In October of last year, Pink Bellies closed up
at Workshop after a year-and-a-half-long residency. The following month they popped up at at Tapio Boba Tea Cafe, serving a portion of their Workshop menu, along with new items such as lechon kawali silog and spicy lamb dumplings. They've been on hiatus since.
But, after a six-week long trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong, Thai Phi, owner and head chef of Pink Bellies, is back in Charleston and ready to share what he learned over seas.
In Vietnam, Phi spent time cooking with family who taught him new techniques and recipes. However, his family wasn't his only instructor.
"At the entrance of my grandmother’s house, there was a family that sold one dish, bun bo hue [rice vermicelli with beef]. It was quite possibly the best and most delicate bun bo hue I've ever had," says Phi. "About 30 meters [about 100 feet] was a river behind my grandmother's house — that's where that family lived. They welcomed me into their home for two weeks, showed me the recipe step by step, and explained how important it is for me to make this dish as best as I can as ingredients change from Saigon to Charleston."
Not only was their instruction in the kitchen memorable to him, but so was the entire experience. He was able to learn more than just the food — Phi experienced the family effort behind the bun bo hue, and became close with the family, eventually finding out they were childhood friends of his parents.
"Going to their house was really special. Waking up at 5 a.m. to begin cooking and watching/hearing cock-fighting in the alley as I'm waiting to go into the house to start my lesson was really special."
In his final week before flying back to the states, Phi flew to Hong Kong, where he met another Vietnamese chef, John Nguyen of Sai Gon Dep, Eater NY's 2017 Chef of the Year
. Not only did they talk about food, but shared experiences of being Vietnamese in America.
"We’re all a part of this movement to push Vietnamese food forward," Nguyen said to Phi. "Each of our unique upbringings adds a fresh perspective to its growth. It’s important to push past the expectations and limits for what people think Vietnamese food is and to do it to the best of our ability with the best ingredients."
Taking his experiences of cooking at home and meeting with Nguyen, Phi has made it his mission to bring authentic Vietnamese cuisine to the Charleston area.
"When people think of Vietnamese food, they think of pho or banh mi," Phi said. "But when you try to make other Vietnamese food, like bun bo hue, it's not considered authentic. But authenticity means connecting to those moments, places, and people and having a really personal sense of the source of the dish and a really tight bond with it, one that you would only uphold to your highest esteem. It speaks in the smallest of details and creates a beautiful whole picture."
"My aunts always told me, 'take what you learn here, and make it better,' and that's what I want to do with Pink Bellies."
Rice pork dumplings, one of Phi's new menu items.
For now, Pink Bellies will be popping up on Tuesdays at Edmund's Oast Brewing Co. next to his old home at Workshop, serving new and old dishes, including rice pork dumplings and barbecue pork chops with rice. But Phi has a bigger plan for the future of Pink Bellies, one he's not ready to share with the world just yet.
Keep an eye out for updates by following Pink Bellies on Instagram