The pop-up is the latest in a long tradition of trends which attempt to subvert the tropes of the restaurant system. Following in the footsteps of revolutionaries like gourmet food trucks and frozen dinners, the goal is to provide restaurant-worthy dishes outside the standard rubric of the restaurant experience, and without all of its inherent hassle and pretension.
Regardless of their aim, though, the fact of the matter is that this city is crawling with pop-ups, and in an effort to help you decide which ones are worth the wait in line we bring you the first in a new series of occasional reports:
Rice Paper Scissors at Mojo Bicycle Café
The Pop-up: Rice Paper Scissors
The Host: Mojo Bicycle Café, every Thursday from around 6 until 10ish
The Cuisine: Vietnamese street and comfort food
The Experience: The first thing you'll notice at Rice Paper Scissors at Mojo is the parklet and the proliferation of red stools thereabouts.
That might be the precursor to the most prescient observation you'll make during your visit -- there are two vastly different experiences to be had here. When the weather is nice, the tables set on the wood planks protruding into busy Divisadero are inviting, somehow both secluded and the center of the party. On days like these, when the sun is still shining at 7 and your mind is pleasantly clouded by Death & Taxes, it almost wouldn't matter if the food wasn't great.
On the other kind of night at Mojo, though, the kind where the wind kicks up and the only choice you have is whether to brave being battered by exhaust fumes and empty bags of hot Cheetos whipping down Diviz or being stuck at a tiny table in a hot, loud coffee shop sandwiched between an ex-fratboy bragging about sneaking booze past his RA and a nose-ringed hipster mom boasting about her young son's first (hopefully temporary) tattoo, on those nights the food matters a lot. And it's a good thing that Rice Paper Scissors is good enough to justify that painful choice.
As you might expect, the menu shifts around from week to week, but whether you are there on a night when they are featuring pho or pho rolls, rice bowls or noodle bowls, the feeling is largely the same; this is fun, fairly simple, and ultimately tasty food. Of special note are those pho rolls, perfect little bites of greens and either spiced beef or mushrooms wrapped in a wide rice noodle and accompanied by nuoc cham for dipping. They come six to an order, standing at various degrees of attention like Mission Chinese's Tea-Smoked Eel. They are to a bowl of rice noodles what a taco is to a burrito: less total food, but with a concentrated combination of flavor in every bite that a larger dish could only dream of achieving.
The menu's staples are the banh mi, three sandwiches with gradually increasing amounts of meat guilt, from vegan to vegetarian to full on pork and pate. The grilled pork is a great version of the classic, with a generous pile of flavorful pork and the perfect portion of pate -- just enough so that you notice its richness without it becoming a dominant flavor. The fake smoked duck is also interesting, and though our preferences generally run away from imitation meat, this turns out to be a worthy facsimile. It might be fair to question the value of an $8 banh mi when there exist places like Saigon Sandwich and even Dinosaurs, but Rice Paper Scissors' banh mi is large and full of well-prepared ingredients. We found it easy to justify the couple bucks difference, particularly for vegans and vegetarians.
For all that is good, though, there are times when the limitations of cooking in a tiny coffee shop are noticeable. Things clearly get a little hectic behind the counter when it gets busy, and some orders come out with essential components that feel like they were prepared well in advance of being served. Similarly, it is nice that they make a point of supplying a bottle of sriracha to every table, but it's too bad that it sometimes feels necessary. These are minor gripes, and ones that seem more or less inevitable in the pop-up format, or at least when the pop-up is serving from a coffee shop (even one which has pretty good sandwiches on its regular menu).
In the end, the experience of Rice Paper Scissors at Mojo embodies many of the advantages and some of the disadvantages of pop-ups as a category. The food is generally great and interesting, the vibe is fun and communal, and prices are totally reasonable. There is also the weather-dependent seating, the potential for crowds, and the occasional space-related cooking issue, but you take the bad with the good, and if the result is more adventurous, affordable, fun food options then that's a trade we'd make every time.
The author rarely tweets, but you can follow him @SemNeb if you're into that sort of thing