My Pop-Up

A “pop-up” style restaurant is non-traditional. With the advent of social media, these “ghost kitchens” allow backyard pitmasters to run their own business without the high startup costs required for a traditional “brick and mortar” location.

More often, these pitmasters bring their own chairs, tables and supplies to street fairs, breweries and night markets around Los Angeles.

A “ghost kitchen” or "cloud kitchen" is a delivery-only restaurant without dining areas for customers and have no physical storefront. They utilize food delivery apps like Grubhub, Doordash, etc. The model has been established with an annual growth rate of 13.78%, the National Journal mentioned in its March 2023 press release.

Prior to the pandemic, which decimated the restaurant industry, 15% of operators utilized a cloud kitchen, according to Technomic and the National Restaurant Association. By May 2020, the number quadrupled, ballooning to almost 50%.

A Delicate Balance

The Los Angeles County Health Department is the regulatory body responsible for issuing permits to barbecue pop-ups within the county.

When I contacted the public information office at the L.A. health department they said there are several options for permits that allow a barbecue operator to operate at a location other than a permanent food facility:

According to the officials within the health department, pop-ups can be legal in multiple scenarios: when they are part of an approved community event and have obtained a temporary food facility permit, operating from a trailer that has a valid public health permit, and finally, operating as a permitted caterer or in a setting that has a public health permit, such as a restaurant.

However, some pop-ups in L.A. County may not operate with all the required permits. Although the local health code changed in 2020 to loosen the strict rules, operators may have to navigate their business carefully to avoid fines. They can thrive by maintaining a balance of an inconspicuous social media presence and a swath of obtainable permits to maintain a favorable rapport with local health departments.

Shutdowns can occur when the business operates without a valid public health permit as required by the California Retail Food Code. The health department said it does not track how many barbecue pop ups apply for permits, or those that have been shut down within the last year, if any.

Southern California Barbecue Culture

Central Texas style barbecue is the epicenter for Texas barbecue. Quite simply, it's usually just two ingredients used to season the meat – salt and pepper. The meat is smoked low and slow, lower temperatures for long hours, using mesquite, pecan or post oak wood. The spread? Smoked brisket, pork spareribs and sausage served atop butcher paper with white bread.

Barbecue culture is booming in Los Angeles, with influences and roots stemming back to Central Texas, embedding into the fabric of an explosive culture spreading across Southern California.

Alec Lopez, AGL Craft Meats

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Nestled in Whittier, Lopez spends his weekends under a gray, weathered Quik Shade to shield him from the elements. In a friend’s backyard, his equipment is a welded rust-tinged fire box, bonded together to a marshmallow-colored 1000-gallon propane tank on top of solid iron legs.

The smokestack towers over the trailer it rests on. Surrounded by dirt, a pile of white oak logs leans against two resin sheds. Lopez moved to this location in 2021. His van houses his Cambro food storage unit and catering supplies.

His supplies sit atop two five-foot-long tables: a plastic crate of spices including garlic salt, pepper and paprika; brown butcher paper adds a barrier for the pork butts and beef ribs to be seasoned. Wearing food-safe gloves, Lopez delicately shakes the spices onto each cut of meat like an artisan. No surface goes uncovered.

When the cuts are ready, he checks his fire. In the cylinder fire box that sports the “Fatstack Smokers” logo, the door opens to a raging fire and a white-hot bed of coals. The dry air rushes into the 800-degree-plus blaze, stifled by a pair of hands and a shovel. Lopez reaches into the box to set a log down, unfazed by the scorching fire.

Sweat drips from his face as he nurtures the burn. The shovel and its blade become an extension of his arms, protecting him from the scathing hot metal housing.

After nearly 18 hours, the job is done…for now.

He admits: “It takes a crazy person to make barbecue.”

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It’s early Saturday morning and racks of baby-back ribs need to be cooked. Several more hours go by and it’s time for the pop-up he started several years ago.

Lopez was born in the South Bay to a Cuban father and Mexican mother. Growing up, his father was ingrained in the restaurant industry, working for Fuddruckers, a San Antonio-based burger chain.

After a stifled MMA-career and nursing a broken hand, Alec was fired from his job at Trader Joe’s. That’s when his father invited him to work the pits at Pearl’s BBQ pop-up in the Arts District until it was shutdown in 2019. Since then, he’s been running his own pop-up at AGL Craft Meats.

“I let the food speak for itself,” Lopez said.

“It takes a crazy person to make barbecue.”

— Alec Lopez

His Cuban heritage can be found all over his food, like the savory Sofrito sausage link, housing a dry white wine seasoning, sazón, black pepper, bell peppers, onion and garlic. The pastrami brisket’s deep red contrasts the blackness of the peppery crust.

As of March 2023, Lopez will be taking a hiatus from his pop-up, renting out his space and moving to New York to cook barbecue there. Lopez mentioned in an Instagram post he’s doing well, it’s just time for a break: “I just want to get away…sometimes you need a break.”

AGL Craft Meats,, @AGLCraftMeats

Winnie Yee-Lakhani, Smokequeen BBQ

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Dubbed the “Smokequeen” of Southern California, Fullerton native Winnie Yee-Lakhani is infusing her Malaysian roots and Chinese heritage into her food, one crispy pork belly at a time.

Like many chefs and restaurateurs, Yee-Lakhani’s businesses were destroyed by the pandemic, losing nearly 50 employees. The 14-year restaurant veteran used her time during lockdown to learn how to smoke meat.

At her residency at Smorgasburg, it's a long wait to get your hands on her delectable proteins like the crispy smoked siu yuk pork belly and char siu.

Yee-Lakhani is on her way to opening her first brick-and-mortar location in Orange County. With appearances on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” “BBQ Brawl: Flay V. Symon” and, most recently, “Chopped,” there’s no doubt the “Smokequeen” is making a statement in the Southern California barbecue scene.

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Smoke Queen, 777 S. Alameda St, Smorgasburg

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