On May 15, Ding Tea and Ha Long Cafe opened their doors just in time for what feels like the hottest summer in years, serving ice cold boba tea and home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine.
Though Ding Tea is a global Taiwanese brand of tea with locations in many Southeast Asian locations like Taiwan, Vietnam, and others, it's the family behind Ha Long Cafe that makes this franchise location special.
After working at her full-time job at MUSC, owner Trang Pham goes to the new restaurant at 281 Meeting St., cooking in the kitchen and living her dream. And she doesn't run Ding Tea on her own. Her two daughters, Victoria and Michelle, help too.
As part of the process to open a Ding Tea location, Victoria, Pham's eldest daughter, traveled to Taiwan to train with Ding Tea and learn the skills needed to run a Ding Tea location. Overseas, Victoria learned how to make their drinks and manage a location. At just 21 years old, she was ready to help run the restaurant.
And when Victoria isn't there, it's her sister Michelle who helps run things.
Growing up, Pham (no relation to me) was surrounded by food, learning traditional Vietnamese dishes in her home kitchen in the city of Can Tho in Vietnam. After moving to the states at 18, she continued to be surrounded by food and the restaurant industry, working at her brother's restaurant in Seattle, Wash., where she waited tables, washed dishes, and helped in the kitchen.
- Michael Pham
- The Banh mi
It was always her dream to open her own restaurant, but after moving to Mt. Pleasant in 2009 and landing a job at MUSC, the idea of owning and operating her own spot was put on hiatus.
Nearly a decade later, that dream came back to Pham, and in partnership with her friend Dana Vo, they secured a location on Meeting Street in the summer of 2018 and began taking the steps to open up Ding Tea and Ha Long Cafe.
Opening a restaurant in Charleston, though, especially downtown, isn't as easy as strolling through Marion Square.
To help with this process, Pham and Vo made the decision to work with Ding Tea and bring the popular Southeast Asian brand to the Lowcountry — when Ding Tea supplies arrived stateside, they were ready to open Ding Tea's newest U.S. location in just under a year.
This May, they opened their doors and joined the short list of boba places in Charleston.
But there was something else Pham wanted to add to the place — food.
Using her skills in the kitchen at home, and what she learned growing up, Pham wanted to share with the Lowcountry authentic, home-cooked Vietnamese fare.
"Some of the Vietnamese food here is too Americanized," says Pham. "I want to give people real Vietnamese food."
In addition to the Ding Tea brand of drinks, Pham added fresh summer rolls, Bánh mì sandwiches, papaya salad, and cà phê đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee.
Looking at the menu a little over two months in, you'll find more traditional Vietnamese foods like Cơm tấm, a broken rice dish traditionally served with grilled pork and veggies; Bún Thịt Nướng, cold vermicelli rice noodles served with pork, beef, or chicken and veggies; Bánh Bôt Lôc, "clear dumplings" made from chewy tapioca, stuffed with shrimp or pork, and served with greens and pickled veggies; and the ever popular Phở. Pham plans to introduce more through weekly weekend specials, the latest being Bún Bò Huế, Vietnamese spicy noodle soup.
In addition to more traditional Vietnamese food, Pham also plans to add a bakery section to the restaurant with the help of Victoria, who not only helps run the restaurant, but also cooks herself.
"There was one year for my birthday after I moved here from Seattle when I really wanted this Asian-style birthday cake," Victoria recalls. "I used to get it at a Chinese place in Seattle, but can't get it here, so I looked it up and made it for myself that year."
With the little access to Vietnamese, and, more broadly, Asian food in Charleston, Victoria took the initiative to learn the recipes herself, specifically pastries and desserts, including caramel flan, another one of their recent weekly specials.
Expect to see desserts like swiss roll cake, milk, bread, and others in Ha Long's future, as well as more food menu items.
Ding Tea and Ha Long Cafe is located at 281 Meeting St. and is open Sun. to Thurs. From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fri. and Sat. from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.