These talented chefs are breaking through industry barriers with pop-ups and a dedicated community following.
by Amanda Ong
Singapore-style chili crabs, chicken adobo pot pies, gorgeous handmade pastries with flavors like black sesame and kumquat — what’s not to like? As Asian American chefs have taken advantage of the freedom and flexibility of pop-ups to break into Seattle’s food scene, they are serving all of these foods and more.
Mom-and-pop-owned restaurants have been integral to Asian American history and cultural preservation since the 1800s. For many Asian immigrants, food has been one of the most salient ways to share and pass down culture. The legacies of these restaurants have often been overlooked by Western attitudes about “fine dining,” as racist gatekeeping prevents Asian food from being considered “gourmet” while French and Italian cuisine are often held up as the standards of excellence.
In Seattle, a burgeoning wave of Asian restaurants and chefs have risen to greater popularity in the past few years, but pop-ups — with their low overhead and flexible potentials — are the first step for many chefs bringing their family recipes to a greater audience. Asian American chefs are still gaining opportunities to explore and share food in different ways, and pop-ups have become integral in lowering barriers and sparking creativity.
We have brought together a list of some of the many innovative Asian American chefs who have been bringing their expertise, creativity, and cultures to locations across Seattle.
The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the best crab in the world. But, as Virginia Rachel Ranti, or Chef V, points out, it is mostly just eaten plain with butter. Ranti, who is from Singapore, wanted to share the myriad other delicious ways to eat crab. And so she started Marimakan — a service selling fresh Singapore chili crab, black pepper crab, and Mumbai garlic crab, with pop-ups selling food like fresh chicken wings in the same sauces. Ranti started cooking when she came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. As an international student, she was not allowed to work, so for extra cash, she would cook for the other students in her dorm. Her dorm cooking grew into work in catering and restaurants.
Eventually, she found her passion for cooking crab. Ranti gets the best crabs directly from local fishermen, and even makes her own homemade sambal. She hopes to give people the same experience as eating crab in Singapore, with all the spice — she uses two ice cream scoops full of black pepper in each of her black pepper crabs. But the journey to establish Marimakan hasn’t been easy. “I’m a minority, and also a single mom, and also a girl,” Ranti said. “We have to work double as hard to even get a [business] license. … But I’m happy to introduce the flavor to the people here. Because I make my chili crab right.”
Find Marimakan on Saturdays at 2 p.m. at Fair Isle Brewing at 936 NW 49th St. It will also be hosting a pop-up at Saint Bread on 1421 NE Boat St. on Feb. 19. Follow its Instagram for more details. You can also place an order for crab for pickup anytime through its website.
Gracie Santos Guce has worked in the restaurant industry for over 20 years, from being a server at Jeepney in New York to Archipelago here in Seattle. To cope with quarantine, she took part in a pandemic meal exchange and began to bake handmade pies with Filipino flavors — friends offered to buy them, and the rest is history. Santos Guce’s grayseas pies aims to raise donations for social justice organizations at least once a month and continues to grow in this business model while also working with groups like the Filipino Community of Seattle and the Palengke National.
“I feel that community plays a big role in pop-up businesses, because it features how small businesses can band together and lift each other up,” Santos Guce said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “The food that I create is important, because it acts as a conduit for many people to try Filipinx flavors, especially if they have never had them before, such as with the chicken adobo pot pie. I also use the food I create to raise money for charitable organizations, which I think is integral to the community at large.”
Find grayseas pies on Feb. 4 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Youngstown Coffee at 6032 California Ave. SW, and from 6 to 10 p.m. at The Station Coffee Shop. You can also find it for its valentine cultura palengke on Feb. 5 from 12 to 4 p.m. at the Seeking Kombucha Tap Room at 1091 Thomas St.; Feb. 12 from 12 to 3 p.m. at Hello Em at 1227 S. Weller; and Feb. 25 from 11 a.m to 4 p.m. at the South Park Saturday Market on 8600 14th Ave. S.
Mother and daughter duo Masitah Hamzah and Safira Ezani immigrated to the United States from Malaysia some 20 years ago to find better services for the family’s eldest son, who was born with developmental disabilities. It came at the cost of great homesickness, so Hamzah started recipe collecting and testing to make the Malaysian food they so missed. She and Ezani brought their food to community potlucks, and eventually were asked to cater halal Malaysian food. From weddings, baby showers, birthday dinners, and work events to feeding almost 400 people during Ramadan at different mosques across the Puget Sound, the pair had their fair share of experience before founding Masakan in 2020 as a pop-up and catering service.
“We offer items that you might not normally see at a typical Malaysian restaurant,” Ezani said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “I want to showcase the variety of Malaysian food, because there truly is so much variety in this cuisine when we have Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences. … Food is an art and a necessity, political and cultural. Everyone tries to give back in their own way, and cooking has been that way for me and my mom.”
Years before Masakan even started, Masitah would bring free food to a weekly program called Shower to the People, which provides free showering and laundry services to the homeless. Masakan has donated previous pop-up proceeds to local organizations, such as FEEST, a youth-led organization that focuses on food insecurity, and Community Passageways, a BIPOC-led organization that helps BIPOC youth stuck in the incarceration system. More recently, Masakan has taken on a contract with two other chefs in partnership with Wasat and Good Food Kitchens to cook 2,000 free meals for the community every month.
Masakan’s next pop-up will be on Feb. 12 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at The Rose Gift House and Coffee at 225 Main Ave. S., Renton. Other February pop-ups planned in Edmonds, Bellevue, and Capitol Hill in Seattle are to be announced on Instagram. Pre-ordering through its website is highly recommended and opens on the Tuesday prior.
milk & mochi
milk & mochi is co-owned and operated by two sisters, Nancy and Hannah Phan, who don’t come from a pastry background at all — prior to milk & mochi, they were both consultants. Once a childhood dream of starting a business together, they started baking in 2022 and launched last June. And just in line with the nostalgia that imbues a sister-run bakery, milk & mochi serves pastries that are “a bit Asian and a bit Western.” They predominantly make gorgeous cream puffs and use them to showcase their interpretation of what it means to be Asian American, particularly the Asian flavors they grew up eating and loving.
“The barriers to starting a business in food and beverage, especially for BIPOC folks, are real,” Nancy Phan said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “The biggest barrier being that it’s prohibitively expensive. Pop-ups are an amazing, lower-cost, lower-risk way to test out your concept and build a customer base. It would have been much harder for us, two Asian Americans with no restaurant experience or connections, to start our business without the pop-up community.”
milk & mochi just signed the lease for a new storefront in Fremont and are hoping to open by late summer 2023. Find milk & mochi next on Feb. 5 at Aroom Coffee on 3801 Stone Way N.;you can walk up starting at 11 a.m. or preorder for earlier pickup through its website by Feb. 1. You can also find it on Feb. 12 at DIY Tea Lab at 6973 Coal Creek Parkway SE, Newcastle; and on Feb. 25 at Ono Poke at 10016 Edmonds Way, Edmonds.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, out tomorrow.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured image, clockwise from top left: Safira Ezani and Masitah Hamzah of Masakan (Photo: Jordan Nicholson); Tiffany Ran of Ba Ba Lio (Photo: Reva Keller); Tiffany Ran serving customers at a Ba Ba Lio pop-up at Lottie’s Lounge in April 2022 (Photo: Reva Keller).
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