six people pose for a photo in a messy restaurant kitchen
The kitchen crew at a Monday Night Foodball pop-up. Courtesy Mike Sula

I discovered a tangle of disarticulated entrails in my backyard at dawn one Saturday late last summer: a tiny squiggle of digestive tract and an alien-like blue, bulbous, kidney-bean-sized blob. My first guess was an extraterrestrial encounter gone wrong, until I spotted a tiny paw waving up from the grass that Google suggested was rat-like or possibly squirrelly in origin.

Rodents rule the alleys and postage-stamp backyard gardens of Albany Park. At least that was the case on my block up until last winter when a pair of sharp-shinned hawks took up residence at the top of a towering oak on the parkway.

In late February they claimed their turf with a shower of pigeon feathers and bloody bones on my front steps, and from then until the end of the summer, you could occasionally spot their mangled leftovers around the neighborhood. When they weren’t terrorizing the local fauna, they perched on the highest branches of the tree and shrieked at each other all day long. I loved them. 

It wasn’t just their occasional crime scenes that allowed me to embody the forensic pathologist I was always supposed to be; they provided a reminder that occasionally something uncommon and wild invades the gray, human-enabled Chicago ecosystem, scattering the house sparrows and reminding the squirrels not to get soft.

Usually when I stopped to squint up at them this summer, I was wrestling with my laptop, trying to wrench out some words to describe some analogous incursion into the city’s (human) foodscape.

Much like last year (and the year before) I continued to look to the underground and gray market food economy as the place to spot the most interesting, creative, and groundbreaking chefs and foodlums in the city. 

Even as the masks continued to come off, there’d been no great sigh of relief in the hospitality industry in 2022. The traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant economy did not come roaring back amid Omicron. With inflation and staffing shortages, operators struggled with their own kind of long COVID, and for many the prolonged struggle proved to be too much. Brick-and-mortar closings kept pace with notable openings.

And yet the comeback was enough that you could see the effect it had on the underground. Plenty of cooks, bartenders, servers, and chefs made their way back to brick-and-mortars or even jobs in other industries, as their side hustles proved less sustainable as the world reverted back to something resembling what it once was, but nevertheless will never be again.

I’d been hearing all year long from folks who flourished in the alt-economy about how changes in Instagram’s algorithm had made things difficult for the host of new food businesses I’d been writing about since the beginning of the pandemic. I saw it myself as social media engagement with our Monday Night Foodball pop-up promos dropped off precipitously some weeks.

But that didn’t mean interest dropped off. Some brick-and-mortars continued to be incubators for young chefs with big ideas. Last Monday night alone, the Long Room hosted a barbecue pop-up; Ludlow Liquors featured a new chef in town doing Filipino fine dining; one of Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s line cooks took over that kitchen to do Jamaican food; while the Kedzie Inn hosted the year’s 38th Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up that I’ve been hyping since August 2021. This one featured Won Kim previewing the next iteration of Kimski, Bridgeport’s six-and-a-half-year-old Korean-Polish mash-up which itself has become a training ground for young chefs eager to break out and do their own thing.

Many Kimski pop-up vets have made their way to Irving Park to throw down at a Foodball this year, including Thattu, who’s opening its brick-and-mortar at Guild Row in 2023; Zeitlin’s Delicatessen, which was featured earlier this week at the 39th and final MNF of 2022; Heffer BBQ, which was our 36th; Mom’s Chicago (our seventh); Gemma Foods (31st); and more. 

The best things I ate this year I ate at these pop-ups: like, in no particular order, Angelina Bastidas’s shrimp mofongo; Nemanja Milunovic’s pizza burek; the salmon ochazuke by SuperHai; the Philly masala cheesesteak from Dhuann BBQ Company; Eric May’s vegan mushroom Italian beef; Flavor Supreme and Lolo Agogo’s Big Meatball; the smoked brisket banh mi from Umamicue; D’s Roti’s curry chicken roti; Ramen Lord’s Aburasoba; Thommy’s Toddy Shop’s Kerala fried chicken; Lebanese and Armenian stuffed grape leaves from Mary Eder-McClure and Kat Stuehrk Talo; lechon tacos from Pig & Fire; Ricky Hanft’s beef heart sauerbraten; Vargo Brother Ferments’s “Portillo’s” chopped salad; Gemma Foods’s smoked potato crescenza culurgiones with lemon-sage cream; Better Boy’s celery root mash and Tasting India’s spiced cornbread from the Umamicue Friendsgiving; Heffer BBQ’s smoked chicken tinga tostada; and pretty much anything on the menu from the seven-chef Foodball organized by Waroeng’s Tasya Hardono, who now runs not just the midwest’s only Indonesian grocery store but the region’s only Indonesian art gallery/boutique, Legenda.  

But also the most fun I’ve had this year has been running food, clearing tables, and playing host at these pop-ups. They’re way more fun than sitting down at a table and passively observing service, atmosphere, and food like some kind of, I dunno, restaurant critic. The concept of service and hospitality loses its abstraction and becomes a thing that is super satisfying to engage in. It’s a pleasure to defuse the occasional tension or resolve the odd mishap with grace and strategy rather than confrontation and watch someone’s attitude go from annoyance or aggravation to acceptance and appreciation.

My sharp-shinned hawks took off sometime in August and haven’t been back (yet), which was a reminder that everything changes. Sure, Shin Thompson moved to LA, Oscar Singer moved to New York, and the Hot Dog Box closed its Portage park brick-and-mortar, but it’s still alive in the pop-up world—and so are most of the chefs we’ve hosted at Monday Night Foodball. 

Despite some setbacks, the pop-up scene still looks a lot more vibrant and promising than its brick-and-mortar counterpart. I’ve heard from so many chefs who’ve launched or expanded their own nonperishable product lines, like Jasmine Sheth’s spice blends or Vargo Brother’s pickles. And I know plenty who are actively working toward settling into their own brick-and-mortars, which I can’t tell you about quite yet, but I will when the time comes.

So it isn’t dead at all. Take Nemanja Milunovic, formerly of Balkan Kiosk, who headlined the first Foodball of 2022. He had to take a job at Aba, which kept him out of the pop-up game for the rest of the year. But I’m thrilled to say he’ll be back in early 2023 when he kicks off the next season of Monday Night Foodball at its new location, which I’ll announce, along with a brand new schedule of chefs, old and new, early in the new year. Meantime, I’m gonna keep listening for the hawks.