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Saturday, March 31, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Pop-up restaurants add an international flavor to Monday night dinners

By Tan Vinh
Seattle Times staff reporter

You've seen these Monday ethnic-themed dinners, right? It's hard to miss them if you dine out that night. You may find Mexico City food at a restaurant where you usually would be served poached sea cod and New American cuisine; Indian comfort food where Mediterranean fare normally would be presented.

These are pop-up and pop-up-inspired meals. Most are run by line cooks and sous chefs who rent restaurant space to run a once-a-week eatery. In other cases, it's the chefs doing it in their own restaurants — comfort or street food that you wouldn't find on their regular menus.

Pop-ups usually take place on Monday nights, when restaurants normally would be closed and available to rent out. The plating is less fussy, the cooking more like your grandma's.

The concept isn't new. But in recent months, it has become so popular that the dining rooms for pop-ups often fill up quickly.

Every Monday, chef Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce turns over his kitchen to his former server, Alvaro Candela-Najera, who does tacos with Mayan-style braised pork and milk-soaked beef belly.

At the Mediterranean hot spot La Bete on Capitol Hill, chefs Aleks Dimitrijevic and Tyler Moritz used to rent out their space for Monday pop-ups. Now they do their own. Walk through the front door on Mondays and you get whiffs of coriander and cumin, the smokiness from the naan being grilled in the open kitchen.

In Wallingford, chef David Kong of Perche'No Pasta & Vino normally cooks Italian food, but once a month he pays homage to his homeland and does Monday Malaysian food night.

Most pop-ups are run by young cooks. Like the food truck, the pop-up is an economical way for aspiring chefs to showcase their talents until they have the money or the following to go the brick-and-mortar route. The concept is most popular on Capitol Hill, where a dozen young cooks are giving it a go.

David Howe and Kalen Schramke, both from Rover's, do Korean, Caribbean and other ethnic-theme dinners at Volunteer Park Café on Capitol Hill once a month. By summer, they will add a second pop-up at another location with star bartender Jay Kuehner of Sambar. Irbille Donia debuted his Filipino cuisine at Olivar restaurant on a recent Monday, the same Capitol Hill restaurant where he works as a line cook on other nights doing Spanish cuisine.

Former Lark sous chef Wiley Frank and his wife, Poncharee Kounpungchart, helped popularize the concept. In fall 2009, the couple started a Thai street pop-up, first at Licorous, then at La Bete. It became a cult hit and led the couple to open a takeout shack, Little Uncle, on East Madison Street earlier this year. The couple miss the frenetic energy of a pop-up and plan to do it again this spring.

Here are five places to find pop-ups or pop-ups-inspired dinners. Check the restaurants' Web pages, most have references to their Monday-night dinners. Many pop-ups call it a night after they run out of food. Reservations recommended.

Judkins Street Café: Skillet line cook Adam Trujillo plans to do one to two Monday dinners a month, specializing in the comfort food of his homeland, Mexico, including a Posole soup from Jalisco. Café owner Michael McGloin plans to fill up the other Mondays with a Southwest- theme dinner, meatless Monday and other pop-ups. 2608 S. Judkins St. judkinsstreetcafe.com

La Bete: The chef does an "Around the World Dinner Series." Their Indian-theme dinner was memorable — juicy veal meatballs in a Kashmiri stew, served with stuffed Paratha flatbread; shrimp fritters to dip with the spicy chutney. Next up, an Eastern European-theme dinner with Hungarian goulash and smoked meat. This summer, they head south with an Oaxacan-theme meal. 1802 Bellevue Ave., labeteseattle.com

Mistral Kitchen: Chef William Belickis said his cook Taylor Cheney has done some impressive Arab feasts for the staff dinners, so he gave her free reign of his kitchen to do Lebanon, Egyptian and Moroccan small plates every Monday. The tasting menu costs $45. 2020 Westlake Ave. www.mistral-kitchen.com

Sitka & Spruce: Candela- Najera, a former server at the restaurant and now bartender at bar ferd'nand, hawks his Mexico City-inspired comfort food. It's a simple half-page menu of mostly chicharrón and gourmet tacos. 1531 Melrose Ave. www.sitkaandspruce.com

Skelly and the Bean: Chef and owner Zephyr Paquette runs her restaurant from Wednesday through Sunday and rents the space Monday and Tuesday to young cooks and culinary students. Terra Plata's cook Shauna Scriver will take over the first two Mondays in April to do tamales, and Kevin Burzell formerly of Ba Bar will do Malaysian comfort food the last two Mondays. The couple behind Little Uncle will do some Monday dinners here soon. 2359 10th Ave. E. skellyandthebean.com

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @tanvinhseattle.

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