Thuy Pham, a hairstylist, couldn’t continue working at the start of the pandemic. However, the forced pause actually gave her an opportunity to focus on another one of her passions: cooking Vietnamese vegan food. In her quest to learn how to make plant-based pork belly from scratch, Pham watched several YouTube cooking videos, which were recorded entirely in Vietnamese. “One day, I thought it would be fun to do it on IG live with my daughter for my hair folks,” she says, sitting in the former Fermenter space. “Shit just took off.”
Months later, Pham has become a major player in the local vegan scene, selling porkless banh mi and bánh cuốn chay through her pop-up, Mama Dút. Starting Saturday, November 7, Pham’s inspired Vietnamese vegan food will be available at her takeout counter on SE Morrison, with vegan pork belly bao buns, mochi snowball cakes, and vegan fish sauce wings.
The name Mama Dút comes from the word Vietnamese word “dút,” which means “to feed,” a nod to a phrase Pham’s daughter would use when she was hungry. On a whim, Pham registered the business name with the state years ago, just to save it — she wasn’t even set on opening a business then. “It was just a name,” she says, “a social media account to just slang some pork belly temporarily until I could go back to doing hair.”
However, when the chef got more than a hundred orders of pork belly during her first week, it suddenly became clear that she couldn’t meet this demand in her own home kitchen. By late April, she found a shared commercial kitchen space where she could make her packs of soy-based pork belly. “I was taking pictures, cooking dishes with my pork belly to create content to show people how to cook it, and my kitchen mates were like ‘Oh my god, your food is so good. You should sell it. I would totally buy this for lunch,’” she says.
That’s when Pham started doing Mama Dút lunch pop-ups out of the commercial kitchen — her first pop-up sold out. Around that time, Pham saw a post from Aaron Adams, the owner of the vegan deli Fermenter, offering business consultant mentorship for those wanting to get involved in the food industry. “I had reached out to him because he’s a vegan chef, he’s been doing this for years, and so I was like, ‘This is who I need to talk to,’” she says. “I remember coming in and meeting him for the first time, talking to him, sitting in here as he’s finishing stuff on the computer and looking around and thinking ‘Oh my god, this is my dream kitchen.’” When Fermenter moved in with Farm Spirit earlier this year, Pham decided to grab the newly vacant space.
When the deli opens Saturday, Pham will start with a menu of vegan pork dishes, dumplings, bao, and banh mi. Her bao buns come layered with vegan pork belly, house-made kimchi, fermented vegetables, and spicy vegan fish sauce; other dishes rely on a vegan pork crumble, like her savory steamed rice dumplings. Pham is also serving a soy-based vegan fish sauce wing, which comes as a standalone dish or in a banh mi, with house fermented vegetables and aioli.
The deli, of course, will be selling her day ones: packages of her house-made plant-based pork belly, which has layers of pork-reminiscent fat lines. The layered effect is achieved via a long process of marinating and then par-cooking the meat, assembling it and then steaming it together. “And it’s vacuum sealed so the flavors all melt together,” Pham explains.
Mama Dút will also sling jars of vegetable ferments like cabbage paired with hot mint, as well as broccoli, kale, and jalapeño kimchi. Beverage-wise, Mama Dút’s will serve coffee with beans grown in Pham’s birthplace of Vietnam, including a pandan-infused Vietnamese cold brew—a collaboration with Portland Cà Phê, a single-origin coffee company owned by Pham’s friend Kim Dam, that also started during the pandemic. Other beverages on offer include a passionfruit limeade and a lychee-watermelon water kefir.
Pham’s large deli case and lunch counter will be also be loaded with Vietnamese coffee cheesecake in collaboration with Muse Cheesecakes (and those Portland Cà Phê beans), ube and Vietnamese coffee tarts, mochi snowball cake, and Kulfi popsicles from a Portland-based Indian popsicle company. Once her liquor license is approved, Mama Dút will also offer outdoor socially distanced seating, wine from local women and Black-owned wineries, and a mango sour Mama Dút beer in collaboration with Labrewetory.
Despite the fact that her menu is completely vegan, Pham says that for the most part, her Vietnamese food is still considered traditional. For instance, her hu tieu My Tho, a vegan version of a pork-and-seafood noodle soup, is a nod to the famous dish from My Tho, a city just south of Saigon. She uses mushroom scallops and ground pork, but the foundations of the dish remain. “It has all the traditional elements of Vietnamese food, but I also grew up in the states,” she says. “There’s just certain ways that you have to cook or that you learn to cook with certain produce that’s available.” Most of her dishes are inspired by her childhood, familial roots, and recipes she developed with her mother, like her Vietnamese-style bao, a dish her mother would make on special occasions.
Pham, who made the transition from vegetarian to full-blown vegan around the start of the pandemic, says Mama Dút Foods has been embraced by both the Vietnamese and vegan communities here in Portland. “I think the vegan community is incredibly happy and thrilled to just have more options, and more diversity in the vegan world, especially in Portland,” she says. “At least the Viet folks that have reached out to me, they seem to just be really happy to see Vietnamese representation in the vegan world.”
With an Instagram account heavily peppered with fuel for the revolution, Mama Dút has a clearly defined activist bent in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; Pham also cares dearly about issues like food injustice and food apartheid. She says being upfront about her values is important to her as she sets the stage for her new business and its customer base. “I want people to know what I stand for and who I am because I don’t want people to be like, six months down the road, ‘Wait, you stand for that?’ “ she says. “I feel like it’s just better to be transparent.”
Pham’s activism shows up in many of her business practices. She points to several donation links that support Black activism and liberation in her Linktree, but Pham has also passed out vegan banh mi to protesters and made food for justice organization fundraisers. For her grand opening weekend, Pham will give away stickers that read “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power,” over a tiger-and-panther illustration by Ameya Okamoto, who’s served as the artist-in-residence for Don’t Shoot PDX. “[Okamoto] did this piece and I just fell in love with it, and she gave me the okay to run stickers for them,” Pham says.
Still, as she prepares to open a new restaurant, Pham hasn’t given up her identity as a hair stylist: she currently still takes clients, and with the new Mama Dút up and running, she hopes to scale it back to one day a week. “I don’t think I’ll give up my hair business for a while, because at the end of the day, I love doing hair,” she says. “It’s breaking that habit of being like ‘Well, what do you do?’ And it’s like ‘Well, what do you mean, what do I do? I do a lot of stuff...’ We ask people questions that pigeonhole them into that one thing. So, I want to do it all. We can do it all.”
For its grand opening weekend, Mama Dút’s vegan Vietnamese fare is available for pre-orders online and carryout. The restaurant is located at 1414 SE Morrison Street.