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From Saigon to Texas: The BBQ Pop-ups That Embrace Asian Flavors

 

Growing up Vietnamese in Texas

If Crush the sea turtle from Finding Nemo took the form of a Vietnamese guy in his early thirties, he’d sound just like Andrew Ho, the co-founder and co-owner of Pinch Boil House and Curry Boys BBQ.

We’re sitting outside the pink shack that houses some of the most inventive takes on Texas barbecue and laughing ov our shared childhood experiences as Việt Kiềus who grew up in Houston. Then Andrew, with his surfer’s drawl — a completely unexpected accent for a Texas native — asks me, “Was your family a Sinh Sinh family or a Tan Tan family?” Growing up Vietnamese outside of Vietnam often means you only have two restaurant choices for big, milestone dinners.

Being from Houston, we were lucky to live in the city with the third-largest Vietnamese diaspora population in America (the first two being California’s Orange County and San Jose), so in Bellaire, Houston’s Little Saigon, Andrew grew up eating bò lá lốt, bánh xèo, and mì xào giòn to his heart’s content on the weekends.

Life in the suburbs during the rest of the week, however, was a different story. “Growing up, in grade school and intermediate school, [I thought] let’s just keep the friction to a minimum and try to fit in,” his voice drops lower. “There were so few Asians at our school...I just didn’t feel like I belonged.” In addition to just looking different, Andrew had to contend with the ramifications of over 150 years of America emasculating Asian men and perpetuating stereotypes about our height and physical prowess: “I grew up playing basketball, and it’s like how do you fit in? How do you show the coaches that being Asian isn’t a liability? Because a lot of time, that’s how it feels.”

“How do you show the coaches that being Asian isn’t a liability? Because a lot of time, that’s how it feels.”

Fortunately, once he was at The University of Texas — alma mater to myself and the previously profiled Christine Ha — Andrew embraced his upbringing to the delight of others. He started throwing Houston-style Viet-Cajun crawfish boils, and attendees, including his current co-founder and co-owner Sean Wen, would beg him to open up a shack near the campus in Austin. “I would have loved to, but between the cost of that and school, I could not. There was always a plan to do a crawfish hut on 26th and Guadalupe,” he recalls.

College crawfish boil.

However, after graduating in 2011 with his degree in Corporate Communications, Andrew found himself a position as a client service manager at the same oil and gas company his dad worked for back in Houston. It didn’t take long though before Andrew started itching for something new and decided to quit his corporate job to work as an English teacher in Thailand. As you can imagine, his parents weren’t especially pleased with his decision. “Me moving to Asia was a huge shock initially. They were like, ‘Wow what are you doing? You have a very stable job. You just graduated university. You’ve only been working for a couple of years.’” But to Andrew, he was young and never got to study abroad in college — this was his chance.

From a pastime to a profession

After a year of teaching in Phitsanulok, Thailand, a northern city that falls almost halfway between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Andrew planned to spend a few months in Vietnam to get better acquainted with his dad’s family in Saigon. Those “few months” ended up stretching to a year and a half as he went from being an English teacher to the operations manager at Quán Ụt Ụt, the popular American-barbecue joint.

He and I spend the next few minutes just purely reminiscing about eating snails on Vinh Khanh Street in District 4 and the mì hoành thánh xá xíu shops near Chợ Lớn in District 5 (“We would drink bone marrow using a straw!”) the way old classmates recall their days in school. “I lived on Co Bac and De Tham, just two streets over from Bui Vien — which back then [in 2014] wasn’t like what it is now!” he hurriedly corrects. “Right in that area, there was a street that has six bò lá lốt places and four stalls with bánh xèo, so obviously anytime we were looking to eat...”

But it was on Đề Thám and Trần Hưng Đạo at Cafe Zoom (which has been replaced by a coconut ice cream shop as of December 2020), where Andrew would find himself orbiting closer and closer to his dreams of opening a restaurant. “That was the foreign teacher hangout and we’d hang out there 30 deep, every night.” Over time, Andrew struck up a friendship with a fellow American regular, Mark Gustafson, without realizing who Mark was. “I saw him at Quán Ụt Ụt the first time I went there, and then later I was like, ‘I saw you there. That’s cool we eat at the same place.’ And he was like, ‘That’s actually my spot.’” Mark was the pitmaster and is one of the three co-founders of Quán Ụt Ụt.

Andrew hangs out with friends at Cafe Zoom in Saigon.

Andrew continues the story in his endearing drawl, “Then two or three months later, [Mark] was like ‘Hey, you’re a teacher right? How’s that going?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s good, but me and my friend [Sean] are trying to open up a restaurant. We’re doing pop-ups and we’re going to start a food truck in the US when I go back.’ And he was like, ‘Dude, we’re like looking for a Vietnamese foreigner, Việt Kiều, Operations Manager that can be the segue between our all-local staff and the owners. What do you think?’”

And thus, Andrew’s formal experience in the hospitality industry began: “I feel like I dove right in because [at that time] they were building the first BiaCraft and building the second Quán Ụt Ụt in District 2, the flagship.” In addition to his full-time position at Quán Ụt Ụt, he was also assisting with management, administration, and guest experience at the vegetarian hostel he was living at. “It was a very immersive experience all at once.”

“It was a very immersive experience all at once.”

