How a Taco Popup Grew into a Buzzing West Lake Restaurant

Erika Braeger and Bridget Seiberry

September 27, 2017

Javier Rodriguez, foodie entrepreneur taking on the Vietnamese business world with a twist of lime and a lot of patience  Acting on blind instinct that Hanoi simply was where he wanted to be, Javier came to Vietnam five years ago to teach English. But in the summer of 2015 when Javier went home to the USA  and spent quality time cooking with his mom, his hunger for flavor flourished. 

He was no stranger to the kitchen. His aunt Anita sparked his passion for cooking when he was big enough to walk. He recounts how he spent every day at her side watching her cook, eventually learning about the process as he got older. 

On return to Hanoi, he jumped straight back into teaching, although his passion was in the kitchen. Javier created opportunities to practice his craft, starting out with just a gas burner and a piece of plate steel.  

Making a name for himself from cookouts at his friends’ apartments, he moved onto pop ups and catering for parties in Tay Ho district. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, Javier mentioned. He recounts running out of ingredients, people not receiving food, bills getting lost, being understaffed in the kitchen and dining room, and not having enough seating. Each event was starting to feel like a disaster or real chaos and every time he thought, “I’m never doing this again, it’s not going anywhere”.

When offered the opportunity to bring his popups to Spacebar, he gave it another go. This time it was a team collaboration between Jason Lusk, the ClickSpace staff, and himself. Already having a buzz in the foodie community, crowd-wise his popups were a success. He claims behind the kitchen door it was a challenge every time. Takking on the responsibility of food costs, organizing products, educating staff on plating, it was hectic. After each popup the team got together and fine-tuned the process to make each popup run smoother than the last.

It gave a place to start, build more buzz and develop the fan base to open my own business. 

What should people know before taking on the Vietnamese business world?  “You have to play by their rules, it is easy to do here but you have to be REALLY flexible. I have learnt the importance of flexibility” explained Javier. There’s a lot of groundwork you’ll need to do, a lot. You also need a Vietnamese person you can trust.   There is a Vietnamese way of doing business, he says. Never direct – if you’re direct it’s not necessarily rude but everyone agrees you can’t be direct. So, be prepared to try, try and try again. Things don’t always work out the first time… or the second, third, fourth or even the fifth.   “Break time involves tea, but business meetings happen outside of the office and usually involve karaoke and beer,” he laughs. 

taco platter

Other than sharing delicious tacos with Hanoi how does Javier give back to the community?  

“I don’t think I’m a philanthropist by any means” Javier brightly answers, but he makes sure to work with the community as much as he can. The business is open to different charity events and closely supports humanity services for the children of Vietnam.  

“There is a lot of potential for businesses to be proactive, Westerners have it really good here. It is so important to give something back”  Javier also supports the local community by sourcing as much of his produce locally as possible. Chillis and tequila are the exception. 

beef taco
brunch platter
shrimp taco

Isn’t it funny how the second largest city in Vietnam is described as a town…it has something to do with the community warmth that can be felt through the senses. 

Why Hanoi ?  Javier described a flourishing creative scene among locals and expats. 

“If you have a good idea and enough motivation you can do anything in this town…Isn’t it funny how the second largest city in Vietnam is described as a town more often than not. I’d say it has something to do with the community warmth that can be felt through the senses” he said.  

Javier has a long established love for the history and the many layers that the city carries. “I am amazed daily by this city and its many windows into the past”. When I asked what he loved about Hanoi, he was first stumped, “It’s hard to explain, Hanoi is… I can’t explain, it’s just the feeling I get from this city, this city is just so fucking cool, obviously the food, Vietnamese history and culture. I always say we don’t live in Vietnam, we live on Vietnam. There’s a sociocultural surface we can’t penetrate.”

monsterita
tostada

Looking for some authentic flavor? Head to Anita’s Cantina at 36 Quang Ba Park. Open Thursday-Sunday 5:30-11pm.

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