Letter of Recommendation Charleston
Why Pink Bellies Is Charleston’s Ultimate Fun Restaurant
I have always hated the restaurants that try to label themselves as “fun.”
To me, the experience is usually the opposite: soggy fries served with a side of skeeball, serenading servers whose clapping is a little too loud and too close.
Unlike any of those sad excuses for revelry, Pink Bellies on Upper King in Charleston is actually fun, and it’s just the sort of place to go with people you think are fun, or at least might have the possibility of being so.
Pink Bellies feels like what you’d dream up if you stood in front of a food truck window for more than three years, making burgers and garlic noodle bowls one-by-one and dreaming of just how you’d want your restaurant to look. It’d be inspired by the decor of Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco with a noodle bar that curves around the open but plant-obscured kitchen. Then you’d consider just what songs would be on your soundtrack, and damn, wouldn’t it be cool to have lights that change color subtly as the night dips into the windows?
That’s exactly what chef Thai Phi did, graduating from the College of Charleston School of Business in 2012, then setting up a food truck at the corner of Calhoun and St. Phillip Streets.
Pink Bellies is as Charleston as the pineapple fountain or carriage rides.
There, he would share his food — his way — to former classmates who were streaming across the crosswalk on their way to classes. Then he moved to a stall at the now-shuttered Workshop, Michael Shemtov’s incubator for food and beverage businesses that birthed other Charleston restaurants, including Little Miss Ha and the forthcoming Ma’am Saab.
Pink Bellies is as Charleston as the pineapple fountain or carriage rides. Here’s the evidence: Phi tested and tried his concept and built it for a Charleston audience, growing that local customer base as he grew from a student with a dream into a chef with a distinct culinary point of view. He cooks a seasonally-rotating selection of dishes inspired by his Vietnamese heritage, using Lowcountry ingredients, with a love for California cool, so much so that his burger pays homage to the one at Animal.
But despite Phi’s seriousness about serving seriously good food at Pink Bellies, there is a sense of whimsy about the whole thing in a tongue-in-cheek and slightly self-effacing way that reflects the man himself.
There’s theater in the way the Pho Mai burger’s egg yolk is pierced and drizzled table side before a steak knife skewers the whole thing. And there’s Viet Cajun Popcorn Chicken, which, with its ranch crema and chicken skin, embodies the fun Phi makes of mashing up cuisines and inspirations into a bar snack of epic proportions.
The front of house staff keep the vibe chill, but the plates moving to the sound track of everything from Frank Ocean, Glass Animals, Outkast, and Hoang Thuy Linh. It might not be the place to bring your Aunt Linda who loves tailored pantsuits — but then again, it might be perfect for Aunt Linda, since you know her better than we do. As the night darkens, the place begins to subtly glow with color, imperceptible at first but very noticeable as dusk falls on Upper King Street.
If Phi’s done his work right, then you could be glowing too, a little tipsy, a little high from all the spice and noodles, and after some of the best wings in town, and all that Frank Ocean, you’ll step out of the colored light and into the night with the palmetto fronds waving in the breeze, saying,“Wasn’t that fun?!”