Just past dusk on Feb. 23, the kitchen at Ninth Street Bakery is dim but bustling.
Captivated diners settle onto high stools at the bar top, catching glimpses of chef Matt Props working at a single stove. Most have been waiting for at least an hour—others more—for an exclusive taste.
Illuminated only by scant overhead lighting and the flickering votive candles dotting the dining room tables, Props stands over a tall pot, gingerly lifting its lid before raising a massive scoop of noodles to face-level.
Over five hours, 85 bowls of ramen will be sent from the kitchen, a garnish of beets and bok choy settled into a broth soaking the long, thin noodles.
If you missed that five-hour window, you missed your chance. This Pop-up Ramen Shop by Props and baker Ari Berenbaum opened for one night only, with limited advertising and a first-come, first-serve approach.
Pop-up restaurants are familiar in large cities around the country. Much like the underground supper club movement, pop-ups highlight the mystique of the new American gourmand culture. (We want to go where no other eater has gone before.)
In other cities, a critically acclaimed chef sets up shop at a random location, transforming an existing restaurant or abandoned building into a night or weekend of his or her carefully calculated, somewhat abstruse concept.
Durham has a ravenous food obsession, one that has garnered national attention. So the pop-up phenomenon is a natural extension of the city's culinary culture.
Hakanai, a Japanese pop-up collaboration of Toast's Billy and Kelli Cotter and The Cookery, sold out after crashing the reservations' online server. The team transformed an event space into a full restaurant—for just three days. They introduced a focused Japanese menu to local palates, along with Durham's first pop-up experience.
"This whole project was such a huge risk," says Rochelle Johnson, co-owner of the Cookery. "We didn't hold back. Billy [Cotter] didn't hold back on the menu. We didn't want to play anything safe with the cocktails or food that was served. That's really difficult, because you put a lot of hard work on the line, and you never know how guests are going to react. "
Back at the ramen pop-up, Props and Berenbaum centered on minimalism and transformation in both their menu and concept.
Props, a vegan chef, felt compelled to do a pop-up because of the freedom to execute one creative idea well.
"To me the exciting trend of young chefs, or people in general, is appreciation and comprehension of the old-school with an eye and ear toward innovation," he says. "Those two realms collide to create some really interesting food."
Inspired by Momofuku's iconic chef David Chang, the duo wanted to introduce ramen to the public.
"What do Durhamites know about ramen besides instant ramen, generally speaking?" asks Berenbaum. "It's comfort food, it's like the grilled cheese of Japan."
But Props transformed the traditional ramen—a broth simmered for hours and enriched by pork bones or a whole chicken—as vegan.
"The vegan community here is clamoring for options," Props says. "And they've supported us so much that to turn our backs on them would be a horrible thing to do."
The two creatively scoped out ingredients for a simple menu that focused on ramen accented by three salad options—a seaweed with a thalassic saltiness and two green salads served with miso or carrot-ginger vinaigrette, both flavorful. Kimchi also graced the menu, a nod to Chang's experiments.
"I've learned so much about cooking just from working with Matt," Berenbaum says. "I eat the gamut; I'm not vegan. But cooking and baking vegan doesn't mean that the canvas is smaller, it just reduces the color palette to some degree.
"But the food that we can do is just as good as anything else. You don't have to use pork bones to make something absolutely delicious. An hour and a half to four hours of caramelization of onions and other vegetables would bring out a whole depth of flavor."
I sat at a communal table with nine other diners and enjoyed the easygoing vibe and minimalist, cozy ambiance. (Props and Berenbaum were among the servers.) Bowls came out of the kitchen quickly, like ramen should. Props and Berenbaum confessed earlier in the week to bonding over '90s hip-hop; the evening soundtrack swung from that era to early dance hall. No pretense, no fuss. Just good food.
Noodles disappeared, but the broth remained. People untangled their fingers from the chopsticks and cupped the large, compostable bowls with both hands, slurping the rest. One diner ordered more noodles to throw into her leftover broth.
Unlike The Cookery's ambitious and highly detailed concept, with rotating chefs starring in each restaurant, Berenbaum and Props' idea of a pop-up lends itself to celebrating creative young chefs and traditional, home-style cooking.
"New ideas are inherently rusty," says Berenbaum. "Digging the old recipes, people are looking for authenticity. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the bourgeois artisan movement, but within that there's definitely some good cooking being done by young people."
Their next pop-up will be based on recipes from the highly popular Jerusalem: A Cookbook. A date is yet to be determined.
"It sounds kind of cheesy, but you want to project the intention of the dish. You want to picture yourself in a place."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ramen phenomenon."