Pink Bellies owner Thai Phi says the restaurant’s Vietnamese food is “authentic to my experience” | Photos by Ruta Smith

Pink Bellies stole Charleston’s heart with saucy bowls of garlic noodles and dumplings in 2013, and since announcing he would open a brick-and-mortar location in October 2019, owner Thai Phi has spent much of the last two years testing recipes before briefly opening for takeout-only inside his mysterious, plastic-wrapped King Street restaurant. 

That wrapping has been removed, and the time has (almost) come for Phi to open for indoor dining in a space where the chef placed a heavy emphasis on aesthetics, working through design elements with local architect firm Thomas and Denzinger. Phi gave the City Paper the inside scoop on what to expect at Pink Bellies, which the chef said will “open soon.” 

Inside the 595 King St. restaurant, which came to fruition after a successful Kickstarter campaign, you’ll find two distinct dining areas separated by a slightly raised floor. 

“[The left side] is about six inches higher. The architect was like, ‘Thai, this is a raised floor. It looks down on the kitchen, so when you’re in there, you’re performing,’” Phi said. 

This subtle design element is just one of several at Pink Bellies. Ceiling panels designed to muffle sound change colors — from pink to orange or neon yellow — and bar seating facing the open kitchen is based on designs Phi found at ramen shops in Tokyo and Kyoto. 

“A lot of the bars in Japan are at the perfect height where there’s some sort of a barrier between the kitchen and the diner,” Phi said. “This one provides enough of a barrier that you still feel very focused on the food. When you’re sitting here, you can feel the heat of the grill, you can hear the cooks talking, you can smell the food.” 

Phi and his small team will serve a few dishes from the takeout menu but most will be creations he’s been perfecting in his test kitchen. 

“One thing we really want to do is showcase Vietnamese food in a way that’s really authentic to my experience,” Phi said. “We’re really trying to hit a lot of different flavor profiles and textures.”  

For an example of this, look no further than Phi’s squid ink bánh xèo — a crispy crepe stuffed with Miss Paula’s shrimp, scallops and sliced pork belly. 

“Bánh means anything made with wheat that you have in your hands,” said Phi, explaining that you place a torn piece of the crepe inside a lettuce wrap and eat with your hands. “Xèo is the sound the wok makes when it sizzles.” 

Phi was born in a Thailand refugee camp during his parents’ immigration to the United States from Vietnam. His family landed in San Francisco, later moving to Columbia where Phi attended the University of South Carolina. After earning a master’s degree in business from the College of Charleston, Phi launched Pink Bellies — first as a food truck, then later as a pop-up and stall at Workshop. 

Phi’s latest menu mock-up features 12 dinner dishes, including duck congee, pho xiao long bao, spicy lamb dumplings, snow crabs and his famed garlic noodles — “a Bay-area thing that we’ve adapted to Charleston,” Phi said. 

“Other dishes are inspired by my aunt’s kitchen and my grandma’s kitchen in Vietnam. Dishes that really you don’t see on any other menus — dishes that are only really present at someone’s house in Vietnam,” Phi said. “So our menu is kind of everywhere, but it’s based on my life.”  

His take on bun cha gio, a Vietnamese noodle dish, is directly influenced by his childhood. 

“That one is really important to me because growing up, my mom always had a garden growing. She would always roll egg rolls, keep them in the freezer and after a long day of work, she would come home and prepare this vermicelli noodle. [Then she would] grab herbs from the backyard, take the egg rolls, cut them up and you would just eat them together.” 

Pink Bellies’ cuisine is a mix of these classics and American interpretations of Vietnamese dishes, with many menu items based on bites Phi had while traveling. 

“Pink Bellies for me, it’s extremely friendly, inviting, unintimidating, and it’s almost vague to a point where you don’t know its Vietnamese food,” Phi said. “But once you get to eat our food, you’re like, ‘Man, I love the food, I didn’t know it was Vietnamese.’ The juxtaposition is kind of the theme of this entire story. I’m an immigrant, but I also grew up in America.”

Once open, Pink Bellies will serve dinner Thursday-Sunday. Phi eventually plans to expand hours to include more days, lunch and a late-night service that extends past midnight Friday and Saturday. 

The chef says he’s excited for the next step in his journey, a milestone he knows wouldn’t be possible without the loyal fans who are awaiting the restaurant’s opening. 

“When we started [the Kickstarter], we didn’t know if it was going to be successful or not,” he said. “When people spend their hard-earned money to support something … I’m not sure how to express how grateful I am for that.”  

For opening updates and more information, follow Pink Bellies on Instagram @pinkbellies.