's food scene have only been open for a year -- or less, in the case of month-old Goro & Gun.

And for those three restaurants in particular, we have pop-up dinners to thank. Pop-up dinners can range from a one-off meal to a supper series across weeks or months, staged by a chef (and usually a few of his friends) in a kitchen that's not his own. It may belong to another restaurant, to a bar or even to a friend's house.

For a few breathless months in 2011, pop-up dinners swept across Houston like wildfire. There were the Money Cat brunches held at Paulie's, where chef Justin Yu prepped palates for his eventual, dizzying turns on vegetables and seasonal Gulf Coast fare at Oxheart, which opened a year ago and recently garnered a glowing review from New York Times food critic Pete Wells.

There were the Pilot Light dinners that sold out in half an hour, held across town as bosom buddy chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener and Terrence Gallivan sought investors for their just-crazy-enough idea of a haute-hip restaurant-within-a-restaurant: The Pass & Provisions. The Pass -- the tasting menu-only portion of the restaurant, which mirrors those summer Pilot Light dinners right down to the service and plating -- recently earned a hard-won four stars from the Houston Chronicle's food critic, Alison Cook.

The youngest of the three restaurants, Goro & Gun, is the culmination of a Japanese noodle obsession that began when owner Joshua Martinez began hosting ramen pop-ups at Montrose dive bar Grand Prize. Bar owners Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore became Martinez's partners when he decided to park his food truck, The Modular, and open a brick-and-mortar location for his ramen restaurant downtown.

And those pop-up dinners don't even count long-running Ghetto Dinner series at Grand Prize, where chef Adam Dorris showed off the skills that eventually got him hired as chef de cuisine at Stella Sola and, later, Revival Market. Nor the Les Sauvages dinners in which chef Justin Basye -- now doing R&D at Pappas -- partnered with everyone from chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly to chef Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti to create a series of sold-out dinners during the summer of 2011.

These pop-up series weren't a means of wiling away the humid doldrums of summer. They were portents of Houston's culinary future, appetite-whetting glimpses into the sort of cooking that was about to set the city on its ear. They were dinners that began to toll the bell signaling to long-time restaurateurs that the time for resting on laurels was over, or at least that was the hope I expressed in December 2011 at end of a thrilling year:

It may be a slow process, but the way that Houstonians are eating is gradually changing. No longer willing to pay just for a name or a scene, savvy diners are looking to pay instead for an experience, for thoughtfulness, for passion, for creativity and for a more communal eating experience in which few if any boundaries exist between patron and chef.

These people -- these diners and chefs -- are the future of Houston's culinary scene.

And after a busy 2012 in which those chefs found the homes the deserved, a spree of new pop-up dinners are popping up again.

Yaki Snack Attack has been popping up with pleasing regularity at Grand Prize, where Austin King creates head-cocking, eye-popping dinners such as a Southern-fried dim sum menu which offered such dishes as boudin tucked into lo mai gai-style lotus leaves, deviled eggs baked into dan tat egg custard tarts and shrimp-and-grits taro cakes. Perhaps one day King, who has big dreams of his own, will be cooking out of his own kitchen instead of the small quarters in the rear of a divey former sports bar.

Chef L.J. Wiley recently returned to Houston after a two-year stint in New York City, offering a well-attended pop-up series at Kitchen Incubator in which he showcased his expressive, inventive Mexican cuisine along with former sous chef Vincent Huynh. Wiley plans to open a taco truck soon, serving much of the same modern Mexican food that drew raves at Yelapa -- albeit on a much smaller scale. Huynh, who's currently cooking at Heights grocery mecca Revival Market, is gearing up to open Coltivare with owners Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera.

Elsewhere in the Heights, chef Richard Knight recently announced his intention to start a new restaurant after the impending closure of his nose-to-tail restaurant, Feast, this August. That restaurant will be a joint venture with Down House owner Chris Cusack and chef Benjy Mason: a British-American restaurant to showcase Knight's English background, located not too far from Down House in the Heights.

In preparation for that new restaurant, Knight is treading familiar territory. He and Mason will be hosting pop-up dinners while the restaurant is built and its menu created. If the city's previous high-profile pop-up dinners are anything to judge by, Knight and Mason won't just be testing out their recipes on willing guinea pigs -- they'll be allowing Houston diners to have a hand in shaping the city's culinary future once again.

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