Thai Ha has been running his food stand Mangosteen at concerts and festivals across Washington for the past seven years. He had a big summer planned – one that included launching a canned boba tea business at The Gorge. Then COVID-19 hit, and his once-packed schedule became wide open.
Ha is friends with Yenvy Pham, who along with her siblings Quynh and Khoa, runs Pho Bac Sup Shop and the iconic, boat-shaped Pho Bac on South Jackson. Driving by one day, Ha noticed the boat was boarded up and called Pham to see if he could set up in the kitchen.
Since the end of April, Ha and his team have been dishing up incredibly crisp and crunchy chicken wings, tender smoked brisket sandwiches, desserts, sides and around 200 of his canned Boba Bar drinks, seven days a week.
What’s more, Ha and Pham have been collaborating on a smoked brisket pho, combining the coriander-rubbed brisket smoked by Ha with a smoky, silky, fragrant pho from Pham.
Stories of restaurants pivoting to survive have become commonplace since dining rooms were shut down in March, and even as King County moves to Phase 2 of reopening, restaurants are still struggling. This global pandemic has killed business, dampened spirits and shone a spotlight on how precariously balanced many of our social systems are.
But we’re seeing restaurants squeeze delicious lemonade concoctions out of the giant, sour lemons life has thrown at them, refreshments thought up by chefs who, before the pandemic, almost never had time or opportunity to flex creative muscles because they were so focused on the daily grind of operating a restaurant.
Amid the struggle, silver linings are beginning to emerge if you know where to look — and that’s exactly what this collaboration between Ha and Pham is.
“COVID slowed everything down, it gave us the time to think about a collaboration and work through things to see how we could take our culture and mash it up with something so many people know,” Ha says.
Pham says this collaboration would “definitely not have happened,” without the coronavirus throwing a wrench in all their preexisting plans.
Pham and Ha aren’t the only ones who have managed to find these unexpected opportunities amid the closures and cancellations caused by the pandemic.
Brothers Seth and Zachary Pacleb are well -known for dishing up hyperseasonal tacos and steaming bowls of ramen at four area farmers markets, but those markets aren’t currently welcoming prepared food vendors. So instead, the Paclebs began offering “Brothers at Home” meal kits and have been able to go beyond ramen and tacos.
“As challenging as the new logistics have been to put in place for this new program, it has been creatively uplifting to be able to work on new dishes and recipes that we wouldn’t normally have an outlet for,” Zachary Pacleb says.
The duo has spent the past few years brainstorming what a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant might look like for them, working on a business plan and connecting with people at the farmers markets and on catering gigs to build a following. Zachary says the goal was something “casual that people wouldn’t be afraid to frequent multiple times per week.”
He said that while COVID-19 has forced them to adapt to survive, “it has been an opportunity for a forced evolution of our brand and business model at the same time. We knew that we wanted to move in this direction already and now we get to see what those menus might actually look like.”
When Soma was the chef at the now-closed Miyabi 45, she hosted a weekly lunch ramen pop-up. But soba noodles have been her sole focus since she opened Kamonegi in 2017. As the chef wrote on Instagram, “At Kamonegi, I got too busy and never had chance to made ramen.”
That all changed in March.
Soma says, “since the ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order took place, I focused all my energy [into] turning our restaurant into a successful takeout business. We work with a small team and produce new menu items weekly and sometimes daily.”
Part of that involved thinking about other menu items she could provide.
“I decided to do weekly ramen since I had a few people ask me about my pop-up before and if I would ever bring it back,” Soma said.
She now offers the ramen as a kit for two people, changing flavors biweekly and using fresh ingredients to make it.
“Yes, ramen has been my silver lining through this experience,” she says.
As for Mangosteen’s Ha and Pham, the collaboration isn’t stopping at smoked brisket pho. The duo has plans to take Ha’s fresh boba teas and add alcohol for custom boba cocktails, available to be sold to-go.
“It’s been really fun having him here, and it’s a great opportunity to collaborate,” Pham says.