Seattle’s food pop-ups took off during the pandemic with excellent bakeries, a diverse secret pizza scene and chefs slinging dishes at breweries around the city. 

The pop-up scene serves as a testing ground for aspiring restaurateurs. It’s a low-pressure way to test out recipes and fine-tune a business model before sinking money into equipment. The meals from the pop-ups in this week’s Neighborhood Eats are among the best I’ve eaten in Seattle. Luckily, the owners all have restaurants in their visions for the future.

Hamdi

Check Hamdi’s Instagram for pop-up times and locations.

The kokoreç sandwich from Hamdi is a pungent mix of sweetbreads, lamb intestines, pepper and spices in a bun.  (Jade Yamazaki Stewart / The Seattle Times)

On a recent Saturday, chef Berk Güldal grilled wings and kebabs on skewers over charcoal under a blue tent, glancing to the side occasionally at a whole lamb spinning over an applewood fire, dripping fat and juices into the flames below. 

Güldal was cooking for one of Hamdi’s Turkish food pop-ups on the street outside of Obec Brewing in Ballard. The chef and his partner, Katrina Schult, have backgrounds at three-Michelin-starred restaurants and have been serving kebabs, kokoreç sandwiches and whole roasted lamb in Seattle since July with the plan of opening a fine-dining Turkish restaurant in Ballard next spring.

Güldal grew up in Turkey, went to culinary college there and worked at one of Istanbul’s oldest restaurants, where he learned traditional Turkish cooking techniques. Once he graduated, Güldal moved to New York City and worked in the city’s top restaurants, including the acclaimed Eleven Madison Park.

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After a couple of years, Güldal moved to California to work as the sous chef at the three-Michelin-starred SingleThread Farm restaurant. That’s where he met Schult, the dining-room captain of the restaurant, who’d helped open SingleThread in 2016 after working at The French Laundry.

Frustrated with constant shutdowns during the pandemic, Güldal left SingleThread to cook private dinners. And in March, Güldal and Schult brought their Turkish spices to Bainbridge Island, where they threw a pop-up as part of Hitchcock restaurant’s guest chef series. They served 1,800 people in three days. Excited by the success and awed by the natural beauty of the area, they moved to Seattle to launch a pop-up for traditional Turkish food — something Güldal says he hasn’t seen good examples of anywhere in the U.S.

“I wanted to do something from my own culture,” Güldal says. I really wanted to represent Turkish food here because people don’t know what actual Turkish food is.” 

I haven’t eaten much Turkish food, but Hamdi’s kebabs ($20) were the best I’ve had from any culture — juicy lamb dripping with fat brightened by tomato and onion salad, wrapped in housemade lavash (flatbread). Güldal only uses male lambs in his cooking, which he says are less gamey than female lambs (most restaurants in the U.S. use both). He minces the lamb rib meat for the kebabs “for hours and hours and hours” with a big knife — meat grinders, though more efficient, smoosh the meat and rob it of its juices, he says. And he cooks it medium-rare: You wouldn’t desecrate a dry-aged steak by cooking it well-done, so why do it to a kebab? “Kebab is, for me, just like a beautiful steak,” Güldal says.

The kokoreç sandwich ($28), made with lamb sweetbreads and intestines, was surprisingly delicious (I like some organ meats but normally can’t handle the funk of intestine). The sweetbreads had the pleasantly woody taste of porcinis and any bitterness in the meat melded into the flavors of cumin and green bell pepper.

I didn’t get to try the whole roasted lamb because it wasn’t ready when I went to the pop-up, but my colleague, Jenn Smith, vouches for its deliciousness.

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Güldal and Schult will be in Turkey until Nov. 6 researching food and culture as they prepare to open their restaurant, which they say will dress up Hamdi’s food to a fine-dining level and pair it with wines and excellent service.

Güldal says pop-ups will start up again a week or two after they get back from their trip.

Dualidad

4 p.m.-sell out Friday-Sunday. Currently residing in Underbelly at 119 First Ave. S., Seattle. Check Dualidad’s Instagram for updated menus, hours and locations.

Dualidad’s tacos feel familiar at first. The chorizo tastes like what you’d eat at a good taco truck, and the ancho-chile adobo chicken is toasty and comforting.

But then you notice the twists — the crunchy piece of charred broccolini on the chorizo taco ($4), and the layer of jammy shmaltz and exceptionally deep poultry flavor of the chicken taco ($4) that chef Lucas Portillo says comes from marinating it in shio koji, a fermented Japanese paste. 

Portillo started Dualidad as a pop-up inside the Underbelly bar in Pioneer Square in February with his fiancée, Marissa Myers. He shies away from the word “fusion” when describing his food — it’s more a nuanced combination of traditional Mexican flavors and ingredients and techniques he’s encountered as a cook in Seattle. 

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Growing up in San Diego, Portillo says he was so surrounded by other Chicanos that he didn’t have to think about his dual identity as Mexican and American. “I never had to think about what it meant to me because I just lived in it,” he says. 

But when he moved to Seattle in 2014, he was removed from that community. Now, with his food, he wants to explore that “dualidad” inside him by making tacos with influences from cultures existing in America. 

Portillo has experience with butchery from working at places like The Shambles, and it shows in his excellent housemade chorizo. 

His San Diego roots are on display in his “Cali T” carne asada taco made with fried potato ($4.50; first boiled in vinegar and frozen for maximum crunchiness) and a crisp layer of cheese on the tortilla, a dish inspired by French-fry-packed California burritos he ate as a “dumb stoner kid.” “That’s nostalgia on a plate for me,” he says. 

It’s one of the most craveable tortilla-wrapped bites I’ve encountered.

Portillo says he’ll be at Underbelly through at least the end of 2021 and wants to get a food truck and a restaurant in the future.

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Marimakan 

4-7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday. Check Marimakan’s Instagram for weekly menus and hours. 

Getting Marimakan Crabhouse’s whole Singapore-style Dungeness crabs takes planning and dedication. The business only takes preorders. Deliveries of the crabs come in a wide time-frame (4-7 p.m.). And each crab (up to 2 pounds) costs around $90, adjusted weekly based on market price. 

But it’s a fabulous use of time and money. The black pepper crab is an extreme sensory experience: Loaded with two ice cream scoops of black pepper, it burns the mouth and heats the body while delighting with a butter sauce rich with crab flavor. 

The chili crab is sweet and a little smoky, made with sambal, fish sauce and ketchup, the sauce so good that you’ll want to sop up every drop with a side of deep-fried mantou buns ($12 for an order of six.) 

The owner, Virginia Rachel Ranti, says the eventual goal is a brick-and-mortar location where people can eat crab fresh out of the pot. For now, she says to reheat the crabs by putting the aluminum container they come in straight on an electric stove or by steaming them in a pot. 

Ranti was born in Jakarta but grew up in Singapore, where she’d visit hawker centers with her grandma every weekend and learned the cuisine of the region through osmosis. She started Marimakan Seattle in August after getting laid off from a catering company, and serves Singaporean and Indonesian hawker-center foods like Hainanese chicken rice and laksa (spicy curry noodle soup), which she still occasionally sells along with crab.

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