After eight months of working at Quán Ụt Ụt and almost three years of living in Southeast Asia, Andrew started feeling the pull to rejoin his college friend Sean in Texas and open up the crawfish spot that they had always dreamed of. “I was looking at other jobs, like teaching English in Eastern Europe, and if we didn’t do it soon, we would table it for maybe forever.”

From pop-up shop to Pinch Boil House

But, before his departure, Andrew left his mark on Vietnam. In December 2015, a fire broke out across from the hostel he was staying at. “We could see the smoke from the window,” Andrew told AsiaLIFE, “I read on Facebook that Quán Ụt Ụt was on fire and the first thought I had was of the little kids I knew, so I ran straight down there.” He delayed his homecoming plans to raise VND150 million (about US$7,200) for over 30 households to rebuild their lives.

Andrew finally reunited with Sean on March 9, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas, just in time for the start of crawfish season. Two days later, they held their first Viet-Cajun crawfish pop-up. Unlike Houston, the Hispanic-majority city of San Antonio didn’t have many Vietnamese-inspired seafood restaurants.

The proportion of San Antonio’s Asian population is a third that of Houston’s, which is one of the biggest reasons Taiwanese-American Sean Wen wanted to base their restaurant in San Antonio. His enthusiasm is undeniable and his passion is contagious. “Proliferating the Asian culture is like a really cool thing. That’s one of the big reasons why we wanted to start stuff like this. Sure it’s nontraditional to do restaurants...but if you do it the right way, and you do it intelligently, you think about it, just as you would if you were a doctor or a lawyer, then I think like you have every right to push the culture in a good direction and make other Asians empowered. Make them feel like being Asian is cool. Asian food is awesome, you know?”

"Just as you would if you were a doctor or a lawyer, I think you have every right to push the culture in a good direction and make other Asians empowered."

After two and a half years of pop-ups, Andrew and Sean turned their idea to a brick and mortar: Pinch Boil House, a restaurant serving Southeast-Asian-inspired seafood. On the menu, you’ll find a few items influenced by Andrew’s time in Vietnam. “We have a Coconut Curry sauce at Pinch that is the same recipe as when you eat ốc len xào dừa. When I was living in Vietnam, I paid one of the snail guys to let me go to his place one morning and teach me how to make all of the different recipes of his ốc dishes.”

An Asian feast at Curry Boys BBQ

Two of Curry Boys BBQ’s co-founders: Andrew Ho and Sean Wen.
Photo by Tam Le.

Eventually the offerings evolved beyond seafood to include rice bowls as the crew in the kitchen started to change. During our interview, the founders sang the praises of their Laotian chef, one of the additions to their team, “He made a panang curry that blew our socks off.” Soon Kap’s Chicken Curry became one of the most popular items on the menu.

This crowd-pleasing curry came about around the same time the smoked beef rib Panang curry was being developed by Khói Barbecue (a Viet-Tex barbecue pop-up run by brothers and fellow Houstonians Don and Theo Nguyen) and a visit to Eem PDX (a Portland, Oregon restaurant that serves Thai barbecue and tiki drinks). Since then, an idea to collaborate with their friend and pitmaster Andrew Samia of South BBQ took root, but there was never enough time.

Rice bowls at Curry Boys BBQ. Photo via Facebook page Curry Boys BBQ.

Then along comes March 2020, and the world’s restaurants all suddenly had plenty of time... too much time. Both Pinch Boil House and South BBQ experienced a steep drop in sales and had to temporarily close their restaurants because of the pandemic. But, when one door closes, another one opens, and now Andrew Samia, Andrew Ho, and Sean Wen, finally had their chance to test out some dishes and host a couple of pop-ups in May and June 2020.

The responses to their Texas barbecue Southeast Asian curry dishes were so overwhelmingly positive that within a few months, they were able to open up Curry Boys BBQ in a little pink wooden shack on St. Mary’s Strip, a buzzing street lined with live music venues, bars, and food trucks in central San Antonio.

The fact that they have sold out almost every day since opening should indicate just how much the community has welcomed the food. But for the small Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in San Antonio, it holds a bit more significance. “It’s a great reception from everyone, but [with Curry Boys] and Pinch, whenever we do talk to AAPI people, they’re always like, ‘Dude, thank you so much for creating this. We bring our friends here,’” Andrew elaborates.

“Now everyone wants to go eat where you eat! Now being Asian is hip.”

San Antonio’s Curry Boys BBQ Brisket Smoke Show (a favorite of Curry Boys BBQ co-founder Andrew Ho), Cold Chili Garlic Noodles (a favorite of mine), Fresh Herb & Cucumber Slaw, and Flan Solo. Photo by Tam Le.

Sean chimes in: “That’s just the fucking coolest thing. Sure, you have your intentions when you open a restaurant, but you never expect it to happen, in a weird way. When you hear that...when other people who look like you or kinda have a background like you, that’s just so cool, you know. It’s a little humbling. We definitely felt that embrace from the Asian American community.”

If only the basketball-playing, middle-school Andrew could see his current self proudly proclaiming, “Now everyone wants to go eat where you eat! Now being Asian is hip.”

Ănthology is a series exploring stories of Vietnamese food served around the world. It focuses on chefs and restaurants that are reimagining Vietnamese cuisine or crafting traditional dishes in new contexts, and how our national dishes have evolved in response to different geographic tastes and ingredients. Have a good story to share? Let us know via contribute@saigoneer.com.