Sadly, Pink Bellies’ Tuesday pop-ups at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. will end in just a few short weeks, with their last day slated for Tues. Nov. 26.
But don’t worry, it’s for good reason.
Last month, Thai Phi, founder of the popular Vietnamese pop-up, announced that he had signed a lease for a permanent location at 595 King Street in the new Hoffler Place building.
“It was unreal, surreal, and too real — all at the same time,” Phi says about the announcement.
“When you love something so much and you just stick to it, things are going to happen. I always equate it to chipping at a rock — you’ve got this huge rock, and when you’re chipping, you can’t see any cracks or anything. Then, on the 10,000th strike, you’ll see a crack, but all along, it’s been cracking on the inside.”
After obtaining his masters in business administration at College of Charleston, Phi set out to start a career in the frozen food industry. Phi explains that this was appealing to him because it was “another way to start from the bottom” and “share culture by eventually packing Vietnamese food, and building a business off of that.”
After applying to places like Harris Teeter, Bi-Lo, and other grocers to work in their frozen food aisle and after getting rejected several times, he decided to make his own luck.
To do this, Phi purchased a food truck from Warren Buffett’s trailer company in 2013 and worked with Taylor Metal Worx to help build everything, from the interior to outside components.
In 2014, Phi parked his truck at the corner of Calhoun and St. Philip streets, feeding the mouths of hundreds of CofC and MUSC students and peninsula passersby; the food truck’s presence on the CofC campus was a big win for Phi.
“I didn’t want to get dressed up or do anything to get good food, so I wanted to lower that barrier,” Phi says about his decision to pursue the food truck model.
After two-and-a-half years parked near CofC, the food truck closed and Pink Bellies moved to Workshop, giving the crew their first opportunity to operate in a brick-and-mortar location.
For a year, Pink Bellies was a fan-favorite at Workshop, serving noodle bowls (most notably, their garlic noodles) and banh mi sandwiches to a wider audience, doing what Phi had set out to do the day he decided to open a food truck — make Vietnamese food more accessible in the Lowcountry.
In the fall of 2018, Phi announced that Pink Bellies would be leaving Workshop, but had “big plans ahead.”
First stop? A month-long pop-up at Tapio.
Even with a change of scenery, the menu retained Pink Bellies staples, like those aforementioned garlic noodles and the In-N-Out-inspired animal-style burger. During this period, Phi also explored other Southeast Asian cuisines with items like the Lechon Kawali (crispy fried pork belly), a Filipino dish.
After their time at Tapio, Pink Bellies took a three-month-long creative refresh. Phi traveled back home to Vietnam to reconnect with his roots and learn new recipes to bring back to Charleston.
“We want our food to be a really authentic representation of Vietnamese food,” Phi says. “Sometimes we try to do things that are super deep in the cut. Like when I do my pho, the broth that I do is, at least for me, so refined and subtle that when I do it, I’m not sure if people will understand it.”
When Pink Bellies started popping up every Tuesday at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co., Phi saw this as an opportunity to try new things. Each week, his changes, giving patrons a chance to stick with their normal orders or try something completely new.
“Throughout my entire career, these pop-ups at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. have probably been the most influential thing I’ve ever done in developing my craft, and getting to cook for people.”
Phi is motivated by crafting not just a vision for Pink Bellies, but for the Asian American presence in Charleston as a whole.
“I wanted to create something where a lot of Vietnamese food, and good food, could be accessible,” Phi says.
“Everything that came before inspires us. You know, having immigrant families, you see it so much, and it’s a huge driving force for me — I think our parents’ struggle really goes into our food and our work ethic and what we’re trying to build. It’s why I’m so culture-driven in my food.”
In his first permanent location, slated to open spring 2020, Phi will draw upon what he’s learned over the past five years.
“With this project, it was really important to focus on things like how to promote inspiration, creativity, feelings for abundance, and clarity. We want the space to be extremely well designed, but to also keep your attention on the food and the craftsmanship that goes behind it.”