Shrimp and leek wontons, fat egg noodles, and micro greens with scallion chili oil in chicken broth Credit: Courtesy Darlene Phan

I used to struggle to keep up with the number of restaurants that opened each week in Chicago. It was thrilling but exhausting, and, putting aside the expense of opening a brick and mortar, it was downright amazing given how difficult the city made the process.

The pandemic put a stop to that obviously, but the city continues to make things impossible, shutting down indoor dining for a second time since March just weeks ago. And yet I continue to be amazed at the creative ways food professionals keep feeding people. It seems like every day I come across some furloughed chef, bartender or server who’s slipped the shackles of the conventional restaurant industry and found a way to do something wholly original and desirable. It’s almost too much to keep up with, but it’s well worth trying, because this is a new generation of hospitality workers who are going to emerge from the pandemic and reshape the food scene in Chicago.

Joey Pham, Lorraine Nguyen, and Darlene Phan each individually had a jump on this in early October when they joined forces and formed Snack Collective, a weekly pop-up at the Ukrainian Village plant shop InFlorEscence. “We were just spitballing,” says Pham, who has a long history in Chicago underground dining, but since April has been selling dazzling cakes under the Instagram handle @flavorsupreme. “What do we want to see right now in this pandemic, when the hope of getting a job is not really possible or attainable?”

Part of the answer was the Vietnamese food each grew up eating. “We get to make things we miss, or can’t find, or things that we only get from family events,” says Darlene Phan (@banh_chanh_99), a savory chef who’s cooked all over the country. Phan has since pivoted to pastry, often employing French technique with southeast Asian flavors, such as her pandan or ube knots that sell out each time they’re offered.

“I brought my own experience as a Vietnamese American and presented lesser-known Vietnamese dishes to restaurants I’ve worked for,” says Pham. “But since the people above me weren’t familiar with them or didn’t understand, they didn’t really see the potential. We have a sense of freedom with Snack Collective where we can bring that to the forefront and we can familiarize people with things that we know as comfort.” 

A central style Vietnamese phở paired with a northern style Vietnamese egg coffee mochi
A central style Vietnamese phở paired with a northern style Vietnamese egg coffee mochiCredit: Courtesy Darlene Phan

Over the weeks, that’s meant things like Pham’s shrimp and leek wonton soup with scallion chili oil, or Phan’s banh chuoi, a banana and coconut milk bread pudding that she spices, sugars, and sears like a French pain perdu. “If you were to go up to Argyle now you can probably find it, but you’d probably have to look pretty hard,” she says. “That’s something I’ve always had in mind but I never had a chance to make it.”

The Snack Collective, with Phan’s partner C.J. Campos helping out, drops a new menu each Wednesday. Usually there’s a noodle soup, such as bun bo hue, or bo ko; a cocktail like a Manhattan riff inspired by the sweet tamarind drink nước đá, and pastries, like Vietnamese egg coffee or pumpkin mochi.

The collective was selling out regularly at the pop-ups, but when COVID-19 started to resurge in late October, they pivoted to a delivery model, though the plant shop still serves as a pickup point. And they’ve used their growing platform to bring friends along for the ride, collaborating with Mom’s, and nascent alternative-economy producers such as chai maker Freeman House, and Can Sa Bakery, which makes cannabis-infused pastries. 

“We saw a second wave of people getting furloughed only weeks ago and lots of people trying to figure out how to survive,” says Nguyen. “A lot of them are really great at creating these products but they haven’t had the chance to put themselves out there. Part of us doing this is to support them so that we can share their projects and also give them a place to start and feel like the community supports them.” 

Juanitas Bebidas
Juanitas BebidasCredit: Courtesy Roshelley Mayen

One of those people given a boost by the Snack Collective was bartender Roshelley Mayen, who sells bottled milk punch cocktails under the handle @juanitasbebidas. Milk punch is a centuries-old preservation technique that calls for curdling, clarifying, and straining fat solids from milk. Traditionally it was mixed with whiskey or brandy for a classic cocktail that had some shelf life, but it’s infinitely variable and sustainable, using juices that might otherwise spoil if they sat around unused behind the bar.

“The beauty of the milk punch is that it kind of mellows out the harshness of the alcohol,” says Mayen, who’s bartended all over the city, most recently at Proxi and Sepia. “Even when I use tequila, which can have a pretty abrasive flavor, it really mellows it out. You pick up on the nuances. It’s soothing and relaxing, and you get a really great velvety mouthfeel.”

Mayen showed up at an early Snack Collective pop-up at InFlorEscence, where she was able to evangelize these pleasures to potential customers mask-to-mask. “Milk in a cocktail sounds disgusting but it’s really quite fantastic,” she says. “I was able to talk to people about it and explain it.” Now Mayen is doing her own weekly milk punch menus for pickup in Logan Square, featuring things like the Cayenne Workout Plan, a milk punch with tequila, ginger, cayenne, and brown sugar syrup, or a vegan version like the Met Gala, with bourbon, sherry, apple cider, chai syrup, and clarified oat and almond milk.

She eventually wants to open an agave-based brick-and-mortar bar—“because there’s just not a lot of agave bars owned by Latin or Hispanic people”—but she wants Juanita’s Bebidas milk punches to go really big: “My goal is for Juanita’s is to be like Goya or La Preferida.”   v