If you’re in San Francisco’s Mission District and happen to see a bunch of people sitting on little red stools on a sidewalk or in an alleyway, spiking cans of ice-cold beer with Sriracha while two twentysomething women hustle to cook for them in a makeshift outdoor kitchen, then you’ve found it: a spunky little Vietnamese pop-up café called Rice Paper Scissors.
Both chefs are Asian-American: Valerie Luu’s parents are from Vietnam, and Katie Kwan’s parents are from Shanghai and Hong Kong. Luu and Kwan grew up in the Bay Area and taught themselves how to cook by harassing their families and their favorite Asian grocer in the Mission, Amanda Ngo of Duc Loi Supermarket. They launched Rice Paper Scissors last year because Vietnam’s street-food culture excites them so much. “In the US, people tend to put themselves into boxes, isolating themselves in cars, houses, offices,” they say. “But in Vietnam, everyone sits on little red stools on the sidewalk, surrounded by friends and strangers, enjoying good food while they watch the world go by together. That’s the experience we aim to re-create with Rice Paper Scissors.”
Even while operating their pop-up, they’ve continued to search for new Vietnamese dishes; this led them to recipes like butter-braised sweet corn with dried shrimp and chile and sweet-sticky ginger chicken. They’ve also learned a lot about San Francisco and its citizens. They’ve met tons of metal welders and industrial designers who graciously allowed them to transform warehouse spaces into Rice Paper Scissors locations. And they’ve discovered Good Samaritans to help in moments of crisis. Once, on their way to a pop-up gig, they found themselves stranded with all their cookware and ingredients. They had rented a car but had to return it before they could drop off their things at the site. So there they were, forced to hitchhike. They randomly asked a couple at a nearby gas station for a ride and, to their surprise, got a yes. The four of them proceeded to pack prep tables, coolers, stoves, stockpots and stools into a green Escalade. “We had a great night selling food at our renegade restaurant,” Luu and Kwan say, “but it wouldn’t have been possible without the kindness of strangers, and the spaciousness of their Cadillac.”