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Food & Drink

Get to Know the Buds Behind Bud Pop-Up

From Kalua pork to Spam to sloppy joes, these former Bellecour buddies are bringing the food they love to a pop-up near you.

1:36 PM CST on December 6, 2023

Instagram: @budpopup_mn / Em Cassel|

From left: Fiona Hunter, Lucas Liljenberg, Gunner Wengler, Spam bánh mí

To a certain kind of nosy, food-obsessed weirdo—and I’m implicating myself here—there’s nothing more intriguing than a new Instagram account with 100 followers, two posts, and a bio as vague as they come. For example: “Just some buds doing pop ups.” 

If those two posts include photos of towering sandwiches topped with pickles and braised meats, or slabs of catfish dripping in remoulade, well, so much the better. And this is how I found myself at Nighthawks Diner in south Minneapolis last month in search of the mysterious, website-less Bud pop-up. 

Em Cassel

The buds behind Bud, I'd later learn, are Gunner Wengler and Lucas Liljenberg, who met years ago working at Gavin Kaysen’s Bellecour.

“We became really good friends there,” Liljenberg tells Racket. “We just really liked working with each other.”

That’s a lucky thing, since the two worked the hot line together during Bellecour brunch—you really get to know a lot about a person in those close, stressful quarters. That wouldn’t be their last job together; both later cooked for the Timberwolves, which Wengler still does, in addition to his role as a private chef for a handful of Minnesota Vikings. These days, Liljenberg is the a.m. sous chef for Mara. 

Day jobs aside, the duo really wanted to find another reason to collaborate. “The way we work together is very synergetic—very Gavin Kaysen term there,” Liljenberg chuckles. 

Their culinary backgrounds overlap nicely, too: Before his career in the kitchen, Liljenberg served in the Army and lived in Korea, so Korean food has a lot of influence on his cooking. Wengler grew up in Hawaii, where Japan and Korea have a massive influence on the cuisine. “So our mindset kind of matches up together really well,” he says. 

Thus, Bud was born, debuting this February with an elaborate two-night, five-course, prix fixe tasting menu at Bar Brava. Which, hell of a way to come out the gate. 

“It was fun to do, but it was definitely a challenge with a very small crew,” Wengler says. “We know how to execute something like that, but we know how to execute something like that with a full team supporting us. It was definitely eye-opening to do it just us.”

Perhaps fittingly, they got by with a little help from their buds. Their friend Fiona Hunter helped execute in the kitchen, and a number of others offered their hands on opening night, either working the line or helping to run delicately plated ocean trout tartare and wild rice cake soup to tables.

The menu for Bud Does Sandwiches was a little more casual, bright-red and checkered like that of an old-school pizzeria and hoagie shop. There was a Spam bánh mí ($17, divine, I would order it again right this second if it was an option), a brick chicken sandwich with sour corn chowchow and hot mayo ($17), and a cheffy sloppy joe with braised beef cheek ($17).  

If the themes of their two dinners so far seem a bit incongruous, well, you’re not wrong. “They were polar opposites,” Wengler laughs. 

“The first one for me definitely had a lot more of our background and our food that we wanted to show other people,” he continues. “Spam musubi was on the menu—that’s like, my favorite food of all time.” (And, as explored here, not very common in the Twin Cities.)

“This last one, it was just kind of like… things that we like to eat, and trying to just do our own twist and make it a very crushable thing,” Liljenberg adds.

Arancini + Kalua pork... a match made in heavenEm Cassel

There was some overlap between the two—at Nighthawks, for example, I enjoyed tremendously the decadent Kalua pork arancini ($11), and that tender, smoked pork popular at Hawaiian luaus had also appeared in a stuffed cabbage dish at Bud’s first pop-up.

Liljenberg and Wengler join a long line of Kaysen-adjacent, Bellecour-trained chefs who have stepped out on their own, from Jamie Yoo at Abang Yoli to Wengler’s wife, Lisa, who along with Jo Seddon will soon open Gia in the old Cave Vin space. Maybe someday, they muse, they’ll do the same. 

As for what comes next? Neither Liljenberg nor Wengler can say for sure. You can expect there’ll be more pop-ups, for one. They’re still working out what the themes might be, but Wengler says surefire hits like the kalua pork arancini will probably appear again—I hope they do, for all of our sakes—along with things like the wings. 

For now, though, the duo are taking things slow. The name “Bud” refers to their friendship, of course, but it also works on a metaphorical level. Both friends feel their careers are only budding; there’s plenty of room for growth. Their only real goal is to continue building on what they’ve already done, applying fine techniques to foods they love and sharing that with the community. 

Well, that—and doing it with their buds.

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