The Main Event catering kitchen, part of John Currence's food empire in Oxford, Mississippi, was filled with tables and chairs and festooned with string lights and piñatas for the first of the Big Bad Pop-Ups series last Saturday.
Within full view was former Top Chef contestant Eli Kirshtein and the team from Currence's City Grocery, as they turned out orders of classic Israeli street food with an elevated twist: marinated carrot salad with yogurt, cumin, and hazelnuts; beef meatballs with Brussels sprouts and lemon; latkes with apple butter and sour cream; marinated persimmon with yogurt mousse, date honey, and pistachios.
Kirshtein's turn is up, and Currence and Jesse Houston of City Grocery will be there this week, Wednesday through Saturday, serving their take on Americana street food like hot dogs and hamburgers.
The series in Currence's catering kitchen was born of a desire to keep things moving with the City Grocery staff, while their restaurant space on the Oxford Town Square undergoes renovations this month.
"Well, it wasn't as much my idea, because I'm old and I'm about to have a baby, and so I was prepared, like every other renovation we do, to shut the place down and carry payroll," Currence says. "But our new chef de cuisine came to me with some ideas. We settled on getting some friends together to come down here and do something fun and different, like super-low-brow truck food and street food."
Drop by for what Currence calls a "super-charged burger or dog" or a pork pot roast hot brown, Wednesday through Saturday, "5:30 p.m. until whenever," he says.
The following week (January 23rd-26th), the menu and chef will change again, as Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman of Hog & Hominy and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen come down to share their Italian-meets-Southern take on street food.
"When Uncle Johnny asked us to do this, we would basically do anything for him, he's been so good to Andy and me," Hudman says. "It's a good opportunity for us to get out of the restaurant for a little bit and see some other stuff."
(Uncle Johnny? "Yeah, over the years our friendship, it just kind of evolved into Uncle Johnny," Ticer says. "He's like a mentor to us. We bust each others' chops. He's the old guy, we're the young guys.")
Ticer and Hudman will bring the mortadella corndog and beef and cheddar hot dog from Hog & Hominy and cannoli from Andrew Michael. They'll also have an oyster gumbo with fresh ricotta dumplings, espresso-rubbed carrots with smoky maple, and they'll try their hand at a Hawaiian dish known as musubi, a sort of Spam sushi.
"We're going to make a spicy risotto and let it set up, sear it, and make a crispy rice block to serve with our homemade Spam grilled really lightly and topped with a boiled peanut salad," Hudman says.
Kelly English of Restaurant Iris will make the trek to Oxford for the final weekend (January 30th-February 2nd.)
"It's always fun for me to get back down to Oxford," he says. "I love cooking with John. I graduated from Ole Miss, so it's obviously a very special place for me. I'm flattered that I've been asked to do this."
English is bringing what he calls "filthy" Louisiana truck-stop food.
"Growing up down there, some of the best food you'll find is in still-operational gas stations or converted, old gas stations," English says. "Places like the Best Stop in Scott, Louisiana, and the Little Capitol gas station near Lafayette. You walk in, and it's this otherworldly type place where they have pork chops stuffed with boudin, chicken stuffed with boudin, beef tongue stuffed with boudin."
So will he have boudin?
"Yeah, we're doing a boudin hot dog with choucroute," he says. "And also red beans and rice cassoulet with fried chicken thighs, roasted pork po'boy with oxtail gravy, and gumbo z'herbes."
Prices range from about $5 to $15, depending on the dish, and the event is first come, first served.
"We thought street food was the best way to give everybody the opportunity to express themselves through food that is accessible to everyone. Giving folks the opportunity to try things they don't normally get to try," Currence says. "I'm really going to encourage the guys to have fun. We'll whoop and holler and play some good music. It's meant to be sort of a month-long house party."
Big Bad Pop-Ups, Main Event Catering, 1005 Lamar Blvd., Oxford, MS