Though they came on with the kind of speed usually reserved for flash-in-the-pan trends, pop-ups seem to be here to stay. It makes sense: There will always be chefs who yearn to cook outside their restaurant's usual menu, and there will always be diners looking for something new and exciting to try.
But one recent pop-up, which sold out in two days no less, stands out from the crowded field because it offers the culinary equivalent of a guided tour of a foreign land from a native herself.
This past Sunday, Cristina Baez launched the first of her monthly, Puerto Rican-focused Patria pop-ups at Ataula, the acclaimed Spanish restaurant she owns with her husband Jose Chesa. With Patria, the Puerto Rican born-and-bred Baez gets to enjoy a bit of the kitchen spotlight, offer a style of cuisine that's different from what the restaurant is known for, and indulge her craving for the foods she grew up with while giving Portland diners a chance to taste dishes, flavors and ingredients rarely found in our neck of the woods.
"It's the food and flavors I grew up with, that our grandmas and moms cooked for us," says Baez, whose grandparents owned a Puerto Rican restaurant in New York for many yaers. "I want to get it out there once a month and talk about where the food comes from and why, and the traditions behind it. This is poor people's food. There's a lot of nostalgia and ritual behind it. When people understand the nostalgia behind it, they'll appreciate the flavor much more because they'll get it."
To that end, her first menu was stocked with modern riffs on the classics she grew up with, things like crab-topped arepas, "plantains five ways" ("They're our bread and butter; we eat them with everything"), and head-on whole fried fish. "For me that's Saturday morning with my mom," she says. "We'd go to a place on the coast, fishermans harbor. You can go into someone's backyard and they have tables and plastic chairs and they'll fry you fish they caught that day. And you get either a little glass of fish stock to go with it or tostones. Add a little hot sauce and you're good to go."
Baez says that although she sources most of her ingredients locally, she insists on flying in certain varieties of herbs, fish, and peppers from her native land. "Some things, like the peppers and culantro, just aren't the same here as what's grown over there. They bring a whole different flavor."
Helping her pull it all off is another Puerto Rican native, her friend Natalia Rodriguez, whom she worked with while teaching at culinary school in Puerto Rico. Rodriguez has been working with the team at Ataula since moving to Portland a few months ago. And other staffers have gotten enthusiastically involved as well. There's Chesa, of course, as well as general manager Emily Metivier, and bar manager Angel Teta (Eater's bartender of the year). "We've been back and forth with a lot of brainstorming," says Baez. "We're doing a welcome cocktail that's inspired by the island. And we'll do a Piña Colada but make it my own. I grew up going to the building where the Piña Colada was invented."
Some of Baez's other food industry friends have chipped in, including Sarah Marshall from Marshall's Haute Sauce, who helped her bottle a special hot sauce she calls pique, made with vinegar, pineapple, mint, garlic, and Puerto Rico-grown herbs and peppers she had flown in from the island. The pique was used on one of the plantain dishes, and all the guests got to take home their own bottle.
The dinners, she says, are "a good collaboration. It feels really cool. I've been thinking about doing this for a long time. Everything has fallen beautifully into place."
The next Patria dinners are March 15 and April 19.