Most people wouldn’t dream of creating a taco with ingredients like apple and kabocha squash, much less topping it with micro greens, pepitas, roasted tomatillo crema, pickled mustard and red onion. Then again, most people don’t have chef Nyanyika Banda’s imagination and culinary chops.
Banda is the proprietor of Marita Pop Up, a “globally inspired, locally sourced” pop-up restaurant that travels around the Duluth area, popping up at various locations and events. In March, Marita Pop Up began a regular schedule at the Red Herring Lounge on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 7 p.m. to midnight.
The restaurant started a few years ago. Its first iteration began at Carmody Irish Pub and was known as Izakaya 218. Banda noticed a lack of tasty late night eats in the Twin Ports and started mulling over the idea of a pop up. She decided to make ramen noodles, since there weren’t many places around to get them. A regular at Carmody suggested she also serve tacos. Soon she was bringing this eclectic mix of Mexican and Asian fusion to late-night bar crowds after most kitchens closed. Later she started serving at the Red Herring Lounge twice a week.
For the latest version of the Red Herring pop up, Banda plans to serve mostly tacos. But the type of tacos she makes are a far cry from typical bar food. Banda once worked at Empellon, a trendy tacqueria in New York City. The experience informs her playful fusion of traditional flavors such as tomatillos, Mexican crema (like sour cream, but better) and corn tortillas with unlikely ingredients like chicken braised with java from Duluth Coffee Company, thinly sliced radishes and the aforementioned pickled, fresh and roasted toppings.
The care Banda takes in assembling each dish is apparent in both taste and aesthetics. She finds as many ingredients as she can from local sources, using meat from places like Yker Acres and Pastures a Plenty. As a former vegetarian, Banda says she thinks it’s important to use meat that isn’t pumped full of hormones and is locally and humanely raised.
Banda began working in restaurants while in high school in Madison. She found she enjoyed the work, so continued on this path.
“When I was about 20 years old and working as a line cook, it occurred to me that I could make a living working in a kitchen—I could learn by doing,” she says.
Later, while working at a restaurant in Lutsen, Banda reached a “pivotal moment” in her career. She attended a dinner with guest chef Tim McKee, the first Minnesota chef to win an award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation, often referred to as the “Oscars” of the food world.
“I had foie gras for the first time,” remembers Banda. “It was a foie gras and plum crostini.”
After experiencing the chef’s unlikely and inspired creations, Banda was smitten. She decided she was interested in learning more about fine dining and moved back to Madison to study culinary arts.
That led to an internship at a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant in San Francisco and then stints at acclaimed restaurants in New York City. One of them, Mission Chinese Food, provided Banda inspiration for her pop-up restaurant. The tiny restaurant offering an inventive take on Sichuan cuisine became a “cult phenomenon” where people would stand in line for hours waiting to eat, says Banda. She realized that the space didn’t matter as much as the food.
When Banda left New York, she didn’t really look back. It was a formative experience for her but had negative aspects, too.
“In New York City, there’s this tradition of breaking chefs down to make them stronger. I left questioning my ability,” she says.
Banda returned to the Twin Ports to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Marita Pop Up has allowed her funds and flexibility, important for any student.
Banda is a history major with a minor in writing and a focus on food. She interned at Saveur magazine while completing her culinary program and realized a passion for writing. One of her current projects involves food history of African American communities of Duluth and Minneapolis. Another involves the innovative food preservation techniques of Duluth housewives during World War II.
She’s pleased with the reception her unique style of cooking has found in Duluth. “The community has been very supportive,” she says. Based on the success of Marita Pop Up and her catering business, she aspires to open a standalone restaurant in the future. She has a monthly column in the Duluth News Tribune and intends to continue writing about food.
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