Natalie Vu will work to find a snack that’s right for you.
“Tell me a little bit about your taste or how you love eating food,” the 23-year-old proprietor of the online snack shop Ăn Vặt Cô Béo asked me. “Are you down for something really authentic?”
I’d asked her to help me narrow down a handful of selections from this month’s menu of 128 snacks imported from Saigon, a head-spinning variety of dried fruits, fiery jerkies, spongy pastries, dried and seasoned seafoods, and intensely flavored sheets of rice paper that melt on your tongue and seem to achieve that magical crispy-chewy equilibrium that is the holy grail of snack makers.
That last category, bánh tráng, has a Proustian appeal for many millennial Vietnamese immigrants. “In Vietnam, we drink milk tea every day at school,” says Vu, who grew up in Saigon before her family emigrated to southern California seven years ago. “We buy the milk tea, we buy the rice paper, stand in front of the school before school starts chatting, hanging, talking. Just milk tea, and the other hand is holding a rice paper bag.”
Vu’s career as a snackist was launched three years ago in San Jose where she worked as a server in a restaurant and at a milk tea shop. Trying to bolster her tips, she bought rice paper at the market, seasoned it with chili oil in her own kitchen, and sold it to friends.
Not long after that, Vu and her older brother and sister jumped in a car and moved to Chicago without knowing anyone here. “That time was kind of young and wild,” she says.“I arrived downtown. I think, ‘This is my city.’” She quickly found a job at a nail salon but didn’t have many connections, so her snack business went dormant.
But after a year she recognized an untapped market in the city’s Vietnamese-operated nail salons. She’d scoured the online offerings of Saigon snack makers and shipped a load over. Packing a big, black gym bag full of bánh tráng, chicken jerky, and salted fish skin, she began making the rounds of downtown salons. Word spread, and as orders increased, she created her brand. Ăn Vặt Cô Béo roughly translates as “Miss Bella Snacks.” She designed her own packaging, website (anvatcobeochicago.com), and Instagram page (@anvatcobeo.chicago), and her logo features a typical street vendor who could be posted up outside any school. Today she moves about 300 pounds a week in online orders, available for shipping, delivery, or pickup.
The large shopping bag full of snacks Vu curated for me didn’t leave my side for days—and neither did my keenly interested dog—as I tried to regulate a consistent intake of chewy dried palm seeds; sweet, hot, and crunchy baby crabs with dried lemon leaves; spicy, sticky dried squid strips; tom yum-flavored beef jerky with mayonnaise; and a sheaf of tom yum-seasoned rice paper squares. This was in addition to an earlier purchase of honeyed kumquats, pork jerky, chicken-lemon-leaf-flavored rice paper, and an LP-sized cake of com chay, crispy puffed rice coated with a caramel-like layer of sweet sticky salted egg and shredded pork.
Vu was furloughed from her nail tech job for three months at the beginning of the pandemic, but her snack business boomed. “People ordered a lot and also gave it to their friends as gifts,” she says. “They kept ordering and referring to new people.”
That’s contrary to the usual snack cycle, which she says slows during the summer when salons are at their busiest. “Techs work opening until close without eating,” she says. “They are busy making money. Just focusing on their jobs.”
Snacking is seasonal in other ways. In the summer, she sells more dried fruit: Thai tamarind pods, plums, and gooseberries to dredge through chili salt; sesame-crusted dried bananas; crispy pumpkin slices; pickled mango. In the winter, her jerky and dried seafood sales go up: crispy fish skin seasoned with creamy salted duck egg; garlic butter-flavored chicken jerky; spicy tangles of dried squid jerky; or fried anchovies with lemon leaves.
Bánh tráng in a multitude of flavors is always appreciated: cheese, seaweed, chicken with lemon leaves, shrimp and mayonnaise, or super spicy beef. She’s continually offering new things in other categories too: garlic lemon cashews, creamy bear-shaped cakes, crunchy mini crab and shrimp egg rolls. “I change the menu every month. I am a business-minded person so I always have the idea to do different stuff.”
The overwhelming majority of Vu’s customers are Vietnamese, including a segment of out-of-towners who seek her out when they visit Chicago. And she ships boxes filled with hundreds of snacks to salon owners across the country who want to keep their employees happy.
She has just a few non-Vietnamese customers and has concerns some of her flavors won’t go over well with the general American palate. So she no longer bothers to post her menu in English, though she will if asked—and she wants to be asked.
Plus she has bigger plans: “I want to open a milk tea-snack shop in the future. But I absolutely will open a nail salon in the next two years first.” In the meantime, after a successful pop-up at an Argyle street fair earlier this spring, she’s eager to connect to people doing collaborative food events in the alternative economy. “I want to promote my brand to American people,” she says. “I want them to try how Vietnamese people eat snacks,” she says. “So when you talk about Vietnam, it’s not just about pho.” v