Vietnamese Duo Abandons Street Food to Feed a Craving for Home Cooking
If you happened to be among the 3,000 or so regulars following Ha’s Đậc Biệt on Instagram over the course of the pandemic, you probably noticed the transformation — as in watching the couple behind this four-year-old pop-up find themselves as cooks.
Anthony Ha and Sadie Mae Burns used to make what they called Vietnamese-style street food — threaded wooden skewers of grilled head-on shrimp, crackle-skinned porchetta banh mi, crispy rice and cabbage, a cold noodle salad in a paper boat garnished with peppery rau răm, a hard-to-source herb in NYC they had tracked down to one fridge in Chinatown.
Now, instead of prepping kebabs and paper boats, Ha and Burns stir steaming pots of rice simmered with ginger and scallions, a chao ga they serve with poached chicken, fried shallots, red chiles, and rau răm. They labor over the softest slices of sticky pork belly, cooked for hours with a mahogany glaze of shrimp paste and lemongrass, the skin rendered tender along with a few soft skinny long chiles cooked whole alongside.
They will fry up skinny whole red mullets, meant to be torn and wrapped in a leaf of crunchy raw mustard greens and dipped into green chile nuoc mam. On the side are sautéed long beans or wilted morning glory leaves, peanutty cabbage salads, razor clams with Thai basil, fried rice with pickled shallots, chicken soup with kabocha, and the tomato-ey, sour-and-sweet seafood stew called canh chua.
It was only a matter of time before this former underground street cart ended up with a review in The New Yorker.
For most of the past four years, street food was really all they could make, given that the pop-up took place in a repurposed paleta cart that Ha had fixed up with a grill. He and Burns would often park on the street, a magic-marker menu delineating what you could probably already smell sizzling right in front of you.
When it began, Ha’s Đậc Biệt was just something Burns and Ha did between their fancy city kitchen jobs. (Ha at Frenchette; Burns at Roman’s in Brooklyn — they actually met working at Mission Chinese.)
But like one in four restaurant workers around the country, they lost their jobs early in the pandemic, and the pop-ups became a primary source of income. Working out of bars and retooling restaurants — many run by friends and former colleagues open to sharing — they were doing well enough last summer that they could donate food and even extra profits. They eventually decided not to go back to working for other restaurants at all.
Winter might have changed their minds if they hadn’t scored space indoors. Since the new year, they’ve been working out of Vinegar Hill House just behind the Brooklyn Navy Yard, whose owner is letting them cook there on the weekends while their dining room is closed.
With a real kitchen — space to prep and professional equipment to cook on — Ha and Burns could stay warm while they kept the business running. They could also shift from Vietnamese-style street food into Vietnamese-style home cooking.
Ha and Burns now prepare takeout and delivery dinners on Saturdays and Sundays, the whole shebang managed through their Square site and Postmates. Most of it is designed as multicourse dinner sets for one or two, rounded out with steaming white rice and pickles (ramps and green daikon, for example, or bitter greens and shallot). Then maybe you add a lemon pavlova with almonds and vanilla or a bergamot-marmalade upside-down cake for dessert, plus beer or wines by the bottle.
In truth, most people just order the whole menu, which is apt, since “Đậc Biệt” is often used to mean both “special” and something like “a combination with everything.”
“We think that this is kind of it, right now,” says Ha, a first-generation Vietnamese American who grew up in California and New Jersey. “We’re making bistro food.”
What they’re doing feels to them like the small and homey restaurants they ate at in Vietnam. It also reflects how they grew up eating, says Burns, who was raised in a food-focused family less than an hour north of Manhattan. (They took their pop-up there last fall, giving the hometown folks a taste of a Vietnamese-style whole roasted lamb.)
“This is true to us,” she says. “It feels much more like how we were trained to cook, and how we like to cook, and it’s completely opened up the doors. People say, ‘Oh my god, it reminds me of how I grew up.' Not just Vietnamese people, but anyone.”
That might be because some of it is directly inspired by Ha’s mother, who comes over from New Jersey to help them cook almost every week. She suggests, advises, and is generally amazing, says Ha: “We just talk about food all the time.”
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