Pop-ups continue to be a powerful force in Southern California and beyond, giving nascent concepts lower operating costs and the ability to develop a following while simultaneously introducing LA diners to something new. Some of the recent pop-ups in this most modern, pandemic-era wave have proven to be so popular, they’re already moving into brick-and-mortar spaces, including Kuya Lord, which opened on Melrose in early summer, and a pending permanent location for Smoke Queen Barbecue.
The legacy of people selling food from their homes in this city stretches far back, perhaps most famously epitomized by Lovie Yancey, who started Fatburger from her own home in 1947 before turning it into a behemoth chain with 182 locations worldwide. More than a half-century later, the current iteration of pop-ups likely began with the impact of Ludo Lefebvre’s Ludo Bites, which began in 2007 and gained the attention of then-LA Weekly reviewer Jonathan Gold. Ludo Bites and Starry Kitchen were early pioneers, but there’s another local pop-up that doesn’t always receive the same credit: Compton’s Trap Kitchen.
Malachi “Spank” Jenkins and Roberto “News” Smith launched Trap Kitchen LA in 2013. The partners sold soul food plates to family and friends out of Smith’s grandmother’s kitchen, developing a massive fan base along the way. Demand continued to surge over the years, and Trap Kitchen now maintains three Los Angeles trucks, a brick-and-mortar in Portland, a pop-up in Las Vegas, and a stand every week at Smorgasburg Miami.
This month, Jenkins and Smith published their second book Trap Kitchen: Mac N’ All Over The World. Eater sat down with Jenkins to talk about the book and Trap Kitchen’s pop-up legacy in Los Angeles.
What’s different about this cookbook from your first?
Malachi “Spank” Jenkins: The first one [Trap Kitchen: Bangin’ Recipes From Compton] was more of a holiday-inspired cookbook. This one has 50 different mac and cheese recipes from different countries. Also, there’s not a lot of Black authors of mac and cheese cookbooks. I love mac and cheese, and I love to travel. But this one’s more international with us “mac n’” all over the world.
How was starting Trap Kitchen back in 2013?
Exciting. No one else was doing it in our area. We also had the early days of social media and Instagram, which helped make it easier to connect with people. Man, the early days were fun, trying out things on people and figuring out what they liked and didn’t like.
Tell us more about your operations in the early days.
We usually had about eight to 10 days’ worth of food. We’d sell breakfast in the morning. After making a profit, News and me would shop for lunch or dinner. We had 18 different meals throughout the week. We narrowed it down to a few things like soul food sides, barbecue, enchilada pie, gumbo, steak, and seafood. We tried to mimic the big LA steakhouses. People might not be able to go to Mastro’s or Ruth’s Chris, but we made it at a more affordable price for the streets.
How many customers did you serve during each pop-up?
On the daily? At least 60 to 80 people or more. Sometimes we’d have to run back to the store and start later for dinner because we might be sold out early. The demand was high. On a rainy day, we could make two or three pots of chili or gumbo and sell out.
How did your early customers respond?
They always asked when we [were] gonna be open again. We never had any negative light and had good turn-outs. Still do, to this day. The fact that a Blood and a Crip came together to make food made it easier for us. We had two different demographics, with my partner being a Blood, that brought everybody together.
How did the first food truck come together?
My first was in Portland in 2017 and built it from the ground up. We gutted it and made it look like a trap house and made it to our style. The three LA trucks came after, pre-COVID.
Is there a possibility of a permanent location in Los Angeles?
We are actually looking at a space in LA right now.
This interview was condensed for clarity.