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I wanted to have lunch with Julia Pham of Relish Underground Dining for two reasons. One, because she had just gotten a citation from the city, which had led her to announce that she was no longer hosting dinners in her Lincoln Square apartment. I thought it might have been my fault that the Man came down on her; I had just announced one of her recent events on this blog, not to mention that I'd written about her serving as host for this underground dinner, and, shortly after that, she was featured in the Reader's 2013 People Issue. She made the Best Of issue too. I always worry about covering such quasilegal events—there's precedent for the Reader's coverage drawing city attention—and so it seemed appropriate to follow that up and find out for sure.
The other reason was that I knew she'd know somewhere interesting to eat. Having basically grown up working in her relatives' business, Ba Le, which faces the Argyle Asian restaurant strip from Broadway, she seemed certain to know some place I'd never looked at twice on that street, serving something I'd have never thought to order.
Which she did. It was Double Happiness at 1061 W. Argyle. "I've been coming here since I was five," she said. "My grandparents loved this place; my grandmother still comes here when she comes to Chicago. She lives in Vietnam now, but she comes back once in a while. A friend of mine from high school's parents owns this shop. I don't think they recognize me though."
We ordered the same soup, hu tieu mi thap cam—she said it was the thing to get—and in just a few moments we each had in front of us a bowl of chicken broth filled with everything from pieces of cuttlefish to bits of pork to a couple of cooked shrimp, not to mention some torn bits of iceberg lettuce. I had just started to arrange my chopsticks to start digging in when the old man from the front counter plopped a fork in front of me, as if to say, You've already failed the test.
Julia pointed to the array of jars on the table—"There's pickles, peppers, hot sauce, there's some fried garlic if you want it, garlic oil," and the inevitable squeeze bottle of sriracha. I asked her what she put in hers and she said, "I usually taste it first to see how sweet it is; then it depends on my mood." She dished up a spoonful of fried garlic for hers, and I did the same.
I asked her how the experiences she'd had growing up in this Vietnamese neighborhood had led to doing underground dinners. "When I first started, I think that my taste was a little less refined, and I just didn't know where to start," Pham explained. "So I was making these four-course dinners, but they were all French-based. I wasn't formally trained or anything. So I just didn't have as much direction. In the last year of it—almost exactly a year ago—when I relaunched Relish with an Asian-American focus, it totally changed the response. People were more responsive, they were more interested in what I had to say, because I was sharing stories along with what I was cooking."
"It was just a little bit more focused," she said. "Like instead of doing courses with many different elements, I just started doing two courses. [At the first one] I focused on two courses with the intention of just focusing on wontons and noodles. It seemed appropriate since we had just gone through a rough fall and winter. It just seemed all pretty fitting to me, with my identity and trying to present that to everybody." One dish she made at a later dinner, in fact, was directly inspired by the restaurant we were sitting in—an egg-noodle dish with sauce at the bottom. "I kind of told my story about coming here with my grandparents. That was kind of my last food memory of my grandfather, when he was alive. When my grandparents came here, they would order two bowls of the noodle soup and the dry egg-noodle dish and a whole plate of the fried radish cakes, and they'd eat it all."
We turned to the subject of publicity—and whether it ultimately led to Relish Underground Dining's downfall. I asked how she first got the word out. "I first started on Meetup.com. Two weeks after I started the Meetup group, I had 50 people on my list, which is a good number." After a ramen dinner, Daily Candy heard about her and ran a piece—"I had hundreds of people on my list after that." Media coverage was steady after that—including mentions in both the Reader and RedEye shortly before she had a visit from inspectors for the city.
So did media attention eventually attract the attention of the city too? She was convinced that wasn't the case. "They had no idea about anything that was going on," she said. "They didn't know who I was. They were asking me really basic questions, indicating that they had not seen" any coverage.
Instead she believes that it was a particular customer, one who wanted a refund after they had already bought a ticket, who turned her into the city. "That's the only evidence that I was holding the dinners," she explained. "The address is not given to the public, so the only way to find out where the dinners are is to have a ticket."
In any case, it convinced her that the time of cooking underground—but somewhat well-publicized—dinners in her apartment had to be behind her. "I do need to look at other ways of being legit," she said. "Maybe I can follow Josh and Christine's [of Sunday Dinner Club/Honey Butter Fried Chicken] footsteps of getting a catering license. I am thinking of doing it in a more public space, like, not a house. I do know that I need to talk to people who have been in the scene, and get some insight from them." I asked her if she saw a permanent restaurant as the goal and she said "definitely," but pointed out that she's only been cooking in any professional way for three years: "There's a lot more that I need to learn, and I hope to do that in the following years and give myself some time to fully develop what I'd like to see and make."
In the meantime, she's also thinking about starting a foodzine called Ukemochi, after a Japanese goddess of food. Her husband Inari, the god of rice, was angered by her doing the cooking he thought was his exclusive right, and so he sliced her in two. A setback for her, for sure, but it didn't completely discourage her from being interested in food, as grain sprouted from her body on the ground. Pham takes a similar attitude to the setback the city has dealt her.
"It's not going to stop me from cooking," she said. "But Relish might take a different format. Maybe I'll come out with a different concept. But I think for the next couple of months I'm going to meditate on it and come out with something even better. I feel like since I got the citation, it's kind of a way for the universe to say, what did you learn from this, how can you articulate that? What kind of intellectual journey can you go on from that?"