Hapa Ramen’s Taco Pop-Up: Why San Francisco Is Still Fun

Everybody’s writing about San Francisco: our tech boom (different from our tech bubble, unless it isn't), our Google Buses, our restaurants people mistake for Google Bus, the lessons of Tosca and $4 toast. They’re saying San Francisco is the new New York, or maybe it’s the old Easthampton (I get confused), that it’s gentrifying beyond anything anyone knew and loved in 1979, or 1993, or 2011, or whatever year you dropped your cat carrier and your backpack on the stained carpeting of your first-ever San Francisco apartment and felt the warp-shift of destiny over the phone when you said to your old roommate in Philly or Fresno or wherever it is you started that morning, Holy crap, I’m actually here.

San Francisco now, actually, is this. Tuesday night, Hapa Ramen chef and owner Richie Nakano pretty much let his sous, Brian Lebonte (that's him in the photo), do a taco pop-up at a small chicken-wing spot in the Lower Haight, Wing Wings. Richie and his cooks do a pop-up at Wing Wings once or twice a month. Honestly, it’s the first one I’d dropped in on. There are only a few counter seats at Wing Wings, and there were no tables Tuesday. Even early, it felt like a house party before people get hammered, where you stand around the kitchen holding Chinet plates of food you negotiate with fingers.

San Francisco is pop-up city. Since 2009, maybe earlier, some combination of real estate prices that only super-execs and the trust-funded can afford (it’s been that way in SF since at least the mid-'80s, when I arrived with my cat carrier) and the anarchic hedonism that’s been the city’s sales pitch since the Summer of Love and probably earlier (all those lesbian and gay people stationed here during WWII who just never went home).

Pop-ups are San Francisco at its best, and it’s not just about the food: It’s the partying, the seeing people you know on the pop-up scene, the foodie-watching. (No surprise that the season 1 finale of HBO’s gay buddy drama Looking, set here, took place the night of one character’s pop-up in the Mission.)

Tuesday was anarchically hedonistic for sure, on those Chinet plates. Sous-Chef Brian was the lead animator behind the event. What the Hapa crew cooked was graced with riffs on Stupak and stoner snacks, above an improvised vamp of NorCal genre (farm-to-table, a.k.a. just going to the farmers’ market). It’s what Mission Street Food felt like, before Mission Chinese and everybody got famous.

There were triangle pieces of chicharrones, crisp and channeled like the loofah you never use, with bent-paper-clip loops of fried pig ears (above), dusted with something tangy and orange like Doritos dust.

There was a smoked tongue tostada with black beans (above).

In sweet, gravelly-tasting tortillas from Nopalito were the tacos: boned short rib, the meat—poached in Hapa’s own smoked beef tallow—as melting, almost, as baked Brie. Another had leafy broccoli strands you needed to chew through and sort of failed at; a third: Korean spicy pork. There was octopus in a sweet, blanketing mole.

“We wanted to show people that we can do other shit besides ramen,” Richie told me. His restaurant, a block from Mission Chinese, should be ready to open in July. The first Hapa taco pop-up happened last fall, after a taco party at Richie’s house that everybody got excited about.

Meanwhile, Jesse Friedman, who started a brewery called Almanac, showed up; he handed me a little cup of a beer he said was brewed with rice or something. On a shelf in the Wing Wings kitchen was a bottle of rye whiskey still to crack. A guy who runs some Blue Bottle coffee kiosks in town showed up with his buddies. I saw that food blogger I had that thing with and now it’s awkward, people I recognized from Twitter—it felt like San Francisco, a party where you have to buy the food and some of it is brilliant and some isn’t, but it’s all kind of good, and that isn’t even the point. The point is Holy crap, we’re actually here—eating random tacos these dudes made.

Photos by Chris Rochelle

